This series of stories shows how smugglers corrupt the foreign embassies and consulates of Latin America in the Middle East to gain the documents needed to reach the southern border. Mexico and Latin American embassies implicated in such travel include those in Beirut, Singapore, Mumbai, Belize, Turkey, Kenya, Cuba, and Jordan.
Smuggling ring ferrying African from terror watch countries had help from corrupt Mexican official in Belize consulate office
With help from a bribed official in Mexico’s Belize consulate office, two men from Ghana ran a transcontinental smuggling operation that ferried dozens of unauthorized immigrants into Texas from countries the State Department regards as terrorist havens, federal court records and interviews show.
Since at least 2005, the operation helped as many as 100 U.S.-bound immigrants, paying as little as $5,000 each, from such countries as Sudan and Somalia, travel by air and ground to Mexico and then over the U.S. border to Houston.
Some of the money ended up in the pockets of at least one Mexican Consulate employee in Belize whose corruption, the two ringleaders have now confessed, provided the crucial link in the pipeline.
A U.S. national security investigation involving Belize and Mexican law enforcement agencies shut the pipeline down with the arrests last fall of Ghana native Mohammed Kamel Ibrahim, based in Mexico City, and Sampson Lovelace Boateng, a Ghanan who lived in Belize.
Both men — Boateng was arrested in Miami and Ibrahim was extradited from Mexico — pleaded guilty last week in Washington, D.C., to charges related to the smuggling. Each faces up to 15 years in prison.
Immigrants brought in by Boateng and Ibrahim hailed from African nations where anti-American terrorist groups are active and spreading, raising the specter that some of them might have entered undetected with ill intent.
Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Homeland Security and formerly a senior FBI administrator, said such complex operations provide a possible conduit for terrorists.
“It’s not the ones we catch that we’re concerned about, since they’re no longer a threat; it’s the ones we have not caught, or will not catch. Anybody from a country with known terrorism links is one too many,” he said.
The government flags as “special interest aliens” unauthorized travelers from more than 40 countries in the Middle East, South Asia or North Africa because of fears they might have been sent by terrorist groups. When caught by American authorities, special interest immigrants draw additional investigative scrutiny.
More than 330 special interest immigrants have been caught this year in Texas alone, from countries such as Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iraq, Department of Homeland Security records show. McCraw said it’s safe to assume that many others did not get caught and remain in the U.S.
Washington prosecutors, through a spokesman, declined to say whether any of those smuggled by Ibrahim and Boateng into Texas might have had terrorist ties.
A lawyer for Boateng said his client was in business for profit. “It was basically a service with not a lot of screening,” said appointed defense attorney Edward C. Sussman of Washington D.C. “There was really no knowledge that anyone was anyone, but just people trying to get over the border.”
Last week’s guilty pleas by Boateng and Ibrahim highlight a recurring headache for Washington that has defied remedy: mounting instances in which allegedly bribed Mexico’s foreign consulate workers supplied fraudulent travel documents.
In 2005, for instance, Mexican authorities fired or tried to prosecute embassy personnel in Beirut for taking bribes that allowed Lebanese nationals to illegally enter Mexico and then the U.S., including one man later convicted in Detroit of supporting the terror group Hezbollah.
Another similar scandal broke out last year in Mexico’s Colombia embassy. Earlier this year, Indian authorities caught Afghans en route to Mexico posing as Mexicans with real passports they allegedly bought from a Mexican Consulate office in Mumbai.
Now, the consulate office in Belize is implicated.
According to their plea agreements, recruiters working in Kenya and other African countries steered customers to Ibrahim, considered the organization’s leader, in Mexico City. After sending thousands of dollars in fees to Ibrahim, travelers would send their passports to Boateng in Belize.
In Belize, according to Boateng’s confession, he would bribe a Mexican Consulate employee to stamp the passports with valid Mexican visas and send them back to the clients in Africa along with plane tickets to Mexico.
Court documents offer no information about who in the consulate office was involved. Mexican authorities did not respond to interview requests.
The travelers would embark on journeys that would stretch to South Africa, then South America, Central America and, finally, Mexico for a land crossing into Texas.
In Mexico, Ibrahim would take over. Charter bus employees on his payroll transported the immigrants in sleeper or luggage compartments to the border. Mexican smugglers would take them across the river.
Afghanis caught with genuine Mexican passports bought in Mumbai
A U.S. Security Vulnerability in Mexico’s Foreign Offices?
The San Antonio Express-News
Three Afghani Muslim men caught posing as Mexican nationals last month while en route to Europe were part of a human smuggling operation and carried what are now believed to be altered but genuine Mexican passports for which they paid $10,000 each from Mexico’s office in Mumbai, Indian investigators told Hearst News.
An ongoing transcontinental investigation, which now involves Mexican and Indian authorities, began Feb. 11 when a suspicious airport customs official in Kuwait noticed the three Afghanis, traveling under Mexican pseudonyms, could not speak Spanish during a layover on their air trip from New Delhi, India to France.
The three Afghani travelers were detained and deported to India, where they remain in custody while Mexican and Indian authorities try to learn about their backgrounds, where they were going and who sold the apparently real government-issue passports. A U.S. source confirmed the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigators also are looking into the matter.
At issue to some U.S. national security experts is whether another of Mexico’s embassies and consulates abroad might be implicated in selling travel documents to people from countries like Afghanistan where terrorist organizations are active, a circumstance that potentially could bring terrorists to American borders. It wouldn’t be the first time a Mexican embassy was implicated in such an affair.
In 2003, a Mexican investigation into a Lebanon-Mexico human smuggling operation produced firings and indictments of Mexican embassy personnel in Beirut for allegedly selling travel documents to Lebanese citizens. One man who bought a Mexican visa for $3,000 turned out to be a ranking Hezbollah operative smuggled over the California border in the trunk of a car. Mahmoud Kourani was convictedin 2004 of supporting the terrorist group from Detroit.
Interdicting U.S.-bound travelers from the Middle East “was our number one concern,” said recently retired FBI Assistant Legal Attaché James Conway, who for four years after 9-11 oversaw the bureau’s counterterrorism programs in Mexico City. “That’s the national security concern from our southern flank.”
Travelers from Islamic countries carrying passports that are valid but altered with fake names and photographs are among the most difficult to detect, he said. In the black markets of human smuggling, real national passports with embedded security bar codes rank among the most valuable travel documents because they enable their bearers to more easily slip through airport inspections.
“If you’ve got a Mexican passport you’ve already crossed the bridge,” Conway said. “And you can become part of the flood of people who cross into the U.S. If terrorists wanted to exploit the infrastructure in place, they can. It’s there.”
Terrorists or refugees
V.G. Babu, superintendent of immigration police at Cochin International Airport, told the Express-News in a telephone interview the passports were genuine government-manufactured passports and that the three men admitted to buying them for $10,000 each in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, which hosts a Mexican consulate office.
Babu said the three men initially tried to convince Indian authorities that they were Mexicans. But the story quickly fell apart when two of the three couldn’t prove they spoke Spanish, he said.
“We broke them,” because of the language issue, he said, and handed the men over to federal Indian police for further investigation.
Investigators learned that a third Afghan who did speak some Spanish had more than casual dealings with the Mexican embassy personnel in New Delhi and was known to speak several languages, according to one Indian news report.
Babu said he could offer no further details. Mexican foreign service officials would only confirm that a multi-ministry investigation was underway.
The Mexican Embassy in New Delhi declined to comment on the case. However, a Feb. 16 Newindypress.com report cited New Delhi-based Ambassador Rogerlio Granguillhome as confirming to Indian authorities that the passports were likely real and asking that the documents be handed over so they can be traced to their origins at an embassy or consulate office.
Ricardo Alday, a spokesman for Mexico’s embassy in Washington D.C., also would not answer questions specific to the investigation. But he did say his government “has applied strong measures and invested considerable resources to continuously improve the security of its travel documents.”
“Mexico is a committed partner with the U.S. in ensuring … our borders are not used to threaten or undermine our common security,” Alday said in an email.
Whether the Afghanis are connected to terrorist organizations battling with American troops in Afghanistan and how they obtained the passports remain unknown as the obscure investigation unfolds.
But Afghanistan is one of 43 predominantly Islamic nations listed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as “countries of special interest” because Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups operate in them.
Many Afghans caught crossing the U.S. southern border in recent years have been determined to be economic immigrants, not terrorists, but many others are presumed to have crossed and not been caught. Between 2002 and 2006, the U.S. border patrol caught about 63 Afghanis crossing the borders, according to agency capture data.
Conway, the former FBI legal attaché to Mexico, said that during his tour the FBI got many “hits” running the names of captured immigrants from those countries through terror watch list databases. He declined to elaborate, citing national security rules against disclosure, and it remains unknown what was learned of those individuals.
The weak link
The India case highlights concern felt among homeland security officials since 9-11 about a continuing stream of immigrants from countries of interest who illegally cross U.S. borders every year using Latin American travel documents, often provided by paid human smugglers.
The chief concern, according to current and former FBI and ICE agents familiar with the issue, is how well Latin American countries police the supplies of travel documents emanating from their embassies and consulates in Islamic countries.
According to federal court records from prosecutions of Middle Eastern smugglers, thousands of Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese and citizens of many other Islamic countries have been able to travel illegally to Latin American countries, then over U.S. borders. They were often able to do so by using real travel documents originating from embassy offices of Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia and Peru.
Conway said the ability to obtain real passports from any of those countries represents a high danger.
“If you’ve got diplomatic establishments, like in Beirut, handing out passports, there’s little you can do,” he said. “They come to Mexico, dress like Mexican businessmen and you think they’re going to pop up on our radar screen? Absolutely not. They’re going to walk on through.”
In recent years, U.S. authorities have sought to make Central- and South American countries more aware of the security threat presented by their consulate offices and embassies. But some of those countries, such as Venezuela and Guatemala, have proven less than responsive when asked to tighten controls on foreign service personnel stationed abroad.
Among countries south of the U.S., Mexico has proven to be among the most cooperative, Conway and other federal agents who have worked counterterrorism programs there have said. Mexico has collaborated extensively with American agencies to interdict travelers from countries of interest, going so far as to allow American agents to interrogate captured detainees inside Mexican facilities.
As part of those efforts, the Mexican government has taken some steps to fortify confidence in its embassy personnel. For instance, after an investigation in 2003 Mexico purged its Beirut embassy of personnel thought to have been supplying travel documents to a Lebanese human smuggling operation run by Salim Boughader, a Lebanese-Mexican.
Then, after U.S. courts were through convicting Boughader of smuggling hundreds of Lebanese into Mexico for journeys over the U.S. border, Mexico prosecuted and convicted him.
Mexico also has intensified a program of vetting its consuls and actively monitoring the activities of staff elsewhere. Last year, the Express-News reported that Iraqis and other citizens of the region had offered hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to Mexico’s honorary consul to Jordan, for travel visas that would get them to Mexico and then the U.S.
Raouf N. El-Far, a Jordanian businessman who was appointed Mexico’s honorary consul to Jordan in 2004, said he refused all offers. He also said he underwent an intensive intelligence background check before his appointment, part of a new program at the time.
Still, word that three Afghans caught using passports to pose as traveling Mexican nationals struck counter-terrorism expert Steven Emerson as lucky – and alarming.
“If these three Afghanis figured out how to infiltrate under false Mexican identifies, you can be sure that Islamic terrorists have done the same,” said Emerson, who runs the Washington D.C.-based Investigative Project on Terrorism.
“This needs to be investigated by Congress and the FBI.”
Express-News reporter Sean Mattson in Mexico contributed to this report
How Mideast Smugglers Get Their Clients Real Passports and Visas
By Todd Bensman December 23, 2015
In March 2008, an airport customs inspection officer in Kuwait stopped three Mexican passport holders transiting to France, en route home from a visit to India. The customs officer in Kuwait City didn’t like the feel of it. He asked them to speak some Spanish for him. Only one of the three could. The travelers were not Mexicans at all, of course.
They were Afghan nationals posing as Mexicans, who most likely were being smuggled to the United States border through Mexico. What was especially curious about the case, though, was that the Mexican passports they had presented in Kuwait were authentic, bar-coded identity documents.
The ensuing international investigation soon found that the Afghanis had obtained these real passports from a source so obscure that almost anyone would have missed its broader significance: the passports came from Mexico’s consulate office in Mumbai. The travelers had paid $10,000 for each passport to a corrupt Mexican consulate official in the huge city.
Acquisition of such travel identity documents from the diplomatic missions of Mexico — and those of many other Latin American nations in the spawning grounds of Islamic terrorism — is no anomaly. The use of official Latin American passports and visas is deeply embroidered into the business models of many “special interest alien” smuggling organizations that make terrorist travel to America’s land border possible.
Last week, I identified the SIA smugglers as the primary strategic national security target for any serious American homeland security effort to reduce the threat of terrorist border infiltration. SIA smugglers provide the continuous long-distance bridge for migrants from some 35 nations in the Middle East (such as Syria and Iraq), South Asia (Pakistan and Afghanistan), and North Africa (Somalia, Yemen, and Sudan) who routinely make their way to and over the U.S.-Mexico land border.
The value to SIA smugglers of Mexican consulate offices in places like Mumbai might not seem obvious to anyone with limited information on this migration phenomenon and homeland security problem. The research I published for my Naval Postgraduate School thesis this year, based on a systematic qualitative analysis of 19 American prosecutions, identified the consulates as a key attackable “fail point” in the smuggling networks. Migration from the 35 countries is expensive, time-consuming, and dangerous; the research demonstrated that SIA smugglers always look for paths of least resistance.
Regardless of their starting points, all SIA migrants eventually end up converging somewhere in the Western Hemisphere and then start trekking north toward the U.S. border. Most of them arrive in South America, particularly in Ecuador and Brazil, and then start the northward slog through the nations of Central America and Mexico until they can reach Texas, California, or Arizona. A typical trip from, say, Ecuador, will involve transit by plane, bus, car, boat, and foot through Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Mexico. This arduous trip comes with the extra costs of bribes, transportation, lodging, and food, not to mention the hassle and time of occasional arrests along the way.
But a Mexican passport can enable a smuggler to bypass all of that trouble and expense by flying directly into Mexico City, Tijuana, or Reynosa. That increases the value of Mexican passports or visas, as well as the value of such documents further south, such as Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Cuba. It’s no wonder that Mexico’s foreign stations came up more often than any other country.
It’s hard to say how widespread the problem of visa issuance and corruption is among all 30 nations of South and Central America and the various island territories of the Caribbean. Many of these nations maintain embassies and diplomatic stations in countries where Islamic terrorists reside.
But my research deep into the court files of SIA smuggling prosecutions, supplemented by seemingly disconnected media reports such as the one about the Afghans caught in Kuwait, showed that SIA smugglers have acquired crucial visas and passports from Mexico’s consulate offices in Lebanon and Turkey, from Belize’s diplomatic mission in Singapore, from Guatemala’s consulate in Jordan, from Cuba’s embassies in Syria and Kenya, and from Venezuela’s embassy in Damascus. Other implicated country consulates included those of Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and Trinidad and Tobago.
In some instances, consul workers or diplomats were corrupted to provide the documents. In others, they were fooled. And sometimes, national policy simply allowed the issuance of visas with no security vetting or questions asked.
A small sampling of cases demonstrates how the process works, and also how far-flung were the dots that needed to be connected.
For instance, the Guyanese smuggler Annita Devi Gerald, who worked with co-conspirator Dhanraj Samuel of Trinidad and Tobago, moved hundreds of Indians and South Asians from Singapore to Houston. To enable this travel, they provided fraudulent Belize business visas obtained from Belize’s consulate office in Singapore, then Mexican visas to ease domestic air travel within Mexico as part of $20,000 package deals.
The Iranian smuggler Mohammad Hussein Assadi was able to secure hundreds of Bolivian visas from Bolivia’s embassy in Beijing as part of a smuggling operation that also transported plenty of Middle Easterners. The Boateng smuggling network, in which two Guyana nationals moved hundreds of Somalis and Eritreans to the U.S. border through Belize and Mexico until their 2010 arrests, relied on corrupt personnel in both Belize and Mexican consulate offices providing fraudulent visas.
In too many instances, suspected terrorists benefited from the business model. The Tijuana-based Lebanese smuggler Salim Boughader-Mucharrafille bribed employees of Mexico’s Beirut embassy to provide hundreds of visas to his California-bound clients. These included a number of Hezbollah agents, among them a ranking terrorist smuggled into California and later convicted on terrorism charges. A Mexican investigation turned up evidence that Mexican visas and passports also were being sold out of other unspecified Mexican consulate offices, including the one in Cuba.
The American smuggling facilitator Anthony Joseph Tracy, who had moved to Nairobi, Kenya, and consorted with members of al-Shabaab, was able to provide hundreds of Cuban visas to Somalis in Kenya by bribing two employees of the Cuban embassy in Nairobi, identified in court records as “Consuela” and “Helen.” American authorities later learned he had moved dozens of potential terrorists into the U.S., setting off a widespread manhunt that received almost no media coverage.
The Brazil-based Somali smuggler Ahmad Dhakane, who was himself apprehended crossing the Texas border, explained to an FBI informant in the detention center that he obtained six-month Brazilian missionary visas and 90-day Mexican visas via the sponsorship of a Nairobi, Kenya church. As a bonus, Dhakane explained that his missionary visas also enabled clients to obtain free traveler’s health insurance. Dhakane also boasted that he was a major-league terrorist himself, and that he had transported at least a half-dozen Islamic extremists into the U.S., also setting off a widespread manhunt that received scant local media attention.
Clearly, the question of how to attack this fail point in the SIA smuggling chain is not going to keep our Latin American allies up at night, since ISIS and other Islamic terrorist groups see the American homeland as the far more desirable target. But now that the security gap of Latin American consulate offices is identified and documented, American homeland security authorities should sleep less soundly.
Mexico’s Foreign Embassies: A Terror Threat to America?
Former Dearborn, Michigan, resident Mahmoud Youssef Kourani was a secret Hezbollah agent sent to infiltrate America in February 2001. He stole over the Mexican border into California with a skill set that court records would later describe as “specialized training in radical Shiite fundamentalism, weaponry, spy craft, and counterintelligence,” picked up in Lebanon and Iran.
Kourani got caught in 2004 and thrown in federal prison for raising money and recruits for Hezbollah, which pioneered the modern art of suicide truck bombing by blowing up American Marines in Beirut.
But the enduring significance of Kourani isn’t that Hezbollah was able to implant the likes of him on American soil. It’s how it was done that reveals an insufficiently known national security danger for the U.S. that emanates to this day from a most unexpected source: Mexico’s foreign service embassies, consulate offices, and “honorary” appointed consuls across the Muslim world.
How was a Lebanese national whose brother was known to be “Hezbollah’s chief of military security for southern Lebanon” able to get within striking distance of California?
According to court records and interviews with knowledgeable sources, a $3,000 bribe was paid for Kourani’s travel documents to a corrupt official of Mexico’s Beirut consulate office. He just flew over, then on February 4, 2001, sneaked into California with help from a smuggling ring that had moved hundreds of Lebanese nationals already.
In this one instance at least, the discovery of the smuggling ring and bribery scheme prompted Mexico to quietly purge and prosecute several of its Beirut workers a few years ago. But I have found that Mexican consulates in other sensitive parts of the world, where anti-American Islamic terror groups thrive, are still open for the same kind of business.
Take the Mexican embassy in Mumbai, India. In all the ink expended about the devastating terror attacks there, none was shed for the fact that only months earlier, three Afghan Muslim travelers were caught posing as Mexicans and carrying genuine Mexican passports on their way out of the region.
The trio was switching flights in Kuwait using Mexican pseudonyms and flashing valid Mexican passports, on their way to France and beyond, when an alert customs officer noticed they couldn’t speak Spanish. Subsequent investigation in India showed the passports were purchased for $10,000 each from a corrupt worker in the Mumbai- based Mexican consul office. Were these men terrorists? The answer isn’t public.
Recently retired FBI Assistant Legal Attaché James Conway spent four years after 9/11 overseeing the bureau’s counterterrorism programs in Mexico City. He told me that interdicting U.S.-bound travelers from Muslim nations in South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa “was our number one concern” because any of them might be a terrorist headed for the U.S. frontier. Mexico-bound travelers from Islamic countries, armed with valid passports bearing security bar codes, are among the most difficult to detect, he explained, because they enable their bearers to easily slip airport inspections.
Conway said that during his post-9/11 Mexico tour the FBI got many “hits” running the names of captured U.S.-bound immigrants from those countries through terror watch list databases. He couldn’t elaborate. But in his last job, Conway learned why gaining entry to Mexico is such a golden ticket. “If you’ve got a Mexican passport, you can become part of the flood of people who cross into the U.S,” he said. “If terrorists wanted to exploit that infrastructure, they can. It’s there.”
The problem of Mexico’s corruptible foreign service was not lost on the Bush administration, which practically obsessed over plugging the obscure nooks and crannies of national security. In deference to American security concerns since 9/11, the Mexican government — at least officially — has severely restricted visas to travelers from the Arab world. Mexico certainly does have legitimate reason to field embassy offices abroad, what with oil and varied business interests.
Ricardo Alday, a spokesman for Mexico’s embassy in Washington, D.C., insisted that since 9/11 his government, in deference to American concern from the Kourani case and others, “has applied strong measures and invested considerable resources to continuously improve the security of its travel documents” in those foreign offices.
But such assurances rang hollow when an American national security investigation early last year found that corruption in yet another Mexican consulate office — this one in Belize — had enabled at least 100 Africans from terror-watch countries to make their way to Houston, Texas.
That Washington, D.C., investigation targeted a smuggling ring run by two Ghana nationals, Mohammed Kamel Ibrahim of Mexico City and Sampson Lovelace Boateng of Belize City. The two men confessed to ferrying in dozens of U.S.-bound travelers since 2005 from countries like Somalia and Sudan, a state sponsor of terror where radical Islamic groups like al-Qaeda have thrived. The travelers would pay $5,000 each for packages that included the Mexican tourist visas, hotel, and air and ground transport into
If the Bush administration obsessed enough over such scenarios to push Mexico City to clear out its rat’s nests abroad, it’s less than certain whether the new Obama administration will be as attentive.
Raouf N. El-Far of Amman, Jordan, would probably predict trouble from his neck of the woods. When I met El-Far two years ago, he’d been serving as Mexico’s honorary consul in Amman, Jordan, for three years already, in charge of handling travel applications from local Jordanians, Palestinians, and Syrian students and businessmen.
But El-Far was candid enough to tell me that huge bribe offers began coming in on his first day in the position from travelers who know they’d be rejected. One Iraqi had just offered a staggering $100,000 a month if El-Far would grant Mexican tourist visas to Iraqi refugees. El-Far insisted that while very tempted, he never caved “because it’s against my principles.”
El-Far explained that his predecessor had showed no such moral restraint. One has to wonder how El-Far’s successor will respond.