QUITO, Ecuador – Police broke up an international cocaine ring led by a Lebanese restaurant owner suspected of raising money for Hezbollah (search), the Shiite Muslim group the U.S. classifies as a terrorist organization, authorities said.
Ecuadorean authorities on Tuesday declined to elaborate on the smugglers' alleged links to terrorist activities, saying the ties needed to be further investigated.
But the arrest raised the possibility, often cited as a threat by Washington, of cooperation between drug syndicates and terrorist networks. In particular, U.S. defense officials say Hamas (search) and Hezbollah conduct significant fundraising activities in a few areas in South America, including Ecuador (search), with large Islamic populations.
An internal police report obtained by The Associated Press said preliminary evidence "confirms the relationship between this organization and the terrorist movement Hezbollah." The document said the gang sent "up to 70 percent of its profits to the Islamic group."
Authorities detected the operation in September. The group smuggled cocaine principally to Europe and Asia in shipments valued at $1 million each, the report said.
Anti-narcotics police on Tuesday paraded the handcuffed suspects before the press. They included the alleged Lebanese ringleader, Rady Zaiter, and five other male suspects from Lebanon, Syria, Nigeria, Algiers and Turkey, in addition to an Ecuadorean woman.
According to the report, Zaiter "had organized a large narcoterrorist infrastructure," using his Arab food restaurant in northern Quito as a front.
He and Maher Hamajo, the Syrian national who was arrested, allegedly used couriers who hid cocaine in suit cases and ingested it into their stomachs to smuggle the drugs into Europe, Asia and other South American countries.
The group recruited Ecuadorean airport officials to evade security checks, according to the report.
The Ecuadorean investigation led to related arrests of 19 people in Brazil and the United States, the report said.
Although the United States lists Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, the group has strong nationalist credentials in Lebanon after years of fighting Israeli occupation. Hezbollah, which means Party of God, and participated freely in that country's parliamentary elections over the past month.