Wednesday, December 14, 2011

US Alleges Hezbollah-Zetas Drug, Money Laundering Nexus


The latest scare about Hezbollah’s links in Latin America comes in the form of charges against a Lebanese man who U.S. authorities say has ties to Hezbollah and to Mexico’s Zetas.

Ayman Joumaa, aka “Junior,” is accused of selling Colombian cocaine to the Mexican trafficking group and laundering money on their behalf, while using the profits to finance Hezbollah, a militant group based in Beirut.

According to the latest indictment, Joumaa 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 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, many with links to the bank 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 some commentatorsfound 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. An example of this is given by scaremongering statements from the Republican presidential hopefuls, as covered in earlier posts. Rick Perry, for example, warned in a recent debate that “Hamas and Hezbollah are working in Mexico, as well as Iran, with their ploy to come into the United States,” while Michelle Bachman has spoken out against alleged Hezbollah missile sites in Cuba.

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.

The New York Times has a useful diagram showing the flows of money in the Lebanese Canadian Bank’s alleged money laundering operations.


News Briefs

  • Two Mexican students were shot dead in a police crackdown on a protest that blocked a section of highway between the resort town Acapulco and Mexico City. The protesters were demanding improved facilities at a local teacher training college, but the situation escalated and a gas station was set on fire, triggering the violent response from the security forces, reports the LA Times blog. There has been controversy and recriminations between different branches of government over who is responsible for the tragic deaths. The federal government has placed the blame on Guerrero state police as being the ones who fired the deadly shots, and said there would be an investigation. Guerrero state Attorney General Alberto Lopez said that there were “outside elements” involved in the protest, and reported finding an AK-47 assault rifle and grenades at the site, reports the Washington Post. However, he was fired, along with the chief of the state police, hours after making those statements, by the state governor.
    Amnesty International has called on the Mexican government to launch a full investigation into the incident, noting that there is photographic evidence of police officers aiming automatic rifles at demonstrators.
  • The U.S. Senate has blocked the appointment of Mari Carmen Aponte as ambassador to El Salvador. Aponte has been the subject of controversy, amid allegations that she had a relationship in the 1990s with a man accused of being an spy for the Cuban regime, while her support for gay rights in a recent op-ed was also reportedly a sticking point for Republicans. She has held the position of ambassador for over a year, after being appointed during a Senate recess, but now will have to leave at the end of this year. The Obama administration sharply criticized the vote, accusing the Republicans of playing politics, reports the Washington PostTim’s El Salvador Blog regretted the move, saying “It is truly a shame that ignorance, homophobia, and political partisanship got in the way of confirmation of the most qualified ambassador to serve in El Salvador in many years.”
  • A Venezuelan court has ordered a two-year extension of the house arrest of Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni, who Human Rights Watch says is a political prisoner. She was detained in December 2009 after ordering the release of a banker accused of corruption, angering President Hugo Chavez.
  • As former dictator Manuel Noriega returns to Panama to serve a jail term for crimes committed while in power, the New York Times asks whether the country’s economic boom has driven out the “old ghosts” of corruption and organized crime. Some commentators warn the country could be heading back to being a kleptocracy, while little has been done to alleviate rural poverty.
  • The Wall Street Journal looks at the phenomenon of “Pablo Escobar tourism” in the kingpin’s hometown of Medellin, Colombia. The tours visit his grave, the house where he died, and some feature a talk with his brother Roberto. Their popularity with “20-something backpackers” poses a condundrum for Colombia and for Medellin, says the WSJ, as they have “worked hard to reduce violence and shed their image as a land of gun-wielding cocaine smugglers.“
  • Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has launched new schemes to increase government aid to the elderly and to children, with the poorest families set to receive some $100 per month per child, while pensions will see $2 billion in spending next year. Luis Vicente Leon, of opposition polling firm Datanalisis,told the Washington Post that the handouts were linked to the elections coming up in October 2012; “We can expect a campaign underscored by money.”
  • Three U.S. representatives have called on the government to investigate whether the Venezeulan consulate general in Miami was involved in “a potential cyber attack on the United States involving affiliates of the Iranian, Cuban, and Venezuelan regimes,” following reports in a documentary by Univision. The State Department said the reports were “very disturbing,” while Chavez said they were a lie, and were being used as an excuse to attack his country, reports El Universal.
  • Chavez has been the subject of yet more controversy, with news that a figurine of the socialist leader features in a public nativity scene in Caracas. NPR reportsthat the president is standing close to the manger which contains the infant Christ, suggesting that he is one of the Three Wise Men. Simon Bolivar, 19th century independence hero and Chavez’s spiritual inspiration, also makes an appearance, as does a representation of a cable car that the president had built in Caracas.
  • A group of 18 Cubans landed in Honduras after making a 10-day boat trip that was meant to take them to the U.S.
  • El Faro looks at a project by New Yorker journalist Alma Guillermoprieto to build an online memorial to 72 migrants who were murdered by drug traffickers in Tamaulipas, Mexico, in August 2010, in circumstances that remain murky. Guillermoprieto’s online tribute has now been turned into a book, which features the stories of the 72 who died that day, some of whose identities remain unknown.
  • The New York Times has been caught up in a debate about the use of the term “illegals” to describe undocumented immigrants, and says it will now update its style guide to recommend that the term be avoided.