Los Zetas Worked with Lebanese Man Linked to Hezbollah, Says U.S.
By Dialogo January 16, 2012
The Los Zetas drug cartel has for years collaborated with a Lebanese man who has ties to the militant Middle East Shiite group Hezbollah, according to U.S. federal authorities.
Ayman Joumaa, 47, has coordinated cocaine shipments and laundered money for the cartel, U.S. authorities said. Joumaa, also known as “Junior,” was indicted by a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., on Nov. 23, said U.S. Justice Department officials, who released details of the indictment on Dec. 13.
Joumaa is accused of conspiring to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine and conspiring to commit money laundering, U.S. justice officials said. If convicted on these charges, he faces a maximum penalty of life in prison.
A sign of Iranian activity in Latin America?
A Hezbollah-Zetas link could have far-reaching political implications for Mexico, the United States and Iran, analysts said. Such a connection could signal the beginnings of increased influence in Latin America by Iran, a Shiite nation that reportedly is seeking the capability to build nuclear weapons.
Joumaa is not believed to be in custody, and his exact whereabouts are unknown. The New York Times said it called him in Beirut but did not reach him.
The indictment alleges that Joumaa has ties to Medellin, Colombia, the onetime cocaine capital of the world. It also publicly links Mexican drug cartel activity to a major bank in Beirut. U.S. officials suspect the bank is a supporter of Hezbollah.
"Money fuels the drug trade, and Mr. Joumaa is alleged to be at the center of it all - working with those producing the vast majority of the world's cocaine to get their drugs safely into the hands of Mexican cartels, and then moving hundreds of millions in proceeds all around the world so the money can't be traced back to them in Colombia," said U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride, whose territory includes the Eastern District of Virgnia.
"Organized crime networks know no borders, and neither can U.S. law enforcement. My office has a long tradition of tackling international crimes occurring in our district, and this case is yet another example that we are now aggressively taking that fight abroad," MacBride said Tuesday.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administrator Michele Leonhart agreed.
"Ayman Joumaa is accused of facilitating the shipments of huge amounts of cocaine for the United States while laundering the proceeds all over the globe," said Leonhart. "According to information from sources, his alleged drug and money laundering activities facilitated numerous global drug trafficking organizations, including the criminal activities of the Los Zetas Mexican drug cartel. DEA and our partners will continue to expose and dismantle these worldwide networks."
In January, the U.S. Treasury Department labeled Joumaa a drug kingpin under provisions of law informally known as the "Kingpin Act." At that time, U.S. officials described Joumaa's alleged smuggling and money laundering activity in South America, Africa and Europe.
A long partnership with Los Zetas
But the indictment details his alleged heavy involvement with Los Zetas and Mexican transnational criminal activity.
For example, it alleges Joumaa coordinated the smuggling of at least 85 tons of Colombian cocaine through Mexico in partnership with Los Zetas. Between 1997 and 2010, the indictment charges, Joumaa laundered hundreds of millions of dollars in drug proceeds on behalf of Los Zetas.
The indictment does not specifically mention Hezbollah, but U.S. law enforcement officials said evidence points to an indirect connection between the Mideast terrorist group and the Mexican transnational criminal enterprise. And perhaps the strongest evidence of that connection is the Beirut-based bank with a Canadian presence named the Lebanese Canadian Bank.
In February, Treasury invoked a rarely used provision of the U.S. Patriot Act (which was signed into law after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks) to declare the bank an institution with "primary money-laundering concerns." This declaration made the bank off-limits to other U.S. financial institutions.
The announcement of the indictment against Joumaa is not the first time U.S. officials have alleged connections between Mideast figures and Mexican drug cartels. In October, U.S. authorities arrested an Iranian-American who is charged with trying to recruit Mexican drug cartel hit men to assassinate a Saudi diplomat on behalf of Iran.
Drug cartels and terrorists group seen as working together
"Very powerful trafficking groups and terrorists organizations are coming together," a former U.S. DEA administrator, Michael Braun, told a Congressional committee at an Oct. 13 hearing into the alleged assassination plot. U.S. officials said they're worried that Hezbollah may be sharing knowledge of how to build sophisticated bombs with Los Zetas. Hezbollah is also known for its tunnel-building knowledge - a key tool that has been employed in Mexican cartels to smuggle drugs into the United States.
Hezbollah has long been considered a terrorist organization by the United States and is blamed for several high-profile attacks against U.S. facilities in recent decades. The most notorious assault linked to Hezbollah was the 1983 suicide bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, in which 60 people, including scores of U.S. Marines, were killed.
Hezbollah fought a bloody war against Israel in 2006. Since then, the group's political arm has made increasing efforts to appear as a legitimate political faction of the Lebanese government. But the New York Times reported this week that the very war it waged against Israel might have encouraged Hezbollah to increase its criminal activity in Latin America, to help fund the group’s political efforts.
Joumaa appears to be a key link in this connection. The Lebanese citizen is said to speak Spanish fluently, and is believed to have lived in Colombia until about 11 years ago, when he returned to his native Lebanon to escape increased law enforcement scrutiny.