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Bank ledgers reveal Hezbollah drug racket

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Jo Becker, Beirut
December 15, 2011

LAST February, the Obama administration accused one of Lebanon‘s famously secretive banks of laundering money for an international cocaine ring with ties to the Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

Now, the bank’s ledgers have been opened to reveal the clandestine ways the ”Party of God” finances its operations.

Intelligence from several countries points to the direct involvement of high-level Hezbollah officials in the South American cocaine trade. On Tuesday, federal prosecutors in Virginia announced the indictment of the man at the centre of a case involving the Lebanese Canadian Bank, charging that he had trafficked drugs and laundered money for Colombian cartels and the Mexican gang Los Zetas.

US intelligence analysts believe that for years Hezbollah received as much as $US 200 million ($A198 million) annually from its main patron, Iran, along with additional aid from Syria. But that support has diminished as Iran’s economy buckles and Syria’s government battles rising unrest.

”The ability of terror groups like Hezbollah to tap into the worldwide criminal funding streams is the new post-9/11 challenge,” said Derek Maltz, a Drug Enforcement Administration official.

US Treasury officials said senior bank managers had helped a handful of account holders in a scheme to wash drug money by mixing it with the proceeds of used cars bought in the US and sold in Africa.

In all, hundreds of millions of dollars a year sloshed through the accounts, held mainly by Shiite Muslim businessmen in the drug-smuggling nations of West Africa.

Many of these were known Hezbollah supporters, trading in everything from rough-cut diamonds to cosmetics and frozen chicken.

Founded three decades ago as a guerilla force aimed at the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah has never before had such a prominent place in the country’s official politics. Yet much of its power derives from its status as a state within the Lebanese state. In South America and in Europe, prosecutors began noticing Lebanese Shiite middlemen working for drug cartels. But the strongest evidence of an expanding Hezbollah role in the drug trade comes from the two investigations that ultimately led to the Lebanese Canadian Bank.

The trail began with a man known as ”Taliban”, overheard on Colombian wiretaps of a Medellin cartel.

In reality he was a Lebanese transplant, Chekri Mahmoud Harb, and in June 2007, he met in Bogota an undercover agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration and sketched out his route.

The undercover agent casually remarked that he must have Hezbollah connections. Mr Harb smiled and nodded, the agent reported. Agents had known that there was a major money launderer whose phone sat in Lebanon.

Now they had a name: Ayman Joumaa, owner of the Caesars Park Hotel, Beirut.

Eventually, an American team sent to look into Joumaa’s activities uncovered the used car operation.

The administration decided to invoke a rarely used provision of the Patriot Act. Since the bank had been found to be of ”primary money-laundering concern”, the Treasury Department could turn it into an international pariah by forbidding US financial institutions to deal with it. President Barack Obama was briefed, and in February, Treasury officials acted.

The indictment announced on Tuesday charges Joumaa with co-ordinating shipments of Colombian cocaine to Los Zetas in Mexico for sale in the US, and laundering the proceeds. The US has no extradition treaty with Lebanon, and Joumaa’s whereabouts are unknown.

Treasury’s Daniel Glaser said Lebanon’s Central Bank had shown its willingness to co-operate with the US in shutting down the Lebanese Canadian Bank and selling it to a ”responsible owner”.

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US Alleges Zetas-Hezbollah Funding Link

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Written by  Hannah Stone

U.S. authorities have accused a Lebanese man of selling Colombian cocaine to the Zetas and laundering money on their behalf, while using the profits to finance Hezbollah, a militant group based in Beirut.

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According to the latest indictment, Ayman Joumaa, aka “Junior,” (pictured) and his partners sold 85 tons of cocaine to the Zetas between 2005-2007, which was later trafficked into the U.S., and laundered some $850 million in their profits for the group, some of it through the Lebanese Canadian Bank. The latest charges do not mention Hezbollah, though Joumaa was accused earlier this year by the Treasury of being part of a drug trafficking and money laundering ring which financed the group, reports ProPublica.

According to the indictment, Joumaa’s group would charge the Zetas 8 to 14 percent for its money laundering services.

The story speaks to some of the U.S.’s worst fears about its enemies in the Middle East gaining ground in Latin America. ABC points out that

U.S. officials have long known about [Hezbollah] operating in South America’s tri-border area in Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina where the group runs drugs and large scale counterfeiting networks, according to U.S. officials. In recent years there has been more recent concern about the group establishing a footprint in Central America.

Slate looks at the other side of the deal, pointing out that Lebanon would be a good place for the Zetas to launder money, as it has highly secretive banking regulations, while there is a large Lebanese community in Mexico, with links to the Lebanese banking sector.

The case is reminiscent of a supposed plot revealed by U.S. authorities in October, which involved a representative of the Iranian intelligence service making contact with people he thought were members of the Zetas, in order to order a hit against Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington. As with that case, which did not quite add up, it is worth treating with caution attempts to link Mexican trafficking groups to Muslim militants, which have often appeared to be more based on Washington’s fears than on evidence.

However, U.S. officials were cautious about asserting direct links between the two groups in the latest case, pointing out that “It’s not like there’s a sit-down between the leaders of Hezbollah and the Zetas,” as ProPublica reports.

A version of this article appeared on the Pan-American Post.

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