EXCLUSIVE: Hezbollah uses Mexican drug routes into U.S.
Works beside smuggler cartels to fund operations
Sara A. Carter, Friday, March 27, 2009
Hezbollah is using the same southern narcotics routes that Mexican drug kingpins do to smuggle drugs and people into the United States, reaping money to finance its operations and threatening U.S. national security, current and former U.S. law enforcement, defense and counter-terrorism officials say.
The Iran-backed Lebanese group has long been involved in narcotics and human trafficking in South America’s tri-border region of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. Increasingly, however, it is relying on Mexican narcotics syndicates that control access to transit routes into the U.S.
Hezbollah relies on “the same criminal weapons smugglers, document traffickers and transportation experts as the drug cartels,” said Michael Braun, who just retired as assistant administrator and chief of operations at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). “They work together,” said Mr. Braun. “They rely on the same shadow facilitators. One way or another, they are all connected.
“They’ll leverage those relationships to their benefit, to smuggle contraband and humans into the U.S.; in fact, they already are [smuggling].”
His comments were confirmed by six U.S. officials, including law enforcement, defense and counterterrorism specialists. They spoke on the condition that they not be named because of the sensitivity of the topic.
While Hezbollah appears to view the U.S. primarily as a source of cash – and there have been no confirmed Hezbollah attacks within the U.S. – the group’s growing ties with Mexican drug cartels are particularly worrisome at a time when a war against and among Mexican narco-traffickers has killed 7,000 people in the past year and is destabilizing Mexico along the U.S. border.
Although there have been no confirmed cases of Hezbollah moving terrorists across the Mexico border to carry out attacks in the United States, Hezbollah members and supporters have entered the country this way.
Last year, Salim Boughader Mucharrafille was sentenced to 60 years in prison by Mexican authorities on charges of organized crime and immigrant smuggling. Mucharrafille, a Mexican of Lebanese descent, owned a cafe in the city of Tijuana, across the border from San Diego. He was arrested in 2002 for smuggling 200 people, said to include Hezbollah supporters, into the U.S.
In 2001, Mahmoud Youssef Kourani crossed the border from Mexico in a car and traveled to Dearborn, Mich. Kourani was later charged with and convicted of providing “material support and resources … to Hezbollah,” according to a 2003 indictment.
A senior U.S. defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of ongoing operations in Latin America, warned that al Qaeda also could use trafficking routes to infiltrate operatives into the U.S.
“If I have the money to do it – I want to get somebody across the border – that’s a way to do it,” the defense official said. “Especially foot soldiers. Somebody who’s willing to come and blow themselves up. That’s sort of hard to do that kind of recruiting, training and development in Kansas City.”
Adm. James G. Stavridis, commander of U.S. Southern Command and the nominee to head NATO troops as Supreme Allied Commander-Europe, testified before the House Armed Services Committee last week that the nexus between illicit drug trafficking – “including routes, profits, and corruptive influence” and “Islamic radical terrorism” is a growing threat to the U.S.
He noted that in August, “U.S. Southern Command supported a Drug Enforcement Administration operation, in coordination with host countries, which targeted a Hezbollah-connected drug trafficking organization in the Tri-Border Area.”
In October, another interagency operation led to the arrests of several dozen people in Colombia associated with a Hezbollah-connected drug trafficking and a money-laundering ring. Hezbollah uses these operations to generate millions of dollars to finance Hezbollah operations in Lebanon and other areas of the world, he said.
Mr. Braun, who spent 33 years with the DEA and still works with the organization as a consultant, said that members of the elite Quds, or Jerusalem, force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards also are showing up in Latin America. “Quite frankly, I’m not opposed to the belief that they could be commanding and controlling Hezbollah’s criminal enterprises from there,” Mr. Braun said.
The DEA thinks that 60 percent of terrorist organizations have some ties with the illegal narcotics trade, said agency spokesman Garrison Courtney.
South American drug cartels were forced into developing stronger alliances with Mexican syndicates when the U.S. closed off access from the Caribbean 15 years ago, Mr. Braun said.
Mexico’s transit routes now account for more than 90 percent of the cocaine entering the U.S., he said. The emphasis on Mexico intensified after the Sept. 11 attacks, when beefed-up U.S. security measures greatly reduced access to the U.S. by air and water, he said.
The World Trade Bridge between Nuevo Laredo and its sister city, Laredo, as well as Interstate 35 and Highways 59, 359 and 83, are like veins feeding the Mexican syndicates, running from southern Texas to cities across the U.S. and as far north as Canada, U.S. officials say. In addition, access routes from El Paso, Texas, to San Diego are also high-value entry points.
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