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

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Discovery of cocaine in Russian diplomatic luggage leads to numerous arrests

FSB drug arrestsA Russian former diplomatic employee and an Argentine police officer are among six people arrested following the discovery of nearly 1000 pounds of cocaine inside the Russian diplomatic compound in Buenos Aires. The arrests took place last Thursday and were announced in Argentina by the country’s Security Minister Patricia Bullrich. She told reporters that the arrests came after a 14-month investigation in Argentina, Russia and Germany. She added that the investigation unveiled “one of the most complex and extravagant drug-dealing operations” in Argentina’s history.

The 14-month probe dates to December of 2016, when Victor Koronelli, Russia’s ambassador to Argentina, and thee members of Russia’s Federal Security Service, discreetly approached Argentinian authorities. They informed the Argentinians that they had discovered 16 pieces of luggage filled with drugs inside an annex of the Russian embassy in Buenos Aires. Argentinian authorities were given permission to secretly enter the embassy grounds and inspect the suitcases. They confirmed that they contained more than 850 pounds (390 kilos) of cocaine, with a street value of more than $60 million. The suitcases were intended for transfer to Russia via a diplomatic flight. Cargo transferred on diplomatic flights cannot be searched by international customs officials due to the privilege of diplomatic immunity.

According to Bullrich, diplomatic counter-narcotics officers secretly transferred the bags to a separate location, where they replaced the cocaine with flour and fitted the suitcases with GPS tracking devices, before returning them to the Russian embassy annex. The luggage was eventually transferred to Russia via airplane in December 2017, a year after it was bugged by the Argentinians. Several Argentinian customs officers traveled to Russia to monitor the transfer of the shipment, in coordination with Russian authorities. The latter arrested two Russian citizens who tried to collect the suitcases. Another Russian citizen, and former staff member of the Russian embassy in Argentina, Alia Abyanov, was arrested in Moscow. Officials said Abyanov helped plan the transfer of the suitcases to Russia.

Two Argentines with dual Russian citizenship were also arrested in Buenos Aires. One of them has been named as Iván Blizniouk, a police officer, who is believed to have mediated between the drug smugglers and corrupt Argentine customs officers. A seventh suspect, identified only as “Señor K.” by the Argentine authorities, remains at large. He is believed to be living in Germany and is currently wanted by Interpol pursuant to an international warrant that has been issued for his arrest.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 February 2018 | Permalink

Latvia warns of ‘hybrid war’ as central bank corruption probe widens

Ilmars RimsevicsLatvian defense officials have hinted that Russia is trying to destabilize Latvia’s economy, as a Western-backed anti-corruption probe at the highest levels of the Baltic country’s banking sector deepens. Developments have progressed at a high speed since Monday of last week, when Latvia’s Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau arrested Ilmars Rimsevics, the longtime Governor of the Bank of Latvia —the country’s central bank. Bureau investigators said Rimsevics’ arrest related to charges that he received bribes in order to facilitate money laundering from Russia.

Rimsevics became deputy governor of the Bank of Latvia in 1992, just months after the country seceded from the Soviet Union. In 2001 he was promoted to governor, a post that he has held onto ever since. When the small Baltic country joined the European Union, in January 2014, Rimsevics automatically became a member of the Governing Council of the European Central Bank (ECB), which directs the Eurozone’s monetary policy and monitors the performance of the euro. But last week the Latvian government rescinded Rimsevics’ security clearance and a scheduled meeting of the ECB in Frankfurt took place without him.

This dramatic development underscores the troubled state of Latvia’s banking sector, which is a notorious reputation as one of Europe’s most lucrative money-laundering hubs. Soon after it gained its independence, the small country of 2 million became an attractive conduit for Russia’s nouveau riche seeking to funnel their money westward. The country’s sizeable Russian-speaking minority allowed the local banking sector to offer highly sought-after services in the Russian language, which further-facilitated its contacts with wealthy Russian clients. This was further-enhanced by Latvia’s integration into the economic structure of the European Union in 2014. But Western countries began voicing concerns about close links between Latvia’s banking sector and Russian oligarchs in 1996. By 2011, the United States Department of the Treasury had identified numerous Latvian banks as serious violators of laws designed to prevent money laundering. In 2014, and again in 2017, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project identified Latvia as part of an extensive international money-laundering scheme dubbed “the Russian Laundromat”.

Notably, Rimsevics was arrested less than a week after Washington vowed to impose penalties on ABLV, Latvia’s third largest bank, for “institutionalizing money laundering” and violating a host of financial sanctions imposed by the United Nations, including sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear program. There is no question, therefore, that Rimsevics’ dramatic arrest was designed to combat what The Financial Times recently called “a banking scandal on the Baltic”. In the past few hours, reports from Riga indicate that ABLV may be on the brink of collapse, being unable to withstand the financial effects of the public scandal that emerged in recent days.

But things are never simple in the Baltic region. Soon after Rimsevics’ release on bail, reports in the Latvian media pointed to alleged efforts by Russia to defame him, in an effort to further-tarnish the already damaged reputation of Latvia’s banking sector. On Tuesday of last week, the Latvian Ministry of Defense said it had evidence that Rimsevics was targeted in a “disinformation operation” directed from abroad. It added that there was a “high probability that [a] massive information operation” had been launched for “foreign centers” aimed at destabilizing Latvia’s banks. No evidence or further information about the allegation was revealed. But the Defense Ministry’s allegations seemed to be supported by an analysis of the relevant news reporting by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab in Washington.

On February 23, Latvia’s Prime Minister, Maris Kucinskis, and President, Raimonds Vejonis, seemed to endorse the Defense Ministry’s allegations. Despite the fact that both politicians have urged Rimsevics to resign “for the sake of the financial system”, they also warned that Latvia was under attack in an information war. The two men did not make specific allegations, but said that the information attacks experienced by Latvia were “identical” to those seen in recent years in France, Germany, and the United States. Meanwhile, shortly after his release, Rimsevics held a press conference in Riga, where he denied all charges against him. He accused Latvia’s private banks of conspiring against him and said he was the victim of “death threats” to destabilize the country. On the same day Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russia had no comment on the situation in Latvia. “This is an internal political matter for our Latvian comrades [and] we wouldn’t want to get involved”, he said.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 February 2018 | Permalink

Bulgarian ex-spy director jailed for embezzling millions from public coffers

Kircho KirovA former director of Bulgaria’s intelligence service, who headed the agency for nearly a decade, has been jailed for embezzling millions of dollars from public funds. General Kircho Kirov, 67, was director of the Bulgarian National Intelligence Service (NIS) from February 2003 until January 2012. After stepping down from his post he was appointed national security advisor to Bulgaria’s Prime Minister, Boiko Borissov. But he soon fell out with Borrisov and was fired after just two months on the job. Now Borissov’s administration has jailed Kircho for 15 years, accusing him of misappropriating funds intended for NIS operations.

Government prosecutors said that during his tenure as NIS director, General Kircho conspired with a subordinate NIS employee, Dimitar Lidarev, to siphon NIS funds to a private account. They told a court in Bulgarian capital Sofia that General Kircho and Lidarev falsified documents to allow them to divert nearly $3.2 million to private accounts for their personal use. Most of the funds were stolen between 2007 and 2011, according to court documents. On Tuesday, the court handed General Kircho a 15 year jail sentence and ordered the confiscation of 50 percent of his personal assets. Lidarev, who was General Kircho’s co-defendant at his trial, was sentenced to three years in prison with another five years’ probation, for aiding and abetting General Kircho’s embezzlement by forging documents. The court decision quashed General Kircho’s appeal against an earlier sentence, delivered in 2015, that jailed him for 10 years for embezzling nearly $4 million of state funds between 2007 and 2011.

Throughout his latest trial, General Kircho insisted he was innocent and accused government prosecutors of carrying out a politically motivated campaign against him, directed by his former ally, Prime Minister Borissov. The former spy director added that he was targeted as part of a deliberate effort to convince the European Union that Bulgaria is targeting financial corruption. Next week, Prime Minister Borissov’s government will be facing a no-confidence vote in parliament, over claims that corruption remains rife in the Balkan country of 7 million people.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 23 January 2018 | Permalink

South Korean ex-president took millions in bribes from spy agency, say prosecutors

 Park Geun-hyeSouth Korea’s disgraced former president, Park Geun-hye, has been charged with accepting bribes amounting to millions of dollars from the country’s spy agency, according to reports. Park made history in 2013, by becoming the first woman president in South Korean history. However, almost as soon as she assumed office, her administration became embroiled in successive corruption scandals. By 2016, Park’s presidency had been brought to a standstill due to mass protests urging her removal from power, while increasing numbers of officials and administrators were refusing to work with her. She was eventually impeached in 2017, after the Constitutional Court of Korea found that she had violated the country’s laws by promoting the interests of personal friends and private corporations in return for cash and favors. She is currently in custody awaiting trial for 18 different charges, including abuse of power, coercion, blackmail and bribery.

On Thursday, government prosecutors charged Park with accepting between $50,000 and $190,000 in monthly bribes from the National Intelligence Service (NIS). The monthly sums were allegedly delivered to Park almost as soon as she assumed the nation’s presidency, in 2013, and continued until the summer of 2016. Prosecutors allege that the monthly bribes total in excess of $3 million. Prosecutors allege that the cash was delivered to Park’s aides in deserted parking lots and side streets located near the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential palace. The cash allegedly came from what the prosecutors described as “special operational funds” and was meant for highly secret undercover operations. It was therefore not subject to parliamentary oversight or annual audits, according to court documents. The secret funds were allegedly used by Mrs. Park and her aides for bribes in exchange for political favors, according to the indictment.

In November, prosecutors charged three former directors of the NIS with secretly diverting funds from the agency’s clandestine budget to Park. The three men, Nam Jae-joon, Lee Byung-kee and Lee Byung-ho, headed the NIS between 2013 and 2016, when Mrs. Park was head of state. The new charges will add two more counts, one of embezzlement of funds and one of bribery, to Park’s long list of accusations. The disgraced former president is expected to remain in custody until March 3.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 05 January 2018 | Permalink

Luxembourg to further-probe Jean-Claude Juncker’s role in spy scandal

Jean-Claude JunckerA judge in Luxembourg has launched a criminal investigation into whether officials working for the country’s former Prime Minister and current European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, tried to conceal his role in a spy scandal. Until he stepped down from his post in 2013, Juncker, a member of Luxembourg’s Christian Social People’s Party, was Europe’s longest-serving elected leader, having served as Prime Minister since 1995. His resignation from his post came after a parliamentary inquiry found that the country’s State Intelligence Service (SREL) had engaged in serious criminal activity.

The investigation was launched in 2012, after a local newspaper alleged that SREL’s Director, Marco Mille, employed a surreptitious recording device disguised as a watch to record a private conversation with Juncker. This led to revelations that the SREL had carried out countless illegal wiretaps around the country and that it maintained extensive secret files on over 13,000 citizens and residents of Luxembourg. The report also alleged that SREL set up a front company in order to facilitate the transfer of $10 million from a corrupt Russian businessman to a Spanish intelligence operative, as a personal favor to the Russian. The probe also examined, but did not confirm, allegations that the Grand Duke of Luxembourg had been a trusted informant of MI6, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. The release of the report prompted calls for Juncker to resign, because, according to Luxembourg law, the Prime Minister is directly responsible for the conduct of the country’s intelligence services, including SREL.

Now Judge Eric Schammo has launched a new criminal investigation into whether government officials working for Mr. Juncker deliberately falsified crucial evidence during the 2012 parliamentary investigation and the subsequent judicial investigation. Government prosecutors believe that a small group of officials falsified evidence in order to protect Mr. Juncker and shield him from any political fallout caused by the scandal. According to reports, former SREL Director Mille, who is currently on trial over his role in the spy affair, has in its possession a recording of a private conversation with Juncker. It is said that the recorded conversation shows that Juncker was aware of and approved the wiretap operation. This evidence was allegedly shared with members of the parliamentary inquiry in 2012. However, according to reports, pro-Juncker officials deleted it from the committee’s files. Juncker denies having had any knowledge of, or having authorized, SREL’s illegal activities.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 December 2017 | Permalink

Three former South Korean spy chiefs charged with illegally diverting secret funds

NIS South KoreaA South Korean prosecutor has charged three former directors of the country’s spy agency of secretly diverting funds from the agency’s clandestine budget to aid the country’s disgraced former President, Park Geun-hye. The three men, Nam Jae-joon, Lee Byung-kee and Lee Byung-ho, headed South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) between 2013 and 2016, when Mrs. Park was head of state. The conservative politician was impeached late last year, following accusations of corruption, bribing and extortion. In March this year, Mrs. Park’s government was brought down and she is currently in prison, awaiting trial. Her successor in the presidency, leftist politician Moon Jae-in, was elected after pledging to combat corruption in South Korea’s political inner circle.

As part of his anti-corruption campaign, Mr. Moon has overseen the purging of numerous senior officials from the NIS, after the agency admitted that it tried to influence the outcome of the 2012 presidential election in favor of Mrs. Park. In the latest round of corruption charges, the three former directors of the NIS are accused of funneling payments of between $45,000 and $91,000 a month to the office of the president. The cash allegedly came from what the prosecutors described as “special operational funds” and was meant for highly secret undercover operations. As such, it was not subject to parliamentary oversight or annual audits, according to prosecutors. The secret funds were allegedly used by Mrs. Park for bribes in exchange for political favors, according to the indictment.

Prosecutors claim that the indictments of the three former NIS chiefs reveal high-level collusion between Mrs. Park’s conservative Liberty Korea Party, also known as the Grand National Party, and the spy agency. Earlier this month, two presidential aides who served under Mrs. Park were arrested for transferring the cash payments in briefcases from the NIS to the president’s office. Two of the three former NIS directors, Nam Jae-joon and Lee Byung-kee were denied bail and are currently in jail. The third, Lee Byung-ho, was not deemed to be a flight risk and remains free while preparing his defense.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 20 November 2017 | Permalink