|Román D. Ortiz|
By Román D. Ortiz
On September 8th, officials from the National Migration Institute of Mexico, supported by the Yucatan state police, captured a U.S. citizen of Lebanese origin, named Rafic Mohammed Labboun, in the city of Merida. Along with Labboun, Belize nationals George Abdalah Elders, Yasser Safa and another three members of his family were apprehended. The next day, Labboun was transferred to the U.S. authorities for violating his probation. In fact, he had been released from prison a few months ago after serving a two year sentence for fraud.
During the trial, the FBI accused Labboun of engaging in systemic bank fraud. Indeed, he was convicted for a scam. However, the recent reopening of this case has highlighted two features of the growing activity of this Lebanese terrorist group in Latin America. Firstly, its determination to increase its presence in the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico as a strategy to get into the territory of the United States. Secondly, its involvement in criminal activities such as drug trafficking and financial fraud.
|Mexican mugshot of the convicted felon|
Rafic Labboun "Allaboun" of
Saba Islamic Center of San Jose, California.
The recent arrest of Labboun in Mexico has uncovered a much more extensive and complex plot than the previously known story of a low-level financier of Islamist terrorism. One of the captured Belizeans, Yasser Safa, is well-known by the Central American police. He has been involved in a number of offences, which include selling stolen cars and counterfeiting checks. In addition, he was arrested with three kilos of cocaine in Panama and was accused of smuggling illegal immigrants into Mexico. Beyond these crimes, according to some sources, U.S. intelligence has been monitoring the activities of Safa for some time due to increased suspicion that he was connected to Hezbollah. Meanwhile, Labboun carried a fake Belize passport that had been purchased with a birth certificate for a person who died in 1976. This is a sign of the level of corruption that has turned the small Caribbean Republic into a source of documents for trafficking networks sending illegal immigrants into the U.S.
The connection of Labboun with Belize coincides with a number of intelligence reports in recent years that have exposed the presence of the Islamist networks in the Caribbean. According to these sources, the main agent in these clandestine structures is believed to be an individual with dual nationality of Pakistan and Belize that responds to the nickname of “Dr. Vegas” This individual was involved in the narcotics trafficking and counted on the collaboration of the Lebanese network which has been involved in money laundering, human trafficking and the sale of used cars. In this context, the presence of the criminal structures of “Dr. Vegas” in the free zone of Chetumal and the border city of Tijuana is significant. Apparently, during his stay in Merida, Labboun made a short trip to “meet a cousin” in Chetumal. Two years earlier in June 2010, it was reported that Ali “Jameel” Nasr was arrested in Tijuana under the suspicion of trying to organize a Hezbollah support cell composed of Mexicans of Lebanese origin. Thus, the case of Labboun has helped to highlight the extent of the Islamist networks in Central America and Mexico.
It is not the first time that a connection has been identified between Hezbollah and the Latin American criminal networks. In October 2008, the existence of a cooperation network between the Lebanese terrorist organization and the Colombian drug traffickers gang known as the ¨Envigado Office” was uncovered. The key player in this alliance proved to be a Colombian citizen of Lebanese origin, Checky Mahmoud Harb, "Taliban", who coordinated the drug shipments from Colombia to the U.S., Europe and the Middle East through Central America, Mexico and Venezuela. A significant part of the profits produced by this extensive drug trafficking scheme ended up in the pockets of Hezbollah through a series of money laundering activities. However, the network was dismantled after the Titan Operation, launched by the authorities in Washington and Bogota, that resulted in the arrest of 111 people in six countries and Harb's extradition to the U.S.
However, the impact of the Titan Operation proved to be short lived. In fact, the alliance between the Colombian drug trafficking organizations and Hezbollah has been reconstructed. Again, the key player in this process has been a Colombian citizen of Lebanese origin, Ayman Saied Joumaa, who has built a criminal empire based on the sending of tons of cocaine from Colombia to Mexico to sell to the cartel of “Los Zetas”. The profits are hidden through an extensive network of businesses including hotels, shops and exchange offices in countries such as Lebanon, Colombia, Panama and Benin. According to estimates from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), between 2007 and 2010, the network could have laundered US$ 329 million. Within this scheme, Hezbollah received a share of the profits in exchange for their support in protecting the narcotics and the money received in exchange for them.
With the above in mind, it is clear that Hezbollah has developed a number of connections with organized crime in Latin America. In this context, it is crucial to ask what these partnerships mean to the operational capacity of the Lebanese terrorist group. In other words, to what extent do these links provide new operational opportunities for Hezbollah in the Hemisphere? In this regard, it is worth emphasizing three points. To begin with, it is clear that the Islamist organization has found in its criminal connections an important source of financing. Moreover, the relations with gangsters and criminals have also provided new ways to improve its strategic mobility to penetrate the countries of the region. This is the case of human trafficking networks which make it easier to cross borders. But the same is also true for the possible utilization of semi-submersible vessels used in drug smuggling to transport militants to the coasts where they plan to act. Finally, these types of alliances mean that Hezbollah can hire mercenaries to execute attacks which exceed its operational capabilities, or where the participation of the Islamist group has to be denied and others blamed in its place. The clearest example of the potential of these "attacks by proxy¨ is the case of the Iranian agent arrested by the FBI a year ago when he planned to hire Mexican hitmen to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. From this point of view, the connections between Hezbollah and organized crime can be seen only as bad news for hemispheric security: a more complex environment where it will be more difficult to prevent the threat of terrorism.
The first version of this article was published by Réalité-EU.