Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Bloody Trail Connecting Bogotá to Beirut?

Beirut, Lebanon. Allegedly, Colombian cocaine money flows thru here. 
'Outlaw it and outlaws will profit from it.' That oft-proven rule is why yesterday's New York Times story about the Lebanese organization Hezbollah profiting from Colombian cocaine is no surprise.

Money launderer?
Photo: Page Lebanon
After all, in recent years Colombian traffickers have smuggled lots of their product into Europe via Africa. And you can bet that multinational consumer giants like Cargill aren't doing the shipping. That's why the illegal drug trade seems like a logical revenue opportunity for outlawed groups like Hezbollah, which is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.

Washington recently blacklisted and shut down the Lebanese-Canadian Bank for allegedly hosting accounts used by Hezbollah money launderers. But this Lebanese blogger points out that several of Lebanon's much larger and notoriously secretive banks are also suspected of money laundering.

So, it's likely that the closing of this single bank affects only a sliver of the region's money laundering - and the Times article even reports that many suspicious accounts were simply transferred to other banks.

Decriminalizing drugs would deprive Hezbollah of much of its cocaine income. (But Washington should also recognize that it needs to engage Hezbollah, not demonize it. Hezbollah is a state-within-a-state, with its own army and health services and a big role in Lebanon's government. Hezbollah  clearly plays an important role in Lebanese society, and it won't go away anytime soon.)

Hunting down dirty money. 
I saw aspects of Hezbollah's South American connection 2002, when I interviewed Lebanese businessmen in Paraguay's Ciudad del Este, a border city infamous for smuggling of drugs, weapons and people. Many of the Lebanese traders there expressed support for Hezbollah and told me that they sent money to the organization - altho only to support its charitable works, of course. A few years after my visit, one of the men I'd inteviewed on the Brazilian side was arrested on terrorism financing charges. The story I was working on was hooked to suspicions that the 9-11 Al Qaeda attacks in New York might have been planned in the region - but no evidence for that ever appeared.

Yesterday's New York Times story also reported that Hezbollah is in the African diamond smuggling business. Diamonds are great for smuggling, because they're so small, valuable and difficult to trace. Slip a few dozen diamonds into a toothpaste tube and you've got thousands of dollars hidden in your bathroom kit. Many African diamonds are known as 'blood diamonds' because their sale finances civil wars and insurgencies.

Certifiied diamonds and emeralds for sale in central Bogota. 
Here in Bogotá, I've met many traders in emeralds, one of Colombia's most characteristic exports. But stores here also sell diamonds - altho no diamonds are mined in Colombia. Dealers tell me that most diamonds are smuggled into Colombia, probably from Africa. While diamonds are legal, many African diamonds are not, because they finance violence. On the other hand, cocaine, because it's always illegal, is by nature 'blood cocaine.'

Paid for by cocaine and diamonds? An African child soldier.
It seems inevitable that, when you've got two black market products heading in different directions, they'll be exchanged for each other. So, Colombian cocaine, which finances so much violence here, appears to also finance violence in Africa.

Decriminalizing drugs would reduce violence in Latin America and in Africa as well.

Some might say there's a contradiction here, since diamonds, a legal product, also finance violence. But only a small proportion of the world's diamonds finance violence, while the great majority of cocaine does.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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