Thursday, January 29, 2009

Terrorists buying Latin American Passports to enter the US?

Terrorists buying Latin American Passports to enter the US?
By Nicole M. Ferrand.*
Last week, as part of our news stories we posted an article from “The San Antonio Express-News” about three Afghani Muslim men caught carrying stolen Mexican passports with their pictures and data while en route to Europe. It was revealed by authorities that the documents were genuine and that these men had purchased them for U$10,000 each. In light of this information, we at “The Americas Report” decided to investigate whether this modus operandi could be used by people who pose a real threat to U.S. national security and what we found is alarming.

Our Staff has published articles about the presence of Hezbollah in Latin America, especially in Argentina, Venezuela and the Tri – border region (between Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil which intelligence officials usually refer to as “The Muslim Triangle meeting zone.”) We wrote a piece about the Iranian presence in Nicaragua, where they are planning to build a dry canal connecting both coasts. Iran also has a huge embassy in Managua where diplomats enjoy immunity and the full support of President Daniel Ortega.
Our team also wrote an article on Iran Air’s weekly flights between Tehran, Damascus and Caracas where only officials, high ranking intelligence operatives and military personnel from these countries are allowed to travel without needing visas, and where any type of material can be transported. We also published a story about how the Venezuelan government has already issued passports and official documents to members of Hezbollah and Hamas because President Chavez believes in their cause and is a strong supporter of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

With this in mind, there is a real possibility that any of these individuals having access to stolen, doctored passports, and thus to U.S. visas could enter this country with the purpose of carrying out terrorist attacks. In fact, it has already happened: four of the nineteen hijackers from 9/11 carried passports that had been “manipulated in a fraudulent manner.” The Saudi documentation was genuine, and so were the U.S. visas. Investigators believe the hijackers obtained new passports after telling Saudi authorities they had “lost” their old ones, presumably to cover up trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Then, knowing that brand new passports would raise questions, the hijackers artificially aged them and forged entry and exit stamps. When asked, a veteran counterterrorism expert said that “without a microscopic forensic examination, a routine inspector wouldn’t have ascertained that the stamps weren’t valid.”[1]

It now seems that any person wanting to attack this country could use doctored or manipulated passports or could simply travel to Mexico and pay a Coyote to illegally cross the border.

For some time now, experts agree that South America has become a place of preference for terrorists that want to travel to the United States. A case in point is that in 2005, Mr. Minas Mirza of Warren, Michigan along with three others were charged with smuggling people into the U.S. through South America ever since 2001. In guilty pleas, they admitted helping dozens of Iraqis and Jordanians travel to the United States on European passports. In fact, these travel documents had been stolen and then doctored in Lima, Peru and purchased by Mirza there from a “broker.”

A 2007 NBC News investigation uncovered a black market for stolen passports in Latin America.[2] A reporter from this network disguised as a tourist was able to obtain entire new identities and official passports from Peru, Spain and Venezuela and travel throughout the hemisphere without ever raising suspicion.

The journalist had a hidden camera and was able to film “brokers” in the streets of Lima carrying bags full of stolen identities such as birth certificates, driver’s licenses and passports from a variety of countries such as Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Canada, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Britain and Switzerland. European passports sell for much more money since its citizens don’t need visas to enter the United States.

These “brokers” usually charge $500 to $1,000 to forge the documents to the client’s preferences, promising “very high quality.” These “merchants” deal in the open and many have contacts inside some embassies, consulates and local government buildings who can easily obtain any official stamps or signatures needed in the process. It is worth noting that these people will do business with anyone: criminals, drug-dealers and even terrorists. It’s all about money for them. For an even higher price these “vendors” offer to hire “high – end coyotes” that will cross the border from Mexico taking good care of their clients.

These “brokers” offer a variety of “services.” The most common is the one used by people who look like the original passport holders. A more sophisticated scheme is using stolen passports, changing the original picture and meticulously replicating the special security features. An even more complex and expensive method is when an insider in a consulate steals blank official passports from the stock before names or pictures have been added and then sells them to illicit brokers who customize and sell them.

The “dealers” work in stages: first they meet with the potential client to assess their needs and discuss price details. A few days later, half of the money is paid in advance and then this same vendor brings the documents to the client to sign, and provides a fraudulent birth certificate. The only thing the buyer needs to provide in addition to the money is the passport picture, which can be taken nearby. The following week, they have a meeting in a public place where the broker “suggests” a flight itinerary for his client: he would travel with the Spanish passport to Bolivia, Argentina, Mexico and then to New Jersey to attain enough stamps in his new passport to enter the U.S. without raising suspicion. Together they make up a fake story to tell the authorities, if questioned, and come to the conclusion that the journalist in disguise would also need Peruvian documentation because the claim is that he has “double nationality.”

A few days later, the full amount is paid and both passports are delivered in person. To the surprise of the reporter, these passports are real and original. A local then explains that since the buyers usually want proof that they made a good deal, they promptly take the documentation to be verified with the broker at their side. Often, the documents are verified by corrupt officials from the RENIEC, the Peruvian agency in charge of issuing identity documents, who are associates of the “brokers.” Within a few days, the client obtains a real Peruvian identity document with the new name and photo. The dealer explains that it will take a couple of weeks for the issued name to appear in the official database. All is done in plain sight.

To prove his case, the undercover reporter traveled with the new documents to Chile, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela and was amazed to find out that his name was actually in the official Peruvian database. In Caracas, he contacted an “associate” of the “vendor” he met in Lima who also said he could provide a Venezuelan passport claiming it would be a better deal since nationals can travel without visas to Mexico, Spain, Germany and England. He “bought” the new passport and then flew to Mexico. Then he traveled to Tijuana where he is seen walking along the U.S./Mexican border without anyone asking him any questions. He did not try to enter the U.S. with the fake ID’s.

In the tapes, both the Peruvian and Venezuelan brokers can be seen insisting that with more time and money they could get a U.S. visa for their client providing him with a fake but official birth certificate, a passport, an identity document, a fraudulent bank account and a regular paycheck to be submitted to the United States embassy where he would then be granted an interview and then a visa. They claim to have done it before. The journalist refused to do this but had no doubt that the transaction would have been successful.

The bottom Line
It is just a matter of time, if it has not already happened, before a terrorist, is able to get to the United States using a stolen, doctored passport. However, without going to all that trouble, it is now possible to go to Mexico where there is a growing Muslim community and contact an illegal human smuggler and with his help cross the border in to the U.S.

As the threat of terrorism from the Western Hemisphere increases, which is likely because of the nexus between Venezuela, Iran, radical Islamic groups and the drug cartels, it becomes imperative for U.S. agencies responsible for protecting the American public to become more vigilant. It is also the responsibility of Latin American countries to be watchful for members of Al Qaeda or any other Middle Eastern terrorist network traveling throughout the region in order to reach the United States. Therefore the availability of official documentation for sale to the highest bidder is a serious problem and deserves serious attention.

*Nicole M. Ferrand is a research analyst and editor of "The Americas Report" of the Menges Hemispheric Security Project. She is a graduate of Columbia University in Economics and Political Science with a background in Law from Peruvian University, UNIFE and in Corporate Finance from Georgetown University.

[1] 9/11 Hijackers: The Passport Scam. February 9, 2004. Time Magazine.
[2] Information from an Investigative Report: “Enemies at the Gate.” NBC News. December 28, 2007. By Richard Greenberg, Adam Ciralsky, Stone Phillips.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Mexico and the US: A Growing Interdependence.

Mexico and the US: A Growing Interdependence.
By Nicole M. Ferrand.*

United States President-elect, Barack Obama, met this past Monday morning with Mexican President, Felipe Calderón, to discuss issues such as regional security, trade and immigration. The meeting took place at Mexico's Cultural Institute in Washington DC. The leaders reportedly discussed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Canada, Mexico and the United States, border security and immigration.

There has been uneasiness on the part of the Mexican government in regard to the President – elect’s plans for Latin America. During his presidential campaign, Obama said he would renegotiate NAFTA in addition to obtaining more protections for U.S. workers, an issue that has long been on the agenda of American labor unions.

During their meeting, Mr. Obama said his administration will work to strengthen relations between the two nations and praised his Mexican counterpart for deploying troops to fight the drug cartels. In addition, the President–elect said he fully supported he ‘Merida Initiative’ (please see below) and that his administration “is going to be ready on day one” to work to build stronger relations with Mexico.

Following the meeting, spokesman Robert Gibbs said that Mr. Obama pledged to find ways to work with Mexico to reduce drug-related violence and to stop the flow of arms from the U.S. to Mexico. In addition the President-elect intends to upgrade NAFTA with stronger labor and environmental provisions. Obama also said he was committed to working with Congress to fix the “broken U.S. immigration system.”

In light of this visit an update is useful in understanding how the ongoing war the Mexican government is waging against the drug cartels has major significance for the national security of the United States.

To begin with, Mexico is the United States’ 3rd largest trading partner and is the 3rd largest supplier of oil to the U.S. Right now Mexico is facing an economic crisis and a surge in drug related crime that is spiraling out of control.

Since Felipe Calderón became President of Mexico on December 1st 2006, he has decisively waged a full blown war against the dangerous drug cartels. These cartels have ravaged the country for many years threatening to turn it into a narco-terrorist state. As soon as he took office, Mr. Calderón ordered the Mexican Army to deploy as many as 25,000 troops in nine states including Acapulco, Michoacán, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, and Ciudad Juarez, to combat the drug organizations since these Special Forces are much better equipped than the police. Mexican authorities estimate that the army will remain deployed until 2010.

Even though there have been major achievements on the security front, drug cartel-related killings rose by 117% to 5,376 in 2008 as compared to 2007, when there were 2,477 such slayings. To put this in perspective, more people have been killed in drug-related violence last year in Mexico than the United States has lost soldiers in five years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.[1] This information can be discouraging; but to his credit, President Calderón seems determined to continue his pursuit to stop these criminals.

But as things become more difficult for the cartels due to the government’s successes, the narco-traffickers have become desperate and resorted to ever more violent measures in order to continue their operations. Criminals know this is when people start to get nervous and often pressure their leaders to broker a deal. However, Calderón says he will never engage in agreements with these groups. He knows they will push to the limit to instill fear in the public to pressure the administration to grant concessions and also because he understands deals with criminals and terrorists never work.

Many attribute the long history of high criminal activity in Mexico to the country’s soft legal system. There is no death penalty and the maximum prison term is 60 years, which is rarely imposed since judges usually sentence criminals to a maximum of 25 years. There are no jury trials and, although there is no presumption of innocence, only “probable” doubt has to be established.[2]

Previous administrations refused to extradite people since it was considered “cruel and unusual” punishment and worse if the defendant faced capital punishment. Under President Calderón things appear to be changing. In June, 2008 he signed a set of judicial reforms to improve national security. Now the government, because of continuing weaknesses in its judicial and prison systems, is using extradi­tion aggressively as a powerful weapon against the drug cartels. So far 160 criminals have been extradited to the U.S. to stand trial on drug-related charges, including Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, former head of the Gulf Cartel.

The rising crime rate and the gruesome findings of mutilated and beheaded bodies in plain sight have made people angry and scared at the same time. In response, the security situation in Mexico has become the top priority of President Calderón and drug related crime has become a matter of national security.

Drug Cartels
Violence has also escalated due to turf battles between the different groups for territory and control of trade routes. Here is a description of the major cartels operating in Mexico:
The Gulf cartel was the most powerful drug organization more than a year ago but thanks to the government’s efforts it has lost some power. Their paramilitary arm is “Los Zetas,” which now appears to be operating independently.
Los Zetas have become a major participant and operate under Heriberto “El Lazca” Lazcano. The found­ing members of the Zetas are believed to be a small group of police officers who deserted in the late 1990’s. This group uses sophisticated heavy weapons, high level communications, and intelligence collec­tion. They suffered a major backlash in April of 2008 when Daniel “El Cachetes” Perez Rojas, who commanded Zeta operations in Central America, was arrested in Guatemala. Just a few months later, Jaime “El Hummer” Gonzales Duran third in rank of Los Zetas was captured.
The Beltran Leyva family has had a long history in the narcotic business and not long ago it formed part of the Sinaloa federation which controlled the access to the U.S. border in Sonora State. But when Alberto Beltran Leyva was arrested in January 2008, the alliance ended since it was revealed that the arrest happened because of a Sinaloa betrayal. The Beltran Leyva cartel has become very powerful and there are reports that it is capable of smuggling drugs and even assassinating high-ranking government officials such as the killing in May of 2008 of the director of the federal police Edgar Millán Lopez. It is currently in war with the Sinaloa’s for control over Ciudad de Juarez, a major drug stronghold.
The Sinaloa cartel is currently the most capable group in Mexico and its drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is the most wanted man in the country. They manage the drug trafficking from South America to the United States. Right now, the Sinaloa alliance and the Gulf cartel are violently fighting for control of some smuggling routes to the United States.
The Juarez Cartel also known as the Carrillo Fuentes organization operates in Ciudad de Juarez, north of Mexico, and is led by Vicente Carrillo Fuentes since 1997. They are in alliance with the Beltran Leyva organization.
The Tijuana Cartel also known as the Arellano Felix organization has been weakened in the last months due to the actions of the Mexican and US authorities especially after the capture of boss Eduardo “El Doctor” Arellano Felix in October 2008.

Government Successes
Thanks to the reforms in the judicial system and the deployment of the army to combat the narco-traffickers, the balance of power of the Mexican cartels has shifted and their leadership has been relentlessly pursued and diminished. Important leaders of the country’s drug-trafficking organizations have been arrested and extradited. In addition, there have been major seizures of illegal drugs and weapons. Just in July 2008, there was a raid of the largest amphetamine factory ever discovered where authorities seized 8,000 barrels of chemicals to produce this drug. As ‘meth’ has gained popularity in the United States, the Calderón administration has implemented measures to stop its usage and in January 2008, the sale of ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrine used to produce methamphetamine was banned.

The Mexican government has also implemented greater monitoring and control of airplanes entering the country and as a result, shipments of cocaine from Colombia decreased more than 90% and maritime drug trafficking has also decreased more than 60%.

As the cartels find it increasingly difficult to smuggle the same amount of drugs as before, many groups are now engaging in other criminal activities to supplement their income. These activities include; kidnappings, extortion, human trafficking and transporting illegal immigrants to the U.S.

Even as the Mexican government has achieved these successes, the violence in Mexico continues to be horrific and criminals are relentlessly attacking security forces and assassinating high ranking government officials. What has Mexicans baffled is the beheadings that are taking place in their country which shows a level of viciousness never seen before as local criminals are using the same methods used by Islamic militants to terrify people and discourage the police and the army from pursuing them.

In addition, human trafficking from Mexico to the United States poses an immense danger to this country since common criminals and even terrorists can enter U.S. territory paying just a couple thousand dollars to the infamous ‘coyotes.’

Centers of Operation
Ninety percent of the narcotics coming into the United States now transits through Mexico since the U.S. is still the primary destination for drugs produced in Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. Most of the financing for the Mexican traffickers comes from American drug consumers. U.S. law enforcement officials estimate that between $15 to $25 billion from U.S. drug sales go back to the cartels each year in illegal cash and weapons.

But as the Mexican cartels face new obstacles from law enforcement, local drug lords are now positioning themselves more strongly in Central America as shipments via land have become their primary choice of drug distribution. In addition, Mexican groups are now operating directly in South America to satisfy demand there as well as transporting drugs directly to Europe. In essence, the Mexican criminal organizations have become the most powerful drug handlers in the entire Western Hemisphere. Not only that; they are the most feared arms dealers, illegal money launderers and human traffickers today.

The Merida Initiative
“The Americas Report” wrote an article on the “Merida Initiative” (see The Americas Report December 6, 2007 titled: ‘Merida Initiative NOT Plan Mexico’ by Nicole M. Ferrand) explaining that ‘critics of the initiative insist on calling the Merida Initiative “Plan Mexico” in allusion to Plan Colombia erroneously reporting that these two are the same. In reality it was never intended to be ‘Plan Mexico’ since it was conceived during conversations between Presidents Bush and Calderón in Merida, Mexico with the understanding that it was a broader security cooperation package involving the United States, Mexico and Central America. The initiative was announced on October 22, 2007 and signed into law on June 30, 2008.

The aim of this initiative is to combat drug trafficking, transnational crime and money laundering. United States assistance includes training, equipment and intelligence. The U.S. Congress authorized $1.6 billion for the three-year Merida program. On July 10, 2008 in order to silence critics that accused the Mexican government of committing abuses, Calderon announced plans to nearly double the size of its Federal Preventive Police force in order to reduce the role of the military in combating drug trafficking. The plan, known as the Comprehensive Strategy against Drug Trafficking, also involves purging police forces of corrupt officers.[3] In August 2008, Mexico announced that two states, Chihuahua and Nuevo León, were pioneering public trials, in which the state must prove its case. Before, the accused bore the burden of proof, and trials were secret. Mexico's president hopes this will bring transparency and accountability to the legal process. The government also wants to end a tradition of corruption, shady investigations, coerced testimony and an extremely low conviction rate.

In December 2008, the US released $197 million to Mexico. Most of this aid was destined to buy helicopters and other equipment to fight the drug cartels. As of this year, the US released another $99 million which was directed to buy aircraft and inspection equipment for the Mexican military. The US has released $300 million of the $400 million appropriated for Mexico for the first year (2008) for military and law enforcement training and equipment, as well as technical advice and training to strengthen the national justice systems. Only about $204 million of that, however, will be used by the military for the purchase of eight used transport helicopters and two small surveillance aircraft. No weapons are included in the plan.[4]

The bottom line
President Calderón correctly said after his meeting with Mr. Obama: “the more secure Mexico is, the more secure the U.S. will be” adding that both nations need to work together to fight organized crime “and combine the capabilities of our governments in order to preserve the security of our people on both sides of the border”.

*Nicole M. Ferrand is a research analyst and editor of “The Americas Report” of the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, DC. ( She is a graduate of Columbia University in Economics and Political Science with a background in Law from Peruvian University, UNIFE and in Corporate Finance from Georgetown University.

[1] As Mexico Reels from Violence, Views on Crime and Punishment Harden. December 10, 2008. New America Media.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Mexico Plan Adds Police To Take On Drug Cartels. July 11, 2008. The Washington Post.
[4] Bush pushes Mexico money in Iraq bill. May 8, 2008. Politico.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Getting it right about the Chavez – Iranian Connection.

Getting it right about the Chavez – Iranian Connection.
By Luis Fleischman.*

On December 21st, the Italian daily “La Stampa” published a story that seems to confirm something we at the Menges Hemispheric Security Project have been warning about for some time: the real meaning of the Chavez-Iranian alliance.

According to “La Stampa”, the regular flights between Caracas, Damascus and Tehran constitute a device for Venezuela to help Iran send Syria material for the manufacturing of missiles. That is part of an agreement of military cooperation signed between Syria and Iran in 2006. According to “La Stampa” the materials are destined for the “Revolutionary Guards”, the main force protecting the Iranian regime. In exchange for those materials Iran provided Venezuela with members of their revolutionary guards and their elite unit, “Al Quds”, to strengthen Venezuela’s secret services and police.

“La Stampa’s report is not surprising to those of us who have been involved in monitoring Hugo Chavez’s activities for the past several years.
In testimony before Congress on March 5, 2008, the Menges Hemispheric Security Project team pointed out that;

“Iran Air has weekly direct flights between Caracas, Damascus and Tehran. There are no large numbers of passengers that justify weekly travels between theses countries. Therefore, it is reasonable to speculate that these flights transport material which could be highly problematic. Nothing is evident but everything is possible. Even while the crisis in the Middle East continues it is crucial for American decision makers to think about strategies to contain the Iranian influence in our hemisphere as well as Hugo Chavez, himself”.

In the same testimony we said that the connection between Chavez, radical Islam and Iran may well be related to the mindset of the Venezuelan president to exercise a reign of terror, violence and totalitarian rule by using the oppressive methods of the Islamic Republic. We added that these radical groups could be used to develop Venezuela’s philosophy of asymmetric war in case of a US or other enemy attack on Venezuela. These tactics propose a style of fighting that is determined and suicidal, and considered to be useful in confronting a more powerful enemy, like the U.S. However, radical Islamist tactics might also serve to impose totalitarian rule first in Venezuela and then in other countries willing to join the Chavez coalition.

At the end of October 2008, the CSP Menges Hemispheric Security Project organized a briefing for Congressional staffers working on the Western Hemisphere. Among the many important topics discussed at the briefing was the issue of Iranian partnerships with dubious local businessmen in factories located in sensitive areas with access to strategic routes. One of the speakers at the conference talked about those partnerships as possibly including connections between drug trafficking networks that control sensitive strategic areas and Iran. In fact, Iran has established a financial and business infrastructure with Chavez’s consent and encouragement that now includes banks, gold mining, a cement plant, a tractor and bicycle factory, a tuna processing plant and a joint oil venture. This is all very interesting in light of an incident recently reported by several well known Turkish newspapers.[1]

They reported that on December 30th, twenty two containers were confiscated from an Iranian cargo ship bound for Venezuela. The ship was stopped by Turkish authorities in the port of Mersin near the Syrian border. Iranian authorities stated that the content of these containers were tractor parts bound for their factory in Venezuela’s Bolivar state. When the Turkish authorities inspected the shipment, they did not find tractor parts but components to build weapons, bombs and possibly some radioactive material (this material is still under investigation).

It is also known that Chavez has for some time provided Venezuelan territories and airports to drug traffickers, a fact often disregarded by State Department officials. Now, there are businesses that look like regular business and factories such as tuna and tractor factories that look like regular factories, all of them located in sensitive areas near the Orinoco River (an important connection between Colombia and Venezuela) in Venezuela with access to the Caribbean and to the Atlantic Ocean. These factories serve drug operations and involve partnerships with Iranian elements. As such they provide Iran with access to areas such as Panama and drug-trafficking routes that are most likely used to transport drugs overseas and to provide weapons to the FARC and other terrorists.

In addition, Iran signed an agreement with Venezuela and Nicaragua to jointly build a $350 million deep water port at Monkey Point, on the east coast of Nicaragua. This location is near Colombia, Venezuela, and Cuba. Cuba, as we know, is not that far away from the U.S.-Texas-Mexican border, which is another bastion of wild drug-trafficking and now potential terrorism.

Other elements of cooperation between Venezuela and Iran involve operations between an Iranian bank inside Venezuela called el Banco Internacional de Desarollo and a Venezuelan affiliate as well as many other Venezuelan banks including BANESCO that also owns banks in Panama and Florida. This money could be helping Iran, drug traffickers and other dubious groups not only in its operations in Latin America but constitute a very good device to avoid the international sanctions Iran currently faces. In addition, it has been suggested by some analysts that the money Iran generates from its Venezuelan “businesses” is used to finance Hamas and Hezbollah.

Thus, the transport of weapons to Iran with the help of direct “commercial flights” from Venezuela is part of the assistance that Venezuela provides and which is motivated by cooperation between the two countries. As we have repeatedly said, this is not merely a marriage of convenience. It involves a strong ideological affinity. As Japan, Italy and Germany were natural allies during WWII; Chavez’s Venezuela is part of an axis with Iran which is joined by Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador. A case in point is Chavez’s recent expulsion of the Israeli Ambassador from Venezuela and his very strong endorsement of Hamas.

To conclude, the report published in “La Stampa” about the flights confirms evidence of a situation imagined beforehand. Such imagination is not the result of the wilderness of the mind but the outcome of systematically following the discourse, ideology and development of Chavez’s regime and behavior. Therefore all the evidence we have so far plus the knowledge gathered as a result of years of study and observation of the ways Chavez operates is enough to raise a red flag that US intelligence and security agencies cannot afford to disregard.

*Dr. Luis Fleischman is a senior advisor to the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the Center for Security Policy in Washington DC. He is also an adjunct professor of Political Science and Sociology at Wilkes Honor College at Florida Atlantic University.

[1] Turkey confiscates 22 containers en route from Iran to Venezuela. December 30, 2008. Gundem, Turkey.