Colombia Dismantles False Passport Ring
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Colombia has dismantled a false passport ring with links to al-Qaida and Hamas militants, the acting attorney general said Thursday after authorities led dozens of simultaneous raids across five cities.
The gang allegedly supplied an unknown number of citizens from Pakistan, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and other countries with false passports and Colombian nationality without them ever stepping foot in the country, the attorney general’s office said in a written statement.
The counterfeited passports were then used to facilitate their entry into the United States and Europe.
Nineteen people were arrested in Thursday’s raids, carried out in collaboration with U.S. authorities, the attorney general’s office said. Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota were not immediately available for contact.
An undisclosed number of those arrested are wanted for working with al-Qaida, the international terrorist organization headed by Osama Bin Laden, and the militant Palestinian group Hamas, said acting Attorney General Jorge Armando Otalora.
``We confirm that some of the arrestees are wanted for extradition for collaborating with terrorist groups al-Qaida and Hamas,″ Otalora told RCN television.
Four were Jordanian citizens were among those arrested, said Manuel Saenz, head of foreign immigration for the DAS secret police, on Caracol television. And eight are being sought by the United States for extradition, Otalora said.
The group apparently penetrated Colombia’s federal bureaucracy and secret police. Three DAS officials and an employee of the national registry were among the arrested.
Saenz also said the group provided false passports for Spain, Portugal and Germany and other countries.
Authorities first suspected the existence of a criminal gang in 2002, when three Iraqi citizens were captured entering Colombia on false Israeli passports, the attorney general’s statement said.
Following those arrests, the attorney general ordered wiretaps and an undercover investigation that led to the arrest of two Jordanian nationals, Jamal Abdel Mutte Hassan and Zaben Sultan Othman Yousef, who acquired Colombian citizenship illegally.
Both have since been convicted and are serving prison terms of eight years and 19 months respectively.
In Jan. 2004, two more suspected members, Amin Omar Said Ahmad and Karim Bahige Kharfan, were captured in Bogota and later extradited to the United States, where they were convicted of laundering more than $200 million.
Colombian authorities then went on high alert, and with the help of their U.S. counterparts, began to covertly trail and film suspects to unveil a criminal network.
The eight wanted by a U.S. Federal court in Florida on charges of abetting illegal immigration rings and collaborating with terrorist groups include one Jordanian national, Jalal Saadat Moheisen, and a DAS detective, Edilson Ramirez Gamboa.
The raids were carried out in the Colombian capital of Bogota and four other Colombian cities.
Authorities didn’t say if any Colombian terrorist groups were involved.
There are three illegal, armed groups in Colombia that are on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations, and President Alvaro Uribe has occasionally warned that their existence fosters more violence.
In a speech in late 2004 to the United Nations in New York, Uribe said Colombia needs ``the total commitment of the international community against terrorism in Colombia. The terrorism in one country feeds and strengthens terrorist networks throughout the world.″
U.S. officials have long feared al-Qaida could take advantage of corrupt government officials and weak institutions to launch an attack from south of the border.
Much of the focus in South America, however, has fallen on the large Muslim community in Paraguay along the porous border with Argentina and Brazil.
Authorities believe as much as $100 million a year flows out of the region, with large portions diverted to Islamic militants linked to Hezbollah and Hamas.