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International pressure is mounting on Hezbollah, the militant organization and political party based in Lebanon. Global financial sanctions have weakened its primary sponsors in Syria and Iran. Now U.S. federal prosecutors are revealing new details about the group’s links to drug and money-laundering operations across Latin America and West Africa. We explore the links between global crime and terror networks.
- Sebastian Rotella Senior Reporter, ProPublica; author "Triple Crossing: A Novel" (Mulholland)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, songs of the solstice, a musical celebration of changing seasons. But first the murky links between global crime and terror networks. And if that isn't the most awkward public radio transition you ever heard, we don't know what is. But we strive for the unusual here anyway.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has always been something of an enigma. In the eyes of its supporters, it's a legitimate political party and social service agency. In the eyes of the United States and Israel, it's a terrorist organization with deep ties to Iran and Syria. Last week, federal prosecutors accused Hezbollah of involvement in a different kind of clandestine network, the global trade in cocaine and money laundering.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe government alleges that Hezbollah is profiting off of a complex network of businesses across the global Lebanese Diaspora, stretching from Mexico's drug cartels to West African smuggling operations to used car dealerships in Maryland. Joining us in studio Sebastian Rotella, he is senior reporter at ProPublica. Prior to joining ProPublica, he was an international investigative correspondent and bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. In Europe and Latin America, he is the author of "Triple Crossing: A Novel." Sebastian Rotella, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. SEBASTIAN ROTELLAMy pleasure, Kojo, thank you very much.
NNAMDIThe United States and Israel consider has Hezbollah a terrorist group, but it's also part social services agency and a growing political party within Lebanese politics. The newest revelations from court documents released last week appear to paint a different picture of the organization. What exactly is Hezbollah accused of doing?
ROTELLAEssentially, the accusations are that in the past, particularly five or six years, that there's been some intensification of already existing connections between parts of Hezbollah and criminal mafias around the world with connections to the Diaspora. And the allegation is particularly that Hezbollah has intensified connections with the drug trade and made money, large amounts of money, going into its coffers from the cocaine trade in Latin America and the relatively recent route of cocaine being smuggled through Africa into Europe as well as the, obviously, long existing routes northbound from Columbia through Mexico into the United States.
NNAMDIThe Obama administration has been increasing pressure on Hezbollah through a variety of channels, indirectly. It's been clamping down on Iran and Syria. The DEA, Drug Enforcement Agency, has also been targeting the groups ties to drug trafficking which we've been -- which you just mentioned. How strong are those ties supposed to be?
ROTELLAWell, there's a mix and the picture is emerging. What people have been saying for a while, not just American-Israeli, but also European intelligence is that there were figures in the criminal figures in the drug trade in Latin America and Africa who were providing money to Hezbollah either as kind of a tax or out of ideological sympathy or just sort of the price of doing business. But there appear to be increasing allegations of more direct connections of actual Hezbollah, of people even self identified Hezbollah operatives involved in the drug trade.
ROTELLAAnd particularly a focus on financial infrastructure centered around the Lebanese-Canadian bank in Beirut which has been the target of a U.S. investigation which showed the allegations are -- and there's pretty strong sort of tangible evidence that this bank was moving hundreds of millions of dollar in cash with little scrutiny and that a certain amount of that cash was drug profits and that it was part of this complex international money laundering network.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join this conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. How do you view the allegations of connections between crime and terror networks, 800-433-8850? Do you think the U.S. has common enemies in our war on terror and our war on drugs? You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there or send email to email@example.com. Our guest is Sebastian Rotella, he is senior reporter at ProPublica. And you can also send us a tweet @kojoshow. This story involves a whole witch's brew of players, Hezbollah, huge drug gangs in Mexico, financial sanctions against Iran and Syria.
NNAMDIWe mentioned all of those, but one of the keys to understanding the story, you just mentioned the bank in Canada is trying to understand the Lebanese Diaspora. Can you talk a little bit about that because I guess the vast majority of the Lebanese Diaspora is not remotely involved in this kind of thing. But in fact, in many parts of the world, the Lebanese community is Christian. This is a broader theme in the globalization of crime, right? Diasporas often find themselves involved in this.
ROTELLASure, from Anglo-Saxon to Sicilian to Lebanese. I was based in Latin America for 10 years and obviously there's a huge Middle Eastern, particularly Lebanese Diaspora, in Latin America. As you say, much of it upstanding, entrepreneurial people, everyone from Shakira to Selma Hayek to various political leaders of Latin America are of Lebanese decent. But there are these -- there has been this long existing connection with mafias in parts of this Diaspora and particularly in Latin American, taking advantage of weak states and of contraband routes where you have drugs, arms, other kinds of criminal activity flowing together.
ROTELLAAnd there's always been these connections where people involved in the Diaspora have contributed money back to the coffers of Hezbollah, whether they see it as a resistance organization, whether there's some pressure from people. I mean, there's all different kinds of shades. And these allegations, I just unveiled this week, for example, you have people are actually -- an individual who's a Christian accused of being involved in the drug trade and contributing to Hezbollah. So it's a complicated nuance ambiguous world.
NNAMDIA complication underscored by your own experiences. We don't typically think of Latin America as a staging ground or a place where terrorist groups would operate. But like you talked about, the combination of weak governments and infrastructure, there's an obvious president here. In 1992 and 1994, Jewish communities in Buenos Aires were targeted by bomb attacks blamed on Iran and Hezbollah, one attack on the Israeli embassy and one on a Jewish cultural center. You were a bureau chief in Buenos Aires.
ROTELLAI was and I spent a lot of time working on those cases because I was fascinated by what you just said, that juxtaposition of Middle Eastern conflict and terrorism in the heart of South America. And those cases, both showed, I think, a couple things, number one, this existing partnership between Iranian intelligence and the vast reach of Hezbollah and being able to put together two devastating and successful attacks in the same country within two years. It's really quite remarkable, if you think about it.
ROTELLAAnd what the case showed also was the existence of these groups or these hubs where there was a convergence between organized crime and terrorism in places like the tri border area where Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina come together and places like Venezuela. It's a difficult issue because a lot of people exaggerate those connections. You know, people on the right tend to, you know, huff and puff about the people on the left, tend to minimize him -- go ahead.
NNAMDIBecause the links between Hezbollah and these criminal and drug networks are really indirect, right? We're not talking about the heads of these organizations sitting down together for meetings to conspire against the United States, are we?
ROTELLAThat's right. I mean, we're talking, for example, when people talk about a connection between the Zetas of Mexico and Hezbollah, you're not talking about the head of Zeta sitting down with the Secretary General Nasrallah. What you're talking about is both the organizations having contact, in this case with a Lebanese drug trafficker with connections in Latin America who's the head of a worldwide money laundering and drug trafficking network that does business with both entities.
ROTELLAWhat this most recent case does begin to reveal, though, is in some instances, quite well documented of actual people -- of people who are actually in Hezbollah and involved in the drug trade. And that's something that's new and sort of shows, I think, the increasing crisis that Hezbollah is going through because of the pressure on Iran and Syria, some of the drying up some of its financial sources of revenue. And from what I've -- what you have seen in recent reporting in France, in particular, a bit of an internal crisis perhaps too within Hezbollah where there's a sense that, as the group has gotten powerful and involved in politics, that corruption has intensified.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Sebastian Rotella, he is a senior reporter at ProPublica. Inviting your calls, 800-433-8850. We're talking about Globalized Crime and Terror: Mexican Drug Cartels and Hezbollah. You can also send email to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. How do you view the allegations of connections between crime and terror networks? Sebastian Rotella was an international investigative correspondent and bureau chief for the L.A. Times in Europe and Latin America.
NNAMDIHe's the author of the novel "Triple Crossing: A Novel." Federal prosecutors have indicted a guy called Hajji Juma, if I'm pronouncing it correctly. He's involved in all kinds of illicit trades, but his actual empire is extremely sophisticated and profitable, if we're to believe the documents that are being released. Who is Hajji Juma?
ROTELLAHajji Juma is a -- was born in Lebanon and is a business man who spent a lot of time in Columbia, speaks excellent Spanish. And there's a lot of evidence that he was involved in the drug trade and in money laundering. He's now based in Lebanon. He owns a -- the Ceasers Park Hotel in Beirut and businesses in Africa and has connections to businesses in Latin America as well. And he's seen as sort of the hub of this case, a specialist in drug trafficking in sort of two routes, the cocaine route through -- from Columbia, Venezuela into the United States and in particular the route through South American into West Africa and Europe.
ROTELLABut what he's also a specialist in, allegedly is money laundering where huge amounts of money, bulk cash coming south from the United States or coming -- or proceeds in it from the European trade are cycled and washed through an elaborate system that involves the Lebanese-Canadian bank we talked about on Beirut. But also businesses in Africa and businesses in the United States where the money is -- the drug proceeds are sent to the United States.
ROTELLACars are purchased by people who are supposedly part of the scheme sent to Africa and sold and then millions of dollars in cash generated by car sales in Africa are mixed with drug proceeds and then sent back into Lebanon and some of it going into the coffers of Hezbollah. It's a fascinating case and one that is quite well documented in the most recent allegations.
ROTELLAWe're talking about, for example, there are seizures of people with millions of dollars in cash at borders between Togo and Ghana. We have people on intercepts talking about the money going to Hezbollah. So the picture that's starting to come together really portrays a very sophisticated operation with Hajji Juma as one of the central players.
NNAMDIOne of the pictures that's coming together for me being born and raised in Guyana South America and continuing to follow events in that part of the world from time to time is that, invariably you see people who are involved in drug trafficking who are also owners of major businesses in those countries like hotels who also invariably have very strong political connections in part because of their ability to provide cash and resources to elected officials. What seems to be different about this story is that we don't talk about the fact that the market, the market for all of those drugs tends to be the U.S., does it not?
ROTELLAThat's right. It tends to be the U.S. and I would add, very importantly, Europe. As cocaine consumption has gone down a bit in the U.S. in recent years, it has intensified in Europe and that market has become very important for the Latin American cartels, also because of the relative strength of the Euro in recent years. So you really have, in general, the developed world consuming and the undeveloped world providing.
NNAMDISo the developed world is what's making a lot of this possible in the first place by our consumption pattern?
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation on Globalized Crime and Terror: Mexican Drug Cartels and Hezbollah. You can still call us at 800-433-8850. We're talking with Sebastian Rotella. He's a senior reporter at ProPublica and author of "Triple Crossing: A Novel." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Sebastian Rotella. He's a senior reporter at "ProPublica." Prior to joining "ProPublica" he was an international investigative correspondent and bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times in Europe and Latin America. He's the author of "Triple Crossing: A Novel." We're talking about Globalized Crime and Terror: Mexican Drug Cartels and Hezbollah.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Jim, Sebastian, who says, "In your guest's experience, how reliable should we consider federal prosecutors and their allegations? We know that the war on terror and the war on drugs are both highly politicized. I sometimes wonder whether these prosecutions are really just tools of international state craft." And I would like to add to that question, how do people in Mexico and Venezuela and Argentina view these kinds of global crime linkages?
ROTELLAStarting with the first question, I think, the listener is right to be prudent, as I am. And one thing I will say is I've been working on this issue for quite a while and have been in these areas and studied this issue, particularly in Latin America. But one of the things that most recently, about five or six years ago that got me interested in it, was that Spanish and French intelligence were talking a lot about Hezbollah conn3ections and the drug trade in Africa. And I found that interesting because as you know, the Spanish and the French don't necessarily see Hezbollah in the same...
NNAMDIQuite the same way.
ROTELLA...in quite the same way as the United States and Israel do. So I think the advantage of working around the world is when you see people with different perceptions on issues, starting to agree on certain fundamental questions, I think that that's one thing that got me interested. As far as how people see it, it depends on the country. Obviously, in Venezuela right now, with the government there is -- and obviously it's a country with divided opinions, but there is great skepticism about the United States and a great sense that the United States manipulates these kinds of things for its political interest.
ROTELLAI will say that in most of the countries I was in, there is great concern about the power of the drug cartels. I think that's universal at a -- you know, in Mexico, there are. There may be different views of causation, maybe different questions about the role of or the sincerity of the United States and its drug policy, but I think everyone -- I think most people agree that, you know, that this question of the power of the drug cartels and the weakness of these states is one of the fundamental issues of the region.
NNAMDII think Lynn in North Beach, Md. would like to globalize the issue a little more. Lynn, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LYNNThank you. I'm interested in what your guest has to say about a theory that's being pushed in international fiction that the Russian cartels are pushing out the Mexican cartels. And I'm going to get off the air and turn the radio back on so I can hear your answer.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Lynn. Any indication of Russian cartel involvement in any of this?
ROTELLAYou know, as sprawling and diverse as this affair is, I have not seen much reference to Russian cartels in this particular case. I think the Russian organized crime is powerful, but it hasn't intruded into this case.
NNAMDIWell, Lynn did say it was a part of the international fiction scene so apparently there it remains for the time being. But part of this story involves the crackdown after 9/11, when it became a little more difficult for drugs to make it into the U.S. The trade apparently migrated increasingly to Mexico.
ROTELLAYes, I think that's right. It became more difficult to smuggle drugs into the U.S. And I think the other thing that the international groups that move cocaine realized was that this route through West Africa, tragically, was easy, you know, that you had very poor, very desperate countries. I remember speaking to a former high-ranking African drug official telling me, you know, in our countries, this whole question of drug-trafficking is not priority number one or two or three. You know, its number seven or eight after, I think, basic survival issues.
ROTELLASo I think the traffickers in Latin America, traffickers in Africa, traffickers in Europe and connected to the Lebanese Diaspora, which happens to be very present in West Africa and Latin America, realize that this was a route to exploit and that you could sort of use Africa as kind of a place to stockpile cocaine. So you have cocaine coming by plane, cocaine coming by boat. Infiltration of legitimate businesses, pressure, overwhelming corruption on governments and you had huge seizures of cocaine showing up in countries that had never those amounts of cocaine.
NNAMDII remember reading a story about how drug dealers control Conakry, the capital of Guinea, or at least the police in Conakry, in ways that were mind-boggling. An example, though, of how this becomes a local story, this might explain why we have so many seemingly moribund car dealerships in Maryland.
ROTELLAWell, that's one thing that this recent case shows and the enormous amount of car dealerships, in the case of the Joomla network, are owned mainly by people from the Middle East, that seem to exist on a shoestring, to put it mildly and that don't seem to make any money but the allegation has essentially exist for this complicated movement of cars around the world to mask the flow of laundered drug proceeds. So it's remarkable.
NNAMDIA cynic might look at this and think we're just seeing enemies everywhere, that this is really convenient that our enemies in the drug war happen to dove-tail so nicely with our enemies in the war on terror. You say we should be cautious about erring too far in either direction.
ROTELLAI think that's right. I think that's right. I think people try, you do hear very simplistic discourse of trying to wrap drugs and terrorism together all the time and that's, you know, there are many times when that's not true. On the other hand, I think common sense. A long experience has shown me that illicit activity tends to go together. So the kind of people who are involved in procuring weapons, in moving drugs and generating criminal sources of income also tend to have connections to other kinds of networks, including ones involved in terrorism. But it's not -- it's usually murky, it's usually difficult and I think it's important to try and look at these stories on the ground and with as much sort of nuance and caution as possible.
NNAMDIA few months ago, Attorney General Eric Holder revealed a plot that seemed at once fantastical and chilling. It was a story about an attempt to assassinate the ambassador or Saudi Arabia, involving an Iranian-American, who allegedly tried to contract with Mexican drug gangs. At first, you were skeptical of this story, but now you're not so sure. Please explain?
ROTELLAI was skeptical because there were things -- having covered the Mexican border, having covered Iranian operations in the hemisphere and, you know, having covered sort of different aspects of this, I found it very hard to believe that the Iranian Intelligence Service, which in the past has been quite sophisticated, would use this operative who did not seem particularly impressive, who had kind of casual connection with someone who he thought or someone who was affiliated with this -- at this cartel in Mexico, but also was a DEA informant and would recruit them for an assassination and that the Zetas would lend themselves or that the Iranian Intelligence Service would think that a Mexican cartel would lend itself to the assassination of an ambassador.
ROTELLAAnd Washington, which would, you know, the Zetas cartel has many ways of making money other than committing an assassination in Washington that would bring down all kinds of pressure on it. The reason I've become a little bit more open to this -- to the solidity of this case is a couple of things. I mean, there was $100,000 moved in furtherance of the plot. There are supposedly, I keep being told by people in government who were initially skeptical themselves, intercepts that suggest a high level Iranian officials discussing this plot. But I also, you know, in reviewing some of the previous cases in which Iran was involved, even the ones I covered in Argentina, there is always this mix of sophistication and amateurism.
ROTELLAAnd in even successful terrorists plots, I think sometimes we tend to sort of put intelligence groups or terrorists -- intelligence agencies or terrorists on a kind of pedestal and say, well no one would do anything that dumb. I think the history of terrorism and intelligence is full of dumb, clunky amateurish operations and that would include our own services in that list.
NNAMDIWell, a lot of these themes are running through your new novel, "Triple Crossing," which involves the shadows of global crime and drug networks. Did you find that writing fiction allowed you to get at some of these bigger themes and truths a little better than writing a long, form article about it?
ROTELLAIt certainly did, Kojo. I have to tell you, I mean, it was liberating and exhilarating to be able to explore this in the world of fiction. I will tell you, though, that I tried to be very rigorous and realistic. For example, I do -- the novel does explore some of these potential connections to Hezbollah in South America, in particular, and to the drug trade. But it does not go as far as this U.S. case. I did not have the Iranians Intelligence Service planning terrorists attacks on U.S. because frankly, I wouldn't have thought that would've been realistic. So I tried...
NNAMDIProof that fiction can sometimes to be -- the fact that truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction.
ROTELLAExactly. That it's important to be rigorous and careful even in fiction, but it was a lot of fun to explore this from that perspective.
NNAMDISebastian Rotella is the author of "Triple Crossing: A Novel." He's a senior reporter at ProPublica. Prior to joining ProPublica, he was an international investigative correspondent and bureau chief from the Los Angeles Times in Europe and Latin America. Sebastian Rotella, thank you so much for joining us.
ROTELLAMy pleasure. Thank you very much.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, "Songs of the Solstice: A Musical Celebration of Changing Seasons." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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