U.S. and Colombian investigators have dismantled an international cocaine smuggling and money laundering ring that allegedly used part of its profits to finance Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite militia, officials said Tuesday.
Culminating a two-year investigation, authorities arrested at least 36 suspects in recent days, including an accused Lebanese kingpin in Bogota, the Colombian capital. Chekry Harb, who used the alias "Taliban," acted as the hub of an unusual and alarming alliance between South American cocaine traffickers and Middle Eastern militants, Colombian investigators allege.
Authorities accuse Harb of being a "world-class money launderer" whose ring washed hundreds of millions of dollars a year, from Panama to Hong Kong, while paying a percentage to Hezbollah, which is designated as a terrorist group by the United States and Israel. Harb was charged with drug-related crimes in a sealed indictment filed in Miami in July, but terrorism-related charges have not been filed.
The suspects allegedly worked with a Colombian cartel and a paramilitary group to smuggle cocaine to the United States, Europe and the Middle East. Harb traveled extensively to Lebanon, Syria and Egypt and was in phone contact with Hezbollah figures, according to Colombian officials.
"The profits from the sales of drugs went to finance Hezbollah," said Gladys Sanchez, lead investigator for the special prosecutor's office in Bogota, in an interview. "This is an example of how narco-trafficking is a theme of interest to all criminal organizations, the FARC, the paramilitaries and terrorists."
The FARC is the Spanish acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrilla group.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration led the far-flung investigation, playing a central role in nailing down the Hezbollah connection, Sanchez said. U.S. officials in Bogota and Washington declined to discuss details of their evidence.
Iran, Hezbollah's longtime sponsor, and donations from the Lebanese diaspora are two sources for a multimillion-dollar budget that pays for the militia's armed and political wings and for social projects such as hospitals in Beirut. But investigations around the world have shown that Hezbollah also funds itself through drug dealing, arms trafficking, contraband smuggling and other rackets in the Americas, Africa and elsewhere.
Western anti-terrorism agents have expressed concern about an increasing Hezbollah presence in South America. The militia is accused of two major anti-Jewish bombings in Argentina in the 1990s. In June, the U.S. Treasury Department designated two Venezuelans of Lebanese descent, one a diplomat, as Hezbollah financiers and supporters.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's alliance with Iran raises fears that his country could become a base for Hezbollah activity, said U.S. and Israeli anti-terrorist officials who spoke anonymously because of the issue's sensitivity. Venezuela has strongly denied any links to terrorist activity.
Venezuela also serves as the corridor for a third of Colombian cocaine bound for the U.S. and Europe, including some loads moved by Harb's group, Colombian investigators said.
The case unveiled Tuesday began as a money laundering probe, but as agents followed the money they discovered the links between Harb and Hezbollah operatives, investigators said. Harb's group paid Hezbollah 12% of its profits, much of it in cash, the investigators said, without giving a dollar figure.
The inquiry grew into Operation Titan, a two-year case worked by Colombian and U.S. agents that has led to more than 130 arrests and the seizure of $23 million, Sanchez said. Investigators deployed 370 wiretaps and monitored 700,000 conversations.
"This case was brought about by putting undercover agents into the money laundering cycle," said a U.S. government official who was not authorized to comment publicly. "This has given us a window into the worldwide financial enterprise that by dotted lines links traffickers from South America and the United States to West Africa, Europe and Hong Kong."
The drugs were allegedly sent via Panama, Venezuela and Guatemala to the U.S., the Middle East and Europe.
Chinese police this year captured Oscar Cano Alazate, a Colombian accused of setting up dozens of front companies in Hong Kong to launder money for the group. Hong Kong and the Panama free-trade zone served as centers for a scheme whereby drug cash from the U.S. was funneled to firms that use it to buy goods, which are shipped to Colombia and sold to be turned back into cash, investigators said.
The group also used human couriers, fake businesses, international transfers and real estate transactions to launder the money in other locations, including Africa and Canada, Colombian officials said.
On Oct. 13, Colombian police arrested Harb, who lived on a resident's visa in Bogota with his family, after learning that he had an Air France ticket to Syria for the next day and becoming concerned that he might flee. They also arrested the other accused boss, Ali Mohamad Rahim, and Harb's brother, Zacaria, both Lebanese immigrants who had been living in Bogota. Chekry Harb is in his late 50s and Rahim in his early 40s, officials said.
Colombian officials said the three are among 15 of the suspects who will be extradited to the United States.
Harb's key suppliers in Bogota included leaders of the so-called Office of Envigado, according to Colombian authorities. The paramilitary drug trafficking organization headed by Diego Fernando Murillo, known as Don Berna, and other former foot soldiers of the late Medellin cartel boss Pablo Escobar has an international reach.
Chris Kraul, reporting from Bogota, Colombia