Maicao, Colombia -- Samira Hajj Ahmad flew to Maicaofrom Beirut in 1982 for her honeymoon. She didn’t intend to stay for 31 years. Nor did she expect Hezbollah to follow her.
During her two days of flying to Colombia, war broke out in southern Lebanon, with some of the largest troop movements in her native Beqaa Valley. Israel had invaded southern Lebanon to root out a nascent Shiite extremist group known as Hezbollah that had been using the country as a base from which to attack northern Israel. Her family encouraged her to stay in Maicao, a dusty border town with a free trade zone that is home to Colombia’s largest Muslim population.
Today, Hezbollah is the most powerful political movement in Lebanon — and its influence stretches all the way to Maicao. Each year, millions of dollars of drug money are laundered in Maicao, where some community members openly proclaim their support for Hezbollah. Recent U.S. Treasury Department actions have slowed the flow of cash to terrorist groups, but financiers have fled and new networks have reconstituted that are harder to identify. Meanwhile, the usual suspects — Lebanese descendant Colombians — are tired of taking the blame.
Hajj Ahmad, 49, occasionally reads with shock the Maicao newspaper reports of neighbors blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury Department for financing the terrorist group. Such was the case for a young woman with a pretty face and black hijab or headscarf who lived alone with her sons and tended nearby family shops.
The woman, Fatima Fadlallath Cheaitilly, was cited in a December 2011 Treasury report as a key associate in a criminal network of drug traffickers and money launderers. The family shops were fronts for money laundering, and around the time of the action, U.S. law enforcement sources believe Cheaitilly was dating Hezbollah financier Mohamad Zoubein El Khansa.
Ahmad said she had often spent time with Cheaitilly at parties and functions at the Colombian-Arab school that her children attended. “Never would you think that this woman, as fragile as she was, would be involved in something so monstrous,” she said. “When this came out and they named the people involved, we were left thinking ‘Wow, what happened there?’”
While Ahmad and many of her Sunni friends denounce Hezbollah, many of Maicao’s minority Shiite population are in favor of the organization´s political and military objectives in their homeland.
Lebanese descendant community members may support the group ideologically, while sympathizing money launderers and terrorism financiers funnel cash back to Lebanon to support the group financially.
Ali Yalili, 35, a member of the Shiite community in Maicao, said he believes they are unfairly targeted as financiers of terrorism.
“If you are Shiite, have money and your business is going well, they make your out to be a money launderer, Hezbollah supporter, terrorist and cause you problems,” Yalili said. “Here, no one comes to fight, to be a terrorist, or to kill anyone. People come in search of their daily bread to eat, to live."”
But Many Lebanese descendants also come to Maicao to launder drug money to the tune of millions of dollars per year, according to law enforcement sources. In December 2011, Treasury named five family groups of Lebanese descent and first generation Colombians whose laundering proceeds found their way back to Hezbollah.
The way it works is a money launderer today may work for 5-10 different drug trafficking groups. Those groups in turn pay taxes or fees to terrorist groups to operate in their territories, proliferating terrorism and violence in Colombia and the Middle East. Likewise, sympathizing launderers may make sizable voluntary donations to Hezbollah.
In June 2012, Treasury named former Maicao resident Mohammed Saleh, who is believed to be a leading fundraiser for Hezbollah in Maicao. A prominent Shiite businessman and former Hezbollah fighter, Saleh and his brother Kassem were implicated by the Treasury Department as terrorism financiers. Neighboring shopkeepers on Maicao´s Tenth Street said the two fled overnight after their names and businesses were made public. The brothers remain at large, reportedly hiding in neighboring Venezuela.
Following the drug money
Treasury has had success in recent years shutting down the laundering operations of first and second generation Lebanese immigrants with family ties to the region and Hezbollah.
In July, Treasury designated Colombian national Isaac Perez Guberek Ravinovicz and several family members and associates, 31 in all, as money launderers for drug trafficking organizations. The designation of a prominent Jewish businessman who counted among his associates prior designee and at-large Muslim terrorism financier Ayman Saied Joumaa showed that religious differences are not a factor in the dirty deals. The launderers may not even realize they are ultimately funding terrorism organizations.
The Treasury actions and Colombian investigations have disrupted networks and shaken operations for Colombian money launderers, forcing some to flee to Venezuela and others to try to reconstitute with new networks. Maicao’s two main banks have taken action, too, following Treasury’s lead and closing dozens of accounts for named financiers, their relatives and business associates.
Deciphering the nexus of drug trafficking, money laundering and terror financing is part of the job of Colombian financial crimes investigator Raul Salazar. In 2008, Salazar helped close “Operation Titan,” a three-year international investigation that culminated with the arrest of 111 people — three Hezbollah financiers among them — in a drug-trafficking ring that stretched from Colombia to the U.S., Canada, Europe and the Middle East.
Salazar said that Lebanese citizens in Maicao are using their close cultural ties and sympathies to fund the armed wing of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Colombian investigators with court orders to listen in on cell phone conversations of suspected money launderers in Maicao have noticed a commonality: the conversation switches to Arabic when it involves transferring drug money to terrorist groups abroad. Colombian and American investigators are finding evidence that terrorism financing and money laundering cells in Maicao are still active, only now deposits are detected across the country in cities as far as Medellin, Pereira, Villavicencio and Pasto.
Terrorism financing investigations are currently active in Maicao, Salazar said, in an effort by Colombia to stop drug violence and stem the activity of terrorist cells to keep Colombians safe.
“They are growing even though we are trying to halt the activity,” he said of the launderers and terrorism financiers. “They have many facades and collaborate a great deal among themselves.”