Wall Street Journal
WASHINGTON â€“ The Obama administration charged Hezbollah with operating like an international drug cartel and blacklisted two Lebanese money exchange houses for allegedly moving tens of millions of dollars of drug profit through the U.S. financial system on behalf of the militant group.
The Treasury Department's action Tuesday marked the latest salvo in a two-year U.S. government campaign against Hezbollah's alleged drug-trafficking activities. U.S. officials alleged that Hezbollah is using proceeds from this narcotics trade to fund international terrorist activities and to bolster the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in their fight against a widening rebellion.
U.S. officials also said Hezbollah was increasingly reverting to illicit trade to offset diminished funding coming from Iran, the organization's closest ally.
"Hezbollah is operating like a major drug cartel," said Derek Maltz, a special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration, who is overseeing the U.S. probe into Hezbollah. "These proceeds are funding violence against Americans."
Bulgaria's Interior Ministry concluded that Hezbollah operatives conducted last year's bombing of a tourism bus at a Black Sea resort that killed five Israeli nationals. The European Union is considering imposing sanctions on Hezbollah as a result.
Hezbollah has repeatedly denied any involvement in narcotics trafficking or terrorism. It has accused the U.S. of spreading propaganda to discredit the Lebanese organization.
The Treasury Department in 2011 named the Beirut-based Lebanese Canadian Bank as a major facilitator for a drug-trafficking scheme it said originated in Latin America and West Africa but involved laundering proceeds through the U.S. financial system via the purchases of used cars.
Hezbollah received much of the profit from this illicit business, U.S. officials charged.
In response to the U.S. charges, the Lebanese Canadian Bank was shut by Beirut's financial regulators. But Treasury and DEA officials said Tuesday that two money-exchange houses replaced the bank in conducting illegal wire payments through the U.S. financial system on behalf of Hezbollah and a Lebanese drug trafficker who U.S. officials allege to be coordinating with the militant group.
One of the exchange houses - Kassem Rmeiti & Co. For Exchange - moved nearly $30 million in drug proceeds through the U.S. since 2008, according to Treasury and DEA officials. The company's owner, Haitham Rmeiti, has also emerged as "a key facilitator for wiring money and transferring Hezbollah funds," the Treasury and DEA said.
The second exchange, Halawi Exchange Co., meanwhile, was facilitating the shipment of more than $220 million of used cars, which originated in the U.S., into the West African country of Benin last year as part of the same drug-trafficking operation, U.S. officials alleged.
"Following Treasury's action against the Lebanese Canadian Bank, the Joumaa narcotics network turned to Rmeiti Exchange and Halawi Exchange to handle its money-laundering needs," said David Cohen, the Treasury Department's top counter-terrorism official.
Attempts to reach officials at the Halawi and Rmeiti exchange houses Tuesday in Beirut were unsuccessful.
The U.S. Treasury named both exchange houses as "primary money laundering concerns" under the U.S. Patriot Act. This determination could result in both firms being banned from the U.S. financial system, and their dollar-based assets frozen, unless they provide evidence to Treasury over the next 120 days to reverse the decision.
Lebanon's central bank governor, Riad Salameh, said in an interview Tuesday that Beirut's financial regulators had independently been scrutinizing the businesses of both exchange houses.