It was mid-December last year when Interpol caught, in the transit area of Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, a 21-year-old Paraguayan woman who had swallowed over a kilogram of cocaine. Nelida Cardozo Taboada had disappeared from her hometown months before. She confessed to French police that she had been recruited as a “mule” by a network of drug smugglers. Her employer, a Paraguayan woman married to a Lebanese man, had convinced her to swallow the cocaine by promising her a job as a maid in Warsaw, Poland.
It took the police in Paraguay only a few days to reach the head of a Lebanese-led drug cartel in Ciudad del Este, a town located in the infamous tri-border area where the frontiers of Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina meet. Wassim Abdel Fadel was arrested on December 21 together with his Paraguayan wife. But what police uncovered during the investigation led them further than they had expected.
According to information disclosed by Interpol and the Paraguayan police, Fadel, 30, was part of an international drug trafficking network controlled from Isla Margarita, Venezuela, a Caribbean holiday destination that is also an infamous hub for South American drug cartels. The leader of the cartel is Ghazi Atef Nassredine, also known as Abu Ali, a declared Hezbollah supporter who became a Venezuelan citizen 10 years ago and immediately thereafter became Venezuela’s diplomat to Beirut and Damascus. By arresting Fadel, Interpol and the Paraguayan police uncovered an international money-laundering and drug-smuggling network responsible for sending cocaine from South America to the United States, Europe, and the Middle East.
Fadel was the leader of a network that would send laundered money, from drugs made in the tri-border area, to bank accounts in Istanbul and Damascus. According to a Paraguay Police Department press release sent to NOW, Fadel’s network regularly sent sums between $50,000 and $200,000 to these accounts. After investigating the owners, Paraguayan police came up with a list of Lebanese nationals known to be high-ranking Hezbollah members. Though the list was not disclosed to the media, the police said that the people on it were involved with Hezbollah’s financial operations. The same bank accounts also allegedly received money from different continents.
Although young, Fadel had gained control of an entire Hezbollah-backed real estate and drug market in Ciudad del Este after the network’s leaders – Lebanese-Americans Nemr Ali Zoayter, Amr Zoher, and Moussa Ali Hamdan – were arrested in Paraguay and extradited to the US. Zoayter and Zoher were caught in Ciudad del Este in 2008, while Hamdan was arrested in June 2010 in the same town.
According to statements released by the Paraguayan police, Fadel had been on the run for over three years. He was not only part of the drug cartel, but also the owner of a car-parts company, Fadel Automotores, located in Ciudad del Este. In 2008, several of his customers reported him to the police because he had defrauded them.
Fadel was born in Toulin, a village in the Lebanese district of Marjayoun. It was obvious to the villagers that he had made a fortune in Paraguay, as he had built a huge mansion in his hometown. However, he is not the only local who made his fortune in South America or West Africa; indeed, villages in the South and Beqaa Valley are studded with villas built by expatriates. But how the emigrants made their millions is often a mystery.
According to Lebanese analyst Kassem Kassir, a large part of the population in South Lebanon migrated to different parts of the world during the Lebanese civil war. South America became popular as a destination around two decades ago because the process of emigration to Australia or the United States became very difficult, added Kassir, who is a regular commentator for the NOW Arabic site. Lebanese often preferred Paraguay because “commerce was booming in this spot of the world.”
“You know, in villages, whenever someone goes to a place, settles, and starts making good money, he calls for relatives to join, and this is why the wave of emigration toward Paraguay increased,” he noted.
Hezbollah does not hide its presence in Paraguay or any other country in South America. Supporters of the party also don’t hide their political views. But to what extent they are involved in organized crime, with or without the knowledge of Hezbollah’s leadership in Lebanon, is unknown.
“Many people related to Hezbollah are present in Paraguay, but in a political sense,” he said. “We need to dig more to see if there are cultural spaces or offices for Hezbollah, but of course, many people who originally supported and are still supporting Hezbollah are there.”
Yara Chehayed contributed translating to this article.
Ana Maria Luca tweets at @aml1609.
Read this article in Arabic