Trial witness claims ‘El Chapo’ gave Mexico’s ex-president $100 million bribe

Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ GuzmánA high-profile witness has told the trial of Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán in New York that the accused bribed the then President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, with $100 million in order to stay out of prison. Guzmán, the leader of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel, was arrested in February 2014 in Mexico. In January 2017, he was extradited to the United States, where he faces a litany charges ranging from conspiracy to import and distribute drugs to money-laundering and homicide. His trial began at the Federal District Court in Brooklyn, New York, last November.

All of last Tuesday was taken up by the testimony of Alex Cifuentes Villa, a Colombian former drug lord from Medellin who, until his arrest in 2012, was one of Guzmán’s closest collaborators. Villa told the court that Peña Nieto employed mediators to reach out to the Sinaloa cartel soon after he was elected president in 2012. He alleged that the mediators offered to strike a bargain with Guzmán, according to which he would stay out of prison in return for a $250 million bribe. The bribe would be shared between Peña Nieto and his closest government aides and advisors, said Villa. In return, the Mexican president would call off a national manhunt to capture the Sinaloa cartel leader. Following prolonged negotiations, Guzmán agreed to pay Peña Nieto $100 million, said Villa, in order to secure his freedom.

This is not the first time that a witness in the trial of Guzmán has alleged that the Sinaloa cartel leader bribed senior Mexican government officials, including police and military leaders. However, it is the most sensational allegation to have emerged the trial so far, and —if true— points out that even the highest echelons of the Mexican state have succumbed to the moneyed power of the drug cartels. Last November, when Guzmán’s trial began, his lawyers hinted that claims of corruption would be aired against the highest levels of the Mexican government, including two of its recent presidents, which they called “completely corrupt”. At the time, Peña Nieto’s office issued a statement condemning the allegations and saying that the former president had never received bribes from anyone.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 January 2019 | Permalink

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Shiite militias ‘acting like mafia gangs’ in Iraq’s former ISIS-held areas

Popular Mobilization ForcesThe Shiite militias that fought in the war against the Islamic State are now “engaged in mafia-like practices” in former Islamic State strongholds, enraging Iraqi Sunnis and sparking fears of another Islamist insurgency, according to a leading article in The Washington Post.  In 2014, the meteoric rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria —ISIS, later renamed Islamic State— was largely aided by Sunni Arabs’ belief that they were second-class citizens in a Shiite-dominated Iraq. Popular support for the Islamic State among Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority took the Iraqi government by surprise and almost enabled the militant group to conquer Baghdad in 2015. Today, after the destruction of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate, Iraq’s Shiite-dominated security and intelligence services have returned to Sunni-majority regions that were once ruled by ISIS.

But there signs that about 50 Shiite militias, which were supported by the Iraqi state throughout the war against ISIS, are now becoming highly autonomous armed gangs that are undermining the central government in Baghdad. These militias —many of which are politically aligned with Iran— are essentially armed wings of Shiite political parties that control more than a quarter of the seats in the Iraqi parliament. In 2014, the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government attempted to utilize the power of the militias by uniting them under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). PMF troops participated in every major front of the war against ISIS and today are an officially recognized military force with rank and salary structures that are equivalent to those of the Iraqi military and police. Technically, the PMF operate under the command of the Iraqi prime minister. In reality, however, the militias that make up the PMF are led by their respective Shiite commanders, many of whom are ideologically allied to Tehran.

The PMF militias are today in control of much of Sunni-dominated Western Iraq, which they helped retake from ISIS. According to Washington Post correspondents Tamer el-Ghobashy and Mustafa Salim, the militias are now using their newfound territorial power to make large sums of money. Various PMF militias operate countless checkpoints across Western Iraq, on roads between cities or —increasingly— within cities such as Mosul, imposing toll fees on supply trucks and even on individual motorists. The two Washington Post correspondents warn that these militia members are beginning to exhibit “mafia-like” behavior, establishing protection rackets and kidnapping motorists at night in order to release them for a fee paid by their families.

Additionally, PMF commanders make arbitrary decisions about which of the nearly 2 million Iraqi Sunnis, who were displaced in refugee camps due to the war, are allowed to return to their homes. Many of these homes and land that used to belong to Iraqi Sunnis are now being expropriated by PMF commanders, who claim that their previous owners collaborated with ISIS, often without evidence. This practice, say el-Ghobashy and Salim, is rapidly altering the demographic balance between Sunnis and Shiites throughout Western Iraq. The two authors forewarn that these mafia-like practices by the PMF are “fostering local resentments […] and revive the kind of Sunni grievances that underpinned the Islamic State’s dramatic rise three years ago”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 January 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: Iraq’s revenge campaign against Sunnis fuels new pro-ISIS wave

Iraq security forcesA campaign of revenge by Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government against Sunni Arabs in regions once controlled by the Islamic State is aiding Islamists and fueling another rebellion in the country, according to a new report. In 2014, the meteoric rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria —ISIS, later renamed to Islamic State— was largely aided by the strong belief among Iraqi Sunnis that they were second-class citizens in a Shiite-dominated Iraq. In addition to its Sunni credentials, the Islamic State was also able to appeal to Iraqi Sunnis by portraying itself as pious, efficient and trustworthy. This image was in a sharp contrast to the widespread provincial view of politicians in Baghdad as corrupt, indifferent and ineffectual. Popular support for the Islamic State among Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority took the Iraqi government by surprise and almost enabled the militant group to conquer Baghdad in 2015.

Today, after the destruction of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate, Iraq’s Shiite-dominated security and intelligence services have returned to Sunni-majority regions that were once ruled by ISIS. But their systematic campaign of human-rights violations against Sunnis, whom they see as ISIS collaborators, is playing into Islamist propaganda and fueling a new wave of rebellion against Baghdad, according to a new report by the Washington-based Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The report, authored by The New Yorker staff writer Ben Taub, warns that the Iraqi government has no strategy on how to reach out to Iraq’s disaffected Sunni Arabs. Even worse, a state-sanctioned campaign of revenge and intimidation is taking place throughout western Iraq, in which “hundreds of thousands of civilians are suffering at the hands of their liberators”, says Taub.

In areas that until a few months ago were ruled by ISIS, anyone —regardless of age or sex— perceived as having previously supported ISIS is outright killed or sent to concentration camps. For Iraqi security forces, says Taub, civilians who did not flee ISIS are seen as inherently suspicious. Bearded men are often viewed as displaying evidence of ISIS support, even though the militant group had a policy of punishing any man who did not grow a beard in accordance with Quranic directives. Most of these people, says Taub, are fired from their jobs, sent to prison, or worse are executed by the dozens and even hundreds. A handful are tried in a court of law each month, but these are usually show trials with a conviction rate of 98 percent, he adds. Family members of the accused rarely show up in court, fearing immediate arrest and imprisonment, which appears to be a regular occurrence. It is “not uncommon for relatives [of accused ISIS supporters] to be rounded up by the security forces and sent to remote desert camps, where they are denied food, medical services, and access to documents”, reports Taub.

These arbitrary arrests are happening alongside an untold number of battlefield executions —many captured on video by jubilant Shiite soldiers and militia members— and killings of prisoners in detention centers. Taub quotes an anonymous senior official in the Iraqi intelligence services who says that “this is not just revenge on ISIS. It is revenge on Sunnis”. The widespread criminality and brutality of the Iraqi security and intelligence forces “plays directly into the jihadis’ narrative”, says Taub, by convincing Sunni Arabs that they “cannot live safely under a government dominated by Shiites”. Ultimately, what is at stake is “whether the Iraqi government can win over the segment of the population for whom ISIS seemed a viable alternative”, concludes Taub, and warns of the possibility of another armed rebellion against Baghdad by what is left of Iraq’s Sunni minority.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 December 2018 | Permalink

Pakistan removes judge who accused spy agency of trying to rig general election

Shaukat Aziz SiddiquiThe government of Pakistan has dismissed a High Court judge who accused the country’s powerful intelligence agency of interfering with the judicial process in order to rig the outcome of last July’s general election. On July 25, the governing center-right Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) was unseated by the conservative-centrist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, headed by former cricket star Imran Khan. The elections took place amidst a corruption scandal that saw Nawaz Sharif, former prime minister of Pakistan and leading member of PML-N, arrested on charges of fraud. Sharif was charged following the release of the so-called Panama papers, the massive data leak of documents belonging to Panamanian offshore firm Mossack Fonseca. The leak disclosed that Sharif and his family were owners of a large number of high-end properties in the United Kingdom and elsewhere around the world.

Shortly after the revelations, Sharif moved to Britain, where he and his children cared for his ailing wife. During his absence, he was sentenced in absentia to ten years in prison. Sharif chose to return to Pakistan on July 13, less than two weeks prior to the general election, and was arrested upon arriving in Islamabad. His supporters claim that the media spectacle surrounding his imprisonment severely hurt PML-N’s electoral performance. Last month, the High Court in Islamabad suspended Sharif’s prison sentence and ordered his release on bail, saying that the prosecution had failed to prove conclusively that the high-end properties in the UK belonged to him. Sharif’s release prompted renewed accusations of electoral rigging by PML-N supporters, who claim that Sharif could have been released from prison before the elections, and that the High Court deliberately withheld its decision until this month in order to hurt PML-N.

In July, Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, a High Court judge, publicly added his voice to those claiming that Sharif’s arrest had been politically motivated. In a speech given before the Rawalpindi Bar Association, the High Court judge accused Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) of exercising pressure on High Court judges in order to delay the decision to release Sharif on bail until after the general election. Justice Siddiqui’s charges made national headlines and prompted strong denials from the Pakistani military, which governs the ISI, and the Pakistan High Court. The latter launched an investigation of Justice Siddiqui, following a complaint issued by the country’s military leadership.

On Friday, the panel of judges that carried out the investigation on Justice Siddiqui, accused him of “conduct unbecoming of a judge of a high court” and recommended his removal from the High Court. On the same day, the Ministry of Justice of Pakistan announced that the country’s President, Arif Alvi, was “pleased to remove Mr. Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui […] from his office with immediate effect”. The announcement did not elaborate on the precise reasons that led to Justice Siddiqui’s removal from the country’s High Court. Siddiqui’s firing marks the first time that a judge has been dismissed under an elected government in Pakistan. In the past, such incidents have occurred only under military dictatorships, which have ruled Pakistan for prolonged periods since the country’s independence in 1947.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 October 2018 | Permalink

Malaysia charges senior intelligence officials with stealing government funds

Azam Baki MalaysiaEight senior officials of Malaysia’s external intelligence agency, including its former director, have been arrested, allegedly for stealing over $16 million from government coffers. The arrests represent a dramatic widening of the anti-corruption campaign that has gripped the Asian nation of 31 million since it was launched in May of this year. The campaign is led by a special task force within the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). The task force was set up by Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, with the aim of probing the so-called 1MDB scandal. The acronym refers to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad, a government-owned strategic development company spearheaded by Malaysia’s then Prime Minister, Dato Sri Najib Razak, with the aim of raising funds to match foreign direct investment in the country.

However, in 2015 opposition politicians began to allege that hundreds of millions of dollars had gone missing from the fund. In May 2018, when Malaysia’s current prime minister took office, the MACC launched a nationwide investigation into the allegations. Meanwhile, Western governments, including the United States, alleged that several billions in 1MDB funds invested from abroad were stolen and used to purchase a superyacht, private airplanes and other luxury items, such as jewelry, clothing and fine art. By August, the 1MDB probe had turned into the largest corruption investigation in Malaysia’s history. On August 6, former Prime Minister Najib Razak was charged with several counts of money laundering and was barred from leaving the country.

On Thursday, MACC’s Operations Commissioner, Azam Baki said at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur that police had arrested eight current and former member of the Malaysian External Intelligence Organization (MEIO). The eight included officials, case officers, and the agency’s former Director, Hasanah Abdul Hamid, said Baki. He added that during the arrests police seized over $6 million in cash and luxury items from several locations, including from MEIO’s headquarters in Putrajaya, Malaysia’s administrative center located 25 miles south of Kuala Lumpur. A ninth person, an unnamed Malaysian businessman who lives in London, had also been arrested, said the MACC official. According to a government press release, the eight current and former members of MEIO are connected to a transfer of $16 million from the 1MDB fund to private bank accounts in Malaysia and abroad. All eight have denied the charges through their lawyers.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 August 2018 | Permalink

Vietnam arrests deputy security minister in unprecedented anti-corruption campaign

Phan Van Anh VuIn a move that has stunned Vietnamese society, authorities in Hanoi have arrested one of the country’s most powerful security officials, allegedly for helping a business tycoon and former intelligence agent escape abroad. The move, which observes described as “unprecedented” in modern Vietnamese history, signals a widening of the anti-corruption campaign that started in 2016 and is now affecting Vietnam’s powerful intelligence agencies. Vietnam boasts one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies, but its economic performance is severely hampered by corruption, which is endemic in the communist country of 93 million. In its most recent Corruption Perceptions Index, Transparency International ranked Vietnam 107th out of the world’s 180 countries, behind nations like Colombia, Albania and Zambia. Two years ago, the Vietnamese government launched an anti-corruption campaign, which has so far resulted in a wave of arrests and demotions of senior officials in the country’s lucrative energy and banking sectors. The moves have stunned the Vietnamese public, which is not used to witnessing public discussions of corruption, let alone the open punishment of state officials.

Until this week, one major area of government appeared to have been spared from the anti-corruption probe: the feared security and intelligence community. This largely means the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), which is the most powerful civilian agency in the country and has traditionally been off-limits during previous transitional periods in Vietnam’s turbulent history. The MPS is in charge of the country’s extensive police force, its civilian intelligence wing, and its nascent cyber security units. The size of its employee base is classified, though it is believed to be vast.

But now the traditional shielding of the MPS from the unprecedented changes taking place in the Vietnamese government appears to have ended. On Wednesday, authorities announced the arrest of Bui Van Thanh, MPS’ deputy minister and the country’s second most powerful intelligence official. A press statement issued by the government said that Thanh had committed “serious violations in his work”. Consequently, he had been dismissed and his military rank would be lowered from lieutenant general to colonel. Government officials said Thanh came under suspicion for facilitating the escape of Phan Van Anh Vu, a government employee who became a property tycoon after amassing a large personal fortune while working as an MPS agent. Vu was wanted by Hanoi for allegedly selling state secrets in exchange for money, but managed to leave the country. In January, however, he was arrested in Singapore and extradited to Vietnam. He reportedly told authorities that a fake passport in his possession had been given to him by Thanh. He also said that Thanh helped him buy state property by giving him inside information affecting the sale prices. In July, Vu was jailed or nine years for espionage and corruption, following a closed-door trial. The precise charges against him remain unclear.

Earlier this week, the Vietnamese government announced that a “major restructuring” would be taking place in the MPS, with the aim of reducing its size and maximizing its efficiency. Government media reported that “hundreds of departments” would be merged and the overall structure of the organization would be heavily scrutinized. Many observers believe that more arrests and demotions will follow in connection with this announcement. Some critics have argued, however, that political infighting is fueling the anti-corruption probe and that it is a concealed attempt to neutralize intra-party opponents of the current administration in Hanoi.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 August 2018 | Permalink

 

 

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