Colombia-based Hezbollah ‘Associate’ Knew Anti-Money Laundering Protocols

By Daniel Bethencourt

An alleged Hezbollah associate thoroughly versed himself in due-diligence processes commonly used by global banks before transferring hundreds of thousands of dollars of “drug cash” from Australia to Miami, U.S. officials claimed in records obtained by ACAMS

More than 300 pages of partially redacted transcripts and other documents provided in response to an open records request shed light on an extensive money-laundering network loosely tied to the Lebanese militia and built on front companies in Venezuela, exchange houses in Beirut and transactions in Dubai and Hong Kong, all with the apparent aim of evading U.S. scrutiny.

Lead conspirator Mohammad Ahmad Ammar, a 33-year-old Londoner based in Colombia until January 2015, when he was advised to flee the country amid threats on his life, regularly used Chinese lenders to move funds globally, and several of his business partners often interacted with Latin American drug cartels, DEA agents wrote in an internal report.

State prosecutors in Miami charged Ammar and two of his alleged associates, Ghassan Diab and Hassan Mohsen Mansour, with money laundering in September 2016 in a case first reported by the Miami Herald the following month. Whether Ammar has entered a plea yet is unclear but the case is ongoing.

According to an arrest affidavit filed at the time, the three men coordinated to route $500,000 of what they believed were narcotics proceeds from Australia to Miami via bank accounts in Dubai and Hong Kong.

The associates forged invoices to disguise the transfers as payments for innocuous food supplies, preferred using business accounts to transfer small sums and avoided moving funds through the United States and other jurisdictions they believed had strong controls against money laundering in place.

DEA agents had turned their focus to Ammar by January 2014 based on a tip from an informant.

State prosecutors describe Ammar as a “Hezbollah associate with numerous ties to the BAC,” or Business Affairs Component, a network of members and supporters tasked with raising funds for the militia.

Prosecutors claim in the arrest affidavit that his father, Ammad Mahmoud Ammar, is also an associate and that Colombia is “well-known for the activity of Hezbollah supporters raising funds for the organization through money laundering and drug trafficking.”

DEA reports obtained by list few other details of Ammar’s ties to Hezbollah aside from his having “worked in the past” with Ayman Joumaa, a Lebanese man accused in 2011 of laundering profits through exchange houses in Beirut and other locales in a scheme that generated roughly $200 million each month, and reportedly helped fund the militia.

Joumaa also laundered more than $850 million in drug profits through a trade-based scheme that saw used cars from the United States shipped to buyers in West Africa.

The early investigation into Ammar revealed that he routinely directed transfers from the Netherlands to Lebanon while a co-conspirator directed a parallel release of funds in Colombia, thus moving value across the Atlantic without using the formal financial system. He also received drug proceeds through a storefront he controlled in London.

The documents obtained by hint at a larger network beyond Ammar whose members may not have worked with him directly, including Harrison Silva, a money broker in Cali, Colombia who allegedly coordinated cocaine shipments and owned exchange houses that converted U.S. dollars into local currencies.

Silva, who has not been charged, also allegedly used a regional auto-parts distributor, Toyo Rusticos del Centro CA, as a front to launder drug cash from Australia.

“Silva’s role was to sell wires to businessmen in Colombia, Panama and Venezuela that have pesos or bolivars that can be released to traffickers,” the DEA wrote.

Another Cali-based member of Silva’s network, Oswaldo Gimenez, used “drug dollars” collected into a bank account in Panama to buy goods to ship to Colombia, Venezuela and back to Panama as part of a trade-based money laundering and black-market peso exchange scheme, according to the DEA.

Another alleged money broker, referred to in documents as “Atta Corzo,” who would later appear alongside Ammar during a meeting in a hotel in Bogota and is described as “about 65-years-old,” claimed to own warehouses in Venezuela where contraband goods could be stored, as well as money exchange houses that could move illicit proceeds.

Neither Atta Corzo nor Gimenez appear to have been charged with any crimes, and could not be reached for comment.

The meetings commence

The operation formally began when a DEA informant made contact with Ammar in May 2014 by posing as a trafficker from Cali seeking a newer, cheaper method for paying his U.S.-based associates with profits made in Australia. The informant asked if Ammar could help out by wiring $250,000 into an account at an unspecified bank in Miami.

Some of Ammar’s associates were present during several subsequent meetings with a DEA informant in high-rise luxury apartments and other venues in and around Medellin from January 2014, when the investigation commenced, until January 2015, when he was warned to leave Colombia.

Ahead of the meetings, Ammar allegedly presented himself as a money launderer par excellence who had built his credentials by successfully disguising and moving large sums of illicit profits for a Colombian cartel, La Oficina de Envigado, through banks in Holland, Australia, Spain, the United Kingdom and several African nations.

But he did not always appear to be on solid footing with his partners, and was “widely considered an arrogant bragger,” according to the DEA investigative reports. Ammar would later insist during an October 2014 meeting that he controlled 85 percent of the money-laundering operations “here,” which the informant took to mean Medellin.

He was also dangerously on the hook with his Colombian cartel clients after Lebanese authorities seized CA$100,000 in drug profits he had wired from Toronto to several accounts at an unnamed bank in Beirut on their behalf.

Ammar initially demurred at the informant’s request to send funds to Florida because he did not like working in “hot places,” but ultimately agreed to the plan and said the wire transfers would have to originate from business accounts rather than personal accounts, according to court records.

He would say later that “Miami was not easy and that people did not like working with Miami.”

Shortly after the meeting Ammar reached out to Hassan Mansour, a Lebanese national who coordinated cash deliveries in Australia. Mansour turned to another associate to handle the cash pickup, not realizing the person was also an informant, and already tipping off the Australian Crime Commission.

The Australian informant “directed” the funds from a bank in Australia to Dubai where it was converted to local currency within days and broken into two pickups—one in cash for 210,000 AED, and the other in a check for 571,000 AED that deposited into an account held by a suspected Emirati front company, Al Haitham Exhibition and Conference Organizers.

On May 13, Ammar offered the DEA informant he had met in Colombia a choice of whether the funds would originate from a company in Dubai or a second firm in Hong Kong. The DEA instructed the informant to choose Dubai but lost track of the funds until later that month, when a series of transfers disguised as commercial payments arrived at the bank account in Miami.

Ammar attributed the lag to having to use accounts in in Dubai, and explained to the informant that his network “usually use[s] bank accounts in China” when dealing with clients in Cali. “There is usually not much delay when they transfer money through those accounts,” the DEA paraphrased him as saying.

The first transfer—a $38,860 wire from a business account for Khofo International, Limited at Hang Seng Bank in Hong Kong—arrived on May 18. Prosecutors noted that the transfer was described in an emailed receipt as “payment for shipment,” though no shipment took place.

The false description indicated “either an attempt at artifice, to avoid scrutiny by the bank if their anti-money laundering personnel took notice of the transfer, or evidence of the MLO [money laundering organization’s] use of prototypical TBML [trade-based money laundering] anonymous third-party payments,” prosecutors claim.

On May 19, a wire from a company called Tropical Trading LTD made its way to Miami, this time totaling $75,000, originating from a business account at a Citibank branch and described in a receipt as “goods purchasing.”

The last payment, dated May 21, totaled $85,000 from New Euro Horizon International Limited and was routed through Mashreq Bank, a UAE-based lender with an office in New York.

The informant approached Ammar again two months later to move another $260,000 out of Australia. Those funds also moved through accounts for the same front company in Dubai and arrived in Miami with similarly misleading documentation.

One wire originating from Al Haitham Exhibition and Conference Organizers was cast as payment for a 4-carat diamond ring destined for Majorca, Spain, even though the company had no known dealings in Majorca and described itself as an event management firm.

Other wires contained similarly vague or misleading explanations, such as payments for “evaporated milk” or “white rice in 50kg bags.”

The operation ended in January 2015, when Ammar reportedly owed $2 million to unidentified parties and was advised by a co-conspirator to leave Colombia immediately, state prosecutors claim.

Miami prosecutor’s office spokesman Ed Griffith declined comment, and Ammar’s Miami-based attorney Susan Bozorgi could not be reached by press time. A DEA spokeswoman declined to provide a statement, citing an “ongoing investigation.”

Topics : Anti-money laundering , Counterterrorist Financing
Source: Colombia
Document Date: February 23, 2018