Key Hezbollah financier arrested in Brazil after years on the run

Assad Ahmad BarakatBrazilian police have announced the arrest of Assad Ahmad Barakat, a Lebanese national who is believed to be one of the most prolific international financiers for the Shiite group Hezbollah. Barakat was born in Lebanon but fled to Paraguay in the mid-1980s in the midst of Lebanon’s brutal civil war. He began an import-export business and eventually acquired Paraguayan citizenship. He gradually built a small business empire in Paraguay, which included engineering and construction, as well as transportation firms. Throughout that time, however, Barakat maintained strong connections with Hezbollah, the paramilitary group that has a strong following among Lebanon’s large Shiite Muslim community.

By the mid-1990s, Barakat was one of Hezbollah’s most active representatives in the Americas and operated as the Shiite group’s head of paramilitary and fundraising activities in South America. It is believed that he used his Paraguayan passport to travel to Iran and Lebanon for meetings with Hezbollah’s leadership at least once a year. In 2001, following pressure from the United States, Paraguay charged Barakat in absentia with money-laundering. He was eventually caught in Brazil in 2002 and extradited to Paraguay, where he was tried and sentenced to six years in prison. Upon his release in 2008, Barakat returned to his role as Hezbollah’s fundraiser. Using fake passports, he traveled frequently to Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and other Latin American countries, despite having been described by the US government as “one of the most prominent and influential members of the [Hezbollah] terrorist organization”. He was wanted in Paraguay for identity theft and in Argentina for laundering in excess of $10 million in casinos in the north of the country.

Last Friday, the Brazilian Federal Police announced that Barakat had been arrested in the city of Foz do Iguaçu, which is adjacent to the Paraguayan and Argentinian borders. The city of 250,000 is the largest urban center of the so-called Tri-Border tropical region, known for its tropical climate, spectacular mountain views and casinos. Aside from being a year-round tourism center, the area is a known as a hotbed of money-laundering, forged currency smuggling and drug-trafficking activity. It is now known whether Barakat will face charges in Brazil or whether he will be extradited to Paraguay or Argentina.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 September 2018 | Permalink

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Argentina’s spy chief allegedly implicated in Brazil money-laundering scandal

Gustavo ArribasThe director of Argentina’s spy agency has been accused by security officials in Brazil of being implicated in a multi-million dollar money-laundering scandal that involves dozens of senior officials across Latin America. The allegations were made in the context of the so-called “operation car wash”, known in Portuguese as Operação Lava Jato. The term refers to a money-laundering probe that began in 2014, following allegations of illegal financial practices by a number of private import-export companies in Brazil. Soon, however, Lava Jato led to the exposure of large-scale corruption, nepotism and bribing practices at the core of Brazil’s state-owned oil company Petrobras. Today, four years later, the constantly expanding investigation has implicated nearly 200 people —many of them well-known politicians— in numerous Latin American countries, including Mexico, Peru and Venezuela.

On Thursday, the car wash probe appeared to implicate for the first time a senior state official in Argentina. The figure at the center of the allegations is Gustavo Arribas (pictured), the Director General of the country’s Federal Intelligence Agency (AFI). A former sports tycoon, who made his fortune as a footballers’ representative, he surprised many in December 2015 when he was appointed spy director by Argentina’s President, Mauricio Macri. Arribas has financial dealings with Brazil, where he owns real estate. But these properties may become liabilities after Arribas was accused by Victor Ferreira, a federal police official and Lava Jato investigator, of having received nearly $1 million in a money-laundering scheme involving fraudulent invoices submitted for financial compensation to the Brazilian government by bogus companies. The money was allegedly sent to Arribas via a wire transfer that was routed to him through a bank in Hong King. The transfer had not been approved by the Central Bank of Brazil, which is supposed to supervise all overseas money transfers involving government contracts.

Brazilian prosecutors served several suspects across Brazil with search warrants on Thursday, in an attempt to uncover more information about the alleged illegal money transfer. Arribas, however, issued a statement later on the same day, in which he denied any connection with Lava Jato and said that allegations against him were motivated by malice. In 2016, Arribas was accused in Argentina of having received nearly $600,000 from corrupt officials of Brazilian construction company Odebrecht, which is implicated in operation car wash. However, he was cleared by a federal judge, who threw the case out of court. In his statement issued on Thursday, Arribas stressed that he had not been officially charged with any crime in Argentina or Brazil.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 02 March 2018 | Permalink

North Korean leaders used fraudulent Brazilian passports to travel abroad

Josef PwagThe late Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il, and his son and current Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, used forged Brazilian passports to secure visas for overseas trips and to travel abroad undetected, according to reports. The Reuters news agency cited five anonymous “senior Western European security sources” in claiming that the two North Korean leaders’ images appear on Brazilian passports issued in the 1990s. The news agency posted images of the passports, which appear to display photographs of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un. It said that the two leaders’ faces had been verified through the use of facial recognition software.

The passports were issued in the name of Josef Pwag and Ijong Tchoi. Both bear fake dates of birth and list Sao Paulo, Brazil, as the passport holders’ birthplace. Both passports bear the issuance stamp of the “Embassy of Brazil in Prague”, Czech Republic, and are dated February 26, 1996. Reuters cited an anonymous source from Brazil, who said that the fake passports were not forged from scratch. They were in fact genuine travel documents that had been sent out in blank form for use by the Brazilian embassy’s passport issuance office. The Reuters report quotes an unnamed Western security official who said that the forged passports were mostly likely used by their holders to secure travel visas from foreign embassies in Southeast Asia, mostly in Japan and Hong Kong. They could also have been used as back-ups, in case the two Kims needed to be evacuated from North Korea in an emergency —for instance an adversarial military coup or a foreign military invasion. At the very least, the passports indicate a desire to secure and safeguard the Kims’ ability to travel internationally.

North Korea’s intelligence services are known for making extensive use of fraudulent passports. Readers of this blog will recall that the two female North Korean agents who killed Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, in February of 2017, had been supplied with forged passports. The two women, who are now in prison in Malaysia, were using Indonesian and Vietnamese passports.

Reuters said it contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Brazil, which said it was still investigating the whether the two passports were indeed issued to members of North Korea’s ruling family, and how they came to be issued. The news agency also contacted the embassy of North Korea in Brazil, but officials there declined to comment.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 March 2018 | Permalink

Brazil launches probe into plane crash that killed senior corruption investigator

Teori ZavasckiBrazilian authorities have launched an investigation into last week’s plane crash that killed the leading judge in the largest corruption probe in the nation’s history, involving government officials and two giant companies. Supreme Court judge Teori Zavascki died last Thursday with two other people, when the small airplane they were on crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. The Beechcraft King Air C90 that was carrying Zavascki went down near the Brazilian town of Paraty, located 300 miles east of Sao Paulo. Zavascki, was appointed to Brazil’s Supreme Court in 2012, at the age of 64. He soon earned a nationwide reputation for being a relentless prosecutor of Brazil’s notoriously corrupt governmental and corporate elite. In 2015, his reputation soared even further, after he ordered the arrest of Delcídio do Amaral, a leading member of the ruling Workers’ Party, who was serving as Senate speaker and head of the Senate’s Committee on Economic Affairs. Amaral was found guilty of having received bribes from Brazil’s state-owned oil company, Petrobras, and removed from the Senate.

In October 2016, Zavascki ordered the arrest of Eduardo Cunha, President of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, and the man who had a few months earlier led the impeachment of Brazil’s disgraced former President, Dilma Rousseff. Cuhna’s arrest was part of so-called Operation Carwash, an enormous corruption investigation involving dozens of leading Brazilian politicians, who are accused of having taken bribes from Petrobras and Odebrecht, Brazil’s largest construction company. This coming February, Zavascki was scheduled to publicize a series of plea-bargain settlements, involving nearly 80 Odebrecht senior executives. It is believed that the plea bargains will implicate a large number of well-known Brazilian politicians, including Brazil’s President, Michel Temer, and his two immediate predecessors, Rousseff and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Shortly after Thursday’s plane crash, there was widespread speculation on social media that Zavascki’s death was not an accident. Several notable public figures in Brazil expressed concern about the timing of the judge’s death. They included detective Márcio Anselmo, the senior federal police investigator in Operation Carwash. On Friday, authorities launched an official investigation into the plane crash, which will inevitably remain in the news headlines for weeks, as the Supreme Court struggles to keep Operation Carwash alive. Several public figures have expressed strong concern about possible delays in the investigation, which could enable those being probed to evade justice. In a bizarre twist of fate, President Temer will now be expected to nominate a judge to take Justice Zavascki’s place on the Supreme Court, while knowing that his own name may be implicated in the ongoing corruption investigation.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 January 2017 | Permalink

Brazil’s new acting president was US embassy intelligence source in 2006

Temer RousseffThe new acting president of Brazil briefed American diplomats on sensitive political matters in 2006, according to cables published by the international whistleblower website WikiLeaks. Michel Temer is leader of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, known as PMDB. Although it is one of Brazil’s largest political parties, the PMDB has been unable to muster enough electoral support to govern the country on its own. As a result, under Temer’s leadership, the PMDB has been a partner of every governing coalition in Brazil since 1995. During the administration of leftwing President Dilma Rousseff, Temer held the post of Vice President.

But in March of this year, the PMDB dropped its support of Rousseff, accusing her of financial irregularities. In April, the speaker of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of the Brazilian Parliament), Eduardo Cunha, who is himself a PMDB member, spearheaded impeachment proceedings against Rousseff. Eventually, these efforts were successful, leading to the suspension of the president, who is currently undergoing an impeachment trial. In the meantime, Temer assumed the role of president, as stipulated by the Brazilian constitution. This has led Rousseff to denounce the proceedings as a coup orchestrated by the PMDB.

Throughout this process, the United States, which has had a tense relationship with President Rousseff, and her predecessor, the leftwinger Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, has maintained a discrete silence. But two leaked cables produced by the US embassy in Brazil in 2006, show that Temer, who led the impeachment proceedings against Rousseff, was considered an intelligence informant by US diplomats. The cables, which were published on Friday by WikiLeaks, appear to show that Temer briefed US diplomats at length on sensitive matters relating to domestic Brazilian politics on at least two occasions. The cables, dated January 11 and June 21, 2006, are marked “sensitive but unclassified” and “Political Affairs—Intelligence” by their author, Christopher McMullen, who was then US consul general in Brazil. They detail the content of conversations that Temer, who was then a member of Congress, had with McMullen and an unnamed US official in the embassy’s political section.

There is no reason to assume from these cables that Temer was a paid informant, or that he was even a regular source of information for US diplomats. Nor is there any evidence that the US officials who met with Temer worked for US intelligence. However, it is clear in the cables that the Brazilian politician relayed sensitive information about his personal electoral plans, the plans of the PMDB, as well as the domestic politics of his party, which includes an analysis of various factions. Moreover, he appears to discuss matters of political strategy that are not meant for general consumption.

Ironically, the June 21 cable contains McMullen’s unfavorable assessment of Temer and the PMDB, which he describes as a “a group of opportunistic regional leaders” who have “no ideology or policy framework” and thus lack “a coherent national political agenda”. Temer was sworn in as president on May 12 and will remain in the post for no more than 180 days, during which time the outcome of the impeachment proceedings against Rousseff will be determined.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 May 2016 | Permalink

Brazil builds direct Internet cable to Europe to avoid US spying

Proposed transatlantic cableBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
The government of Brazil is to construct a transatlantic cable across the Atlantic Ocean in order to avoid having its Internet traffic to and from Europe intercepted by American intelligence agencies. According to reports, the fiber-optic cable will stretch for 3,500 miles from the northeastern Brazilian city of Fortaleza to the Portuguese capital Lisbon. It will cost the Brazilian government in excess of US$185 million, but it will allow the country’s existing Internet traffic to and from Europe to travel without going through cables owned by American service providers. According to Brazilian officials, the construction of the cable is among several steps announced by the Brazilian government aimed at disassociating its communications infrastructure from American companies. The move follows revelations made last year by American defector Edward Snowden that the US National Security Agency specifically targeted Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s personal communications as part of its intelligence-collection efforts targeting Brazil. In response to the revelations, Rousseff cancelled a planned official state visit to Washington and accused the US of having committed “a breach of international law and an affront” against Brazil’s sovereignty. The planned fiber-optic cable connection to Europe will be overseen by Telecomunicacoes Brasileiras SA, Brazil’s state-owned telecommunications conglomerate, known commonly as TeleBras. The company’s president, Francisco Ziober Filho, said in an interview last week that none of the $185 million that will be spent on the project will end up in the pockets of American companies. For over a year, experts have been warning that the Snowden revelations about the extent of the NSA’s global communications-interception activities might undermine the American telecommunications sector, insomuch as it could undercut America’s role and influence in global Internet governance. Many countries, Brazil included, are beginning to actively reconsider their dependence on US-managed Internet networks that host the content of social media sites, cloud computing databases, or telecommunications exchanges. Read more of this post

Brazil accuses Canada of economic espionage

CanadaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
The Brazilian government has demanded that Canada explain the role of its intelligence services in “unacceptable” incidents of espionage, which targeted the Latin American country’s Ministry of Mines and Energy. The announcement came just hours after a television report accused Canada of spying on Brazil’s mining and energy sector, allegedly for commercial gain. The report, which aired on O Globo television on Sunday night, said the spying had been carried out by Canada’s Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC). Staffed by around 2,200 employees, the CSEC is Canada’s foremost signals intelligence agency, tasked with carrying out communications interception around the world. According to O Globo, the CSEC collected the metadata of emails and calls associated with computer and telephone systems belonging to the Ministry of Mines and Energy. The information allowed Canadian intelligence to effectively map the communications structure of the government Ministry, through a network mapping program codenamed OLYMPIA. O Globo said its report was based on a CSEC PowerPoint presentation titled “Advanced Network Tradecraft”, which was produced in the summer of 2012 and shared with Canada’s allies, including the United Kingdom and the United States. The television station said that the information was based on a batch of documents leaked by former Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency technical expert Edward Snowden. Snowden defected from the US last summer and is currently living in Russia, were he has been offered political asylum. The Brazilian television station spoke to Edison Lobao, Brazil’s Mines and Energy Minister, who said that Canada’s primary economic interests in Brazil centered on “the mining sector”, and hinted that the alleged CSEC spying might have “served corporate interests”. Read more of this post