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Africa’s White Economy Part 4

The Latin American connection
Al Qaeda and Hezbollah’s long arms extend from West Africa to Latin America. The tri-border area where the frontiers of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay meet is considered a trafficker’s paradise. 

A number of drug cartels and terrorist groups affiliated with the Middle East operate in the frontier area, according to international agencies and the U.S. military, and it is viewed as a a nexus between South America and West Africa, especially Guinea Bissau and Nigeria.

This area is strategically critical for several criminal activities, as among them money laundering and smuggling, and it’s the drop-off for air travel between South America and West Africa. The Brazilian government estimates that $12 billion is laundered annually through the tri-boder area; the U.S. Southern Command puts the annual total much higher, at between $50 to $500 billion.

Since the majority of drugs leaving South America for Europe exit Brazil and travel through terrorist strongholds in West Africa, these established ties may increase. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has identified West Africa as a developing hub of narcoterrorism, and there is evidence that Latin American traffickers are collaborating with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Hezbollah to smuggle cocaine to Europe. In December 2009, the UNODC informed the UN Security Council that drugs were being traded by “terrorists and anti-government forces” to fund their operations. That same month, authorities arrested three individuals in Ghana for cocaine trafficking who reported that they were supporting al-Qaeda.

Drug trafficking is not new to either Brazil or West Africa, but the level of sophistication of today’s global drug traffickers has raised international concern. Several security agencies have reported that drug dealers have their own goods containers and their own jet aircraft network that links the cocaine-producing regions of South America and West Africa for eventual transport to Europe. It is estimated that the fleet includes twin-engine turboprops, executive jets and even a Boeing 727 (which can carry up to 10 tons of cargo). In 2009, drug traffickers landed a Boeing 727 on a makeshift runway in Mali and unloaded as much as 10 tons of cocaine before setting the plane ablaze when it failed to take off again. The transportation fleet gives terrorist groups like the FARC, al-Qaeda and AQIM the ability to move vast amounts of illicit materials back and forth between Brazil and West Africa

In West Africa, the rise of the drug trade has increased fears that weak states could become criminalized “narco-states.” The growing drug trade has also been blamed for increasing political instability and violence elsewhere in the region, including, in 2008, riots in Cote d’Ivoire, an attempted coup in Guinea-Bissau and an actual coup in Guinea. The number of West African organized crime groups involved in drug smuggling is growing; some even have their own armies and caches of weapons

The lack of domestic security architecture, along with insufficient equipment, corruption and poor training for police are common problem across the region. For example, until last year, Guinea did not have a single scanner at its international airports. Nigeria only began using body scanners at its airports in 2010.

The attention to air smuggling is timely. When sea interdiction efforts increased, drug traffickers switched to air transport in Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, and Sierra Leone. It is well documented that the drug traffickers freely use abandoned airfields and landing strips in these countries where police have no presence. Authorities in Mali, where AQIM has now infiltrated, are so overburdened and under-resourced that they “lack the capacity to patrol the northern parts of their country.

Like Brazil, West African nations are beginning to recognize the value of regional cooperation. Last fall, Gambia hosted a regional forum on illegal drug trafficking and organized crime. In 2010, delegates from 34 countries gathered at the Fourth Session of the African Union Ministerial Conference on Crime Prevention and Drug Control to discuss harmonization of legislation across countries and the creation of a coordination, collection and data processing organization to assess the drug and crime threat

Out of this diverse criminal activity  emerged a terrorism-financing network, led by Lebanese clan of Assad Ahmad Barakat, who according to the FBI and the U.S. Treasury Department was a key financier to Hezbollah. Barakat was arrested by Brazilian and Paraguayan authorities working in cooperation with the U.S. Government but his clan kept on sending money to Lebanon and elsewhere in Africa.

The Lebanese network operating in Bissau is the next link in the chain. It acts to distribute the drugs but mostly provides the environmental conditions that keep the business alive. President Nino Vieira’s policy during the last three years focused on allowing the Lebanese to do their business. In return he reaped considerable personal benefits, and the country itself benefited from a surge in foreign investments, mostly from the Middle East, that in in 2006 totaled over $42 million.

Put those numbers together and Tarek Aretzki’s Palace Hotel starts to make a little more sense. But Guinea Bissau’s role and ties in Latin America drug trafficking dynamics is not limited to its connections with the Triple Frontier. During the last few months Buenos Aires has turned into one of the major points of shipment for the cocaine smuggled into Africa, in particular to Guinea Bissau and South Africa (where traffickers are stored big quantities for the 2010 World Championships). 

On March 12th, 10  days after Vieira was killed, the Argentinean Collection Agency declared that the Consulate of Guinea Bissau in Buenos Aires was involved in criminal activities related to money laundering, drug trafficking and illegal arms trade. What possible connection is there between Argentina and Guinea Bissau? Arms trafficked from Argentina to Bissau, but mostly the shipments consisted of the base ingredients to produce ephedrine and methamphetamines, trafficked from South America to West Africa and then smuggled through Mexico — eventually to the U.S.. All supervised by the Lebanese network in the Triple Frontier and in Bissau with the cooperation of then President Nino Vieira, in partnership with South American and Mexican cartels.

The position of Consulate of Guinea Bissau in Buenos Aires was held by an unconventional Honorary Consul; Enrique Oscar Montinel, who according to the Argentinian army register had died on March 11th, 1997. When I met him in his office to get my visa, in January 2009, he was alive and well; he asked questions on the purpose of my trip for two hours. Montinel appeared a little concerned when I told him I was a journalist, so I explained that the intention of my trip was to write an article for a travel magazine, to promote tourism in his country. I’m not sure he believed my story, but he stamped a six months visa on my passport and gave me some local contacts, including the president’s phone number. 

The Argentinean authorities started to investigate this case by mid August 2008, when the corpses of Sebastián Forza, Damián Ferrón and Leopoldo Bina were found not far from Buenos Aires. The three had been killed in perfect mafia style, in mysterious circumstances and all of them were in, or connected to, the pharmaceutical business.

A few months later Nestor Lorenzo, owner of the pharmaceutical Multipharma and a strong supporter of Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández Kirchner, Esteban Pérez Corradi (investigated for supplying ephedrine), Martín Magallanes and Marcelo Abasto (pharmacy and drugstore owners) and Walter Pérez (arrested for illegal medicines trade) were all investigated for ephedrine trafficking and illegal trade of medicines, considered to be the base for ephedrine and crystal meth.

All these people were “clients” of the Consulate of Guinea Bissau, which used to change cash into checks or checks into cash. The Consulate received the checks, charged a fee, and made operations through ghost companies. All such companies were exempt from paying taxes on the checks and the entire business was held locally by a bunch of former military involved in arms trafficking.

The Argentinean Prosecutor, Javier López Biscayart , estimates that for these services the Consulate was able to change up to $2 million a day. On June 5th he brought that trade to at least a temporary halt, by ordering that the Consulate by seized, as well as other buildings that had been controlled by Enrique Oscar Montinel.

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