A Lebanese national who U.S. authorities say is the ringleader of a vast international drug smuggling ring with links to the militant group Hezbollah has been indicted on drug and money laundering charges after allegedly reaping more than $850 million in illicit profits.
The indictment was announced Tuesday in federal court in Alexandria against Ayman Joumaa, who is currently at large. It alleges that he led a conspiracy that, among other activities, sold nearly 100 tons of Colombian cocaine to the Zetas drug cartel in Mexico between 2005 and 2007 that was ultimately smuggled into the United States. The conspiracy has run since at least 2004 and at times brought in as much as $200 million in a single month, according to court documents.
Earlier this year, the Treasury Department designated Joumaa as a drug trafficker and said Hezbollah profited from his network.
Specifically, Treasury accused a major Lebanese bank, the Lebanese Canadian Bank, of being complicit in Joumaa's money laundering and turning a blind eye to massive cash transactions. One of the members of Joumaa's network is a suspected Hezbollah supporter, and bank managers had links to Hezbollah officials, according to the Treasury Department's findings.
The criminal indictment itself makes no mention of links between Joumaa, 47, and Hezbollah, which the U.S. government has designated as a terrorist group since 1997.
The court documents show that Joumaa's network has played a major role in the global drug trade for years, helping Colombian producers get their product into the hands of cartels in Central America and Mexico, and from there into the U.S.
"Money fuels the drug trade, and Mr. Joumaa is alleged to be at the center of it all _ working with those producing the vast majority of the world's cocaine to get their drugs safely into the hands of Mexican cartels," said Neil MacBride, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, whose office is prosecuting the case. "Organized crime networks know no borders, and neither can U.S. law enforcement."
The Drug Enforcement Administration led the investigation.
The Lebanese Canadian Bank was sold to an affiliate of France's Societe Generale in March to restore confidence after those accusations triggered concerns in Lebanon that the U.S. would begin targeting Lebanon's banking sector as a way to exert pressure against Hezbollah. Attempts to contact the bank for comment were unsuccessful after working hours Tuesday.
Lebanon is a major financial hub for the Middle East and its banks, like those in Switzerland, have a reputation for secrecy.
The indictment seeks the forfeiture of at least $850 million, the amount that Joumaa allegedly obtained over the course of the conspiracy, according to the grand jury.
Peter Carr, a spokesman for MacBride's office, said Tuesday that Joumaa is at large. Law enforcement officials believe he is Lebanon; it is unclear whether U.S. officials would be able to obtain his extradition.
It is the second time in recent months that federal prosecutors in Alexandria have announced charges against major international drug trafficking rings.
In July, authorities announced they had taken down a major drug ring that was smuggling drugs from Ghana through Dulles International Airport near Washington. Most of those charged in that ring, including the ringleader, were eventually extradited to the U.S. and are facing trial.
AP reporter Zeina Karam contributed to this report from Beirut.