Published July 03, 2005
TIJUANA, Mexico – A restaurateur in this border city ran another business smuggling Lebanese compatriots into the United States, some with connections to Hezbollah (search). A Sept. 11 commission staff report called him the only "human smuggler with suspected links to terrorists" convicted in the United States. But he is not unique, according to an Associated Press investigation based on government and court records and scores of interviews.
Many smuggling pipelines through Latin America and Canada have illegally channeled thousands of people from countries identified by the U.S. government as sponsors or supporters of terrorism.
The men flocked to the cafe under the sign with the cedar tree, symbol of their Mideast home. Here, in this alien border land, it was the beacon that led to an Arab "brother" who would help them complete their journey from Lebanon (search) into America.
They would come, sometimes dozens a month over a three-year period, to find Salim Boughader Mucharrafille (search) — the cafe owner who drove a Mercedes and catered to some of Tijuana's more affluent denizens, including workers at the U.S. consulate only a short stroll away. His American customers were unaware that the savvy boss of La Libanesa cafe ran a less reputable business on the side.
Until his arrest in December 2002, Boughader smuggled about 200 Lebanese compatriots into the United States, including sympathizers of Hezbollah, designated a terrorist organization by U.S. authorities. One client, Boughader said, worked for a Hezbollah-owned television network, which glorifies suicide bombers and is itself on an American terror watch list.
"If they had the cedar on their passport, you were going to help them. That's what my father taught me," Boughader told The Associated Press from a Mexico City prison, where he faces charges following a human-smuggling conviction in the United States.
"What I did was help a lot of young people who wanted to work for a better future. What's the crime in bringing your brother so that he can get out of a war zone?"
A report released by the Sept. 11 commission staff last year examining how terrorists travel the world cited Boughader as the only "human smuggler with suspected links to terrorists" convicted to date in the United States.
But after Boughader was locked up, other smugglers operating in Lebanon, Mexico and the United States continued to help Hezbollah-affiliated migrants in their effort to illicitly enter from Tijuana, a U.S. immigration investigator said in Mexican court documents obtained by the AP.
Another smuggling network that is controlled by Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebel group — a U.S.-designated terror organization — tried sneaking four Tigers over the California-Mexico border en route to Canada not long after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigator Steven Schultz said. The four were caught along with 17 other Sri Lankans, all posing as Mexicans, attempting to enter ports at San Ysidro and Otay Mesa.
An AP investigation found these are just some of the many pipelines in Central and South America, Mexico and Canada that have illegally channeled thousands of people into the United States from so-called "special-interest" countries — those identified by the U.S. government as sponsors or supporters of terrorism.
Even when caught, illegal immigrants from those countries and other nations are sometimes released while awaiting deportation hearings, then miss those court dates, according to the AP's investigation, which also documented deep concerns about security threats along the lightly patrolled, 4,000-mile U.S.-Canada border.
The AP reviewed hundreds of pages of court indictments, affidavits, congressional testimony and government reports, and conducted dozens of interviews in Mexico and the United States to determine how migrants from countries with terrorist ties were brought illegally to America — and how the smugglers they hired operated throughout the world.
Many of the travelers, unassociated with any extremist group, genuinely came fleeing war or in search of economic opportunity. But some, once in the United States, committed fraud to obtain Social Security numbers, driver's licenses or false immigration documents, U.S. court records showed.
Worse, the boldness of the smuggling enterprises, the difficulty of shutting them down and their potential to be used as terrorist conduits trouble many security officials.
Lebanese carpenter Mahmoud Youssef Kourani, smuggled in over the California border, admitted spending part of his time in the United States raising money to send back to his country to support Hezbollah — at least $40,000, according to an FBI affidavit. Kourani, court records said, told the FBI that his brother is the group's chief of military security in southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah is widely admired as a resistance force.
U.S. homeland security officials maintain they know of no cases of Al Qaeda operatives using smuggling operations to enter the United States via traditional routes over the northern or southern boundaries, though they have warned that recent intelligence suggests the terror group is eyeing the borders as a way in.
At least one Al Qaeda-linked man smuggled himself over the border. Nabil al-Marabh, a now-deported Syrian citizen once No. 27 on the FBI's list of terror suspects and accused by Canadian authorities of having connections to Usama bin Laden's network, was caught sneaking from Canada into New York in the back of a tractor-trailer in June 2001 with a fake Canadian passport.
"Several Al Qaeda leaders believe operatives can pay their way into the country through Mexico and also believe illegal entry is more advantageous than legal entry," Jim Loy, deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, told a congressional committee in February. Further, he said, "entrenched human smuggling networks and corruption in areas beyond our borders can be exploited by terrorist organizations."
The Boughader case and others show just how easy it would be — even now, nearly four years after Sept. 11.
Just weeks ago, a federal grand jury in Phoenix indicted an Iranian tailor on charges of attempting to bring illegal immigrants from his native country over the Arizona-Mexico border.
"Today they could be smuggling people, tomorrow weapons," said John Torres, deputy assistant director for smuggling and public safety investigations at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. "The vulnerability there is a criminal or terrorist organization could take advantage of that existing infrastructure."
What the records reveal is a labyrinth of networks, which use established routes frequented for years by migrants of many nationalities.
Smugglers employ recruiters and facilitators in such "special-interest" countries as Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan. One immigrant, in testimony against a now-convicted smuggler, described a "market of passports" in northern Iraq where individuals could illegally purchase documents to aid travel to America.
These smugglers use staging areas and transportation coordinators in such places as Quito, Ecuador; Lima, Peru; Cali, Colombia; and Guatemala City. They pay foot guides, drivers and stash-house operators in Mexico and the United States.
They have moved people by plane — into suburban Washington, D.C., Florida, California. And they have crossed clients in vehicles or on foot into Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California and over the Canadian border, then helped deliver them to destinations across America.
They have partnered with other smugglers transporting Mexican or Central American migrants, sometimes swapping clients and transferring immigrants from "special-interest" countries and other migrants in the same loads.
"This is really a word-of-mouth business," said Laura Ingersoll, an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., who has prosecuted at least a half-dozen smugglers who moved illegal immigrants from Egypt and Iraq into the United States.
"People from places in the Middle East will hear about who to go through, and they tend to be people from their same country, but once you get into the system we saw associations that really were driven by, `What's the most effective way for me to move my product?'" she said. "I may call someone else and essentially sell my load to somebody who's got a boat or a truck or something going out. It's just like sacks of potatoes."
"A Mafia," is how one of Boughader's clients, Roland Nassib Maksoud, once described the business.
Maksoud, a liquor distributor, traveled from Lebanon to Mexico on a legal visa in late 2000, he told investigators, according to Mexican court documents. In Mexico, he said, he met two compatriots who passed along the name of a restaurateur in Tijuana who smuggled Lebanese into the United States. They had gotten the name, Boughader, from a Beirut vendor who charged them $2,000 each for their visas to Mexico.
When Maksoud found the cafe, three Lebanese men were out front eating.
"Salim is inside," they told him in Arabic.
Boughader was meticulous about both his professions. He kept a spiral notebook with the names of his smuggling clients, their phone numbers and the date they arrived at his restaurant. In a separate ledger, Boughader told the AP, he recorded the names and numbers of his cafe customers and their favorite dishes.
He went over instructions with his newest client. Maksoud was to get a room at a nearby hotel, which he would share with another Lebanese man waiting to cross. The fee would be $2,000 up front, plus another $2,000 once Maksoud was in the States.
In January 2001, Maksoud was taken to a house on the Mexican side where other migrants were awaiting passage — "different people from different nationalities," he told investigators.
One morning at 1 o'clock, he was awakened, crammed into the trunk of a vehicle and told not to make a sound as the car made its way through the border port of entry, a five-minute ride.
The journey north was more arduous for other Boughader clients. One stated in a Mexican court document that he trekked for four hours over the hills into California with Lebanese and Mexican migrants. A guide brought up the rear, erasing their footprints.
Other people-couriers use altered passports to fly clients to the United States. One of them, convicted smuggler Mohammed Hussein Assadi, schooled his Iraqi customers to carry nothing identifying them as Arab while traveling. He advised one migrant to shave his mustache, another to dye her hair blonde, still another to get a "European" haircut, U.S. court records showed.
Central and South America are popular transit points because of their proximity to the United States and the relative ease with which migrants from countries with terrorist ties can obtain tourist visas there — either legally or through bribery. Assadi, an Iranian, worked from Ecuador, sometimes using the alias Antonio Roosevelt Choez Arreaga. He spoke Spanish in addition to Farsi and Arabic.
Bribery is another common tool for the organizations.
Boughader's clients told U.S. and Mexican investigators they paid thousands of dollars to obtain fraudulent visas from Mexico's consular office in Beirut. A woman who oversaw the office between 1998 and 2001 was arrested on charges of participating in the smuggling scheme.
In May, the former director of immigration in Honduras was arrested, accused of selling hundreds of Honduran passports to migrants from Lebanon, China, Cuba and Colombia — possibly to aid their entry into the United States. The investigation continues.
Maximiano Ramos, a former Los Angeles supervisor with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, admitted taking $12,500 to smuggle immigrants from the Philippines, home of the Al Qaeda-linked militant group Abu Sayyaf. From 1996 to 2002, at least 40 migrants were diverted from connecting flights at Los Angeles International Airport and escorted out by security guards while Ramos was on duty.
Linda Sesi, an assistant ombudsman for the city of Detroit, is awaiting trial on charges of conspiring with four others to smuggle more than 200 migrants from Iraq, Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries into the United States from 2001 up until her arrest last September. The defendants allegedly charged clients more than $6,000 for tourist visas to South America and then, using falsified documents, flew them to Dulles airport outside Washington, D.C.
Some, including prosecutor Ingersoll, discount human smuggling as "a risky road" not likely to be traveled by terror operatives. But a former Sept. 11 commission counsel, Janice Kephart, said smuggling already is a chosen transportation mode for such groups.
Intelligence suggests that since 1999 human smugglers have facilitated the travel of terrorists associated with more than a dozen extremist groups, according to the Sept. 11 commission's terrorist travel report Kephart helped write. Prior to Sept. 11, Al Qaeda employed smugglers to get jihad recruits into Afghanistan for training, the report said.
Terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, "use human smugglers and document forgers to a great extent," Kephart said. "They know their value. It only makes sense that they would transfer that to infiltrate the United States."
Others noted that post-Sept. 11 security measures — more stringent visa requirements and security at airports and ports of entry — have made it tougher for terrorist operatives to seek legal passage.
"If you're a terrorist group looking to do something ... why not send them another route?" said Walter Purdy, director of the Terrorism Research Center in Burke, Va. "These people on the border, they don't come up and say, `We're part of Hezbollah.' They say, `I want to get a job in America' or `I'm going to see my cousin in New York. Can you get me in?' The guy will say, `How much money do you have?'"
Dismantling groups smuggling people from countries with terrorist ties is a priority, said Torres, the U.S. immigration official. But often when one smuggler is busted another eagerly fills his shoes.
Following Boughader's arrest, smuggling of Lebanese through Tijuana ceased for several months, ICE investigator Ramon Romo said in court documents filed in Mexico. Then some Lebanese men were apprehended at the Tijuana airport and another by the U.S. Border Patrol, and in April 2003 intelligence revealed that five members of Hezbollah were preparing to cross the border, Romo stated.
The information was passed on to Mexican authorities, who made some arrests.
Others have made it through.
Kourani, who helped raise donations for Hezbollah, entered the United States via the Lebanon-Tijuana pipeline, paying $3,000 in Beirut to get a Mexican visa, according to federal court documents. On Feb. 4, 2001, he and another man were smuggled into California in the hidden compartment of a vehicle.
Last month, Kourani was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison for conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist group. His lawyer, William Swor, said Kourani is not a member of Hezbollah and hasn't spoken in years with the brother who has a leadership role in the group. Prosecutors alleged the brother directed Kourani's U.S. activities.
ICE spokesman Manny Van Pelt refused to confirm that Boughader smuggled Kourani. Boughader himself couldn't specifically recall Mahmoud Kourani, though he noted he moved a number of people with the last name "Kourani" who were from Mahmoud Kourani's hometown of Yater, Lebanon, a longtime Hezbollah outpost.
Boughader acknowledged transporting a Lebanese man who worked at al-Manar, a global satellite television network owned and operated by Hezbollah. The U.S. State Department added al-Manar to its Terror Exclusion List in 2004, meaning anyone associated with the station may be refused entry or deported from the United States.
"For us, Hezbollah are not terrorists," said Boughader, a Mexican of Lebanese descent, echoing the feelings of most Lebanese. "I regret that what I was doing is against the law, but I don't regret what I did to help people."
Along the border, people are still getting such help day in and day out.
After Sept. 11, Boughader said, "I changed my phone numbers and told my sister if a Lebanese showed up at the restaurant to turn him away. But they kept coming." And, for at least nine more months, he kept smuggling, he admitted when he pleaded guilty in the United States.
"The checks they do at the border are still very bad," he said, "because, regardless of everything, it is still easy to cross."