Argentina’s Casino Iguanzu Outed Group Linked to Hezbollah
Last month, Argentina’s Financial Services Unit (Unidad de Informacion Financiera) from the assets of a Lebanese crime family linked to Hezbollah, the Shi’a Islamist party and militant group based in Lebanon. This week, Director Ken Blanco of the US Treasury’s FinCEN division credited Casino Iguazu, a casino in Puerto Iguazu, with tipping off the Financial Services Unit with that family’s suspicious activity.
The group is question is the Barakat Clan, a Lebanese crime family which is accused by Argentina of running a terrorist fundraising network in the Tri-Border Area between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. The Barakat Clan is accused of laundering millions of dollars to fund Hezbollah’s activities in Lebanon.
Assad Ahmad Barakat, the current leader of the Barakat Clan, was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2004. At the same time, the leader of the Barakat Clan was listed as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” by the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Ken Blanco Tells of Casino Iguanzu
Ken Blanco, who is the current director of US Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), spoke this week at the 11th Annual Las Vegas Anti-Money Laundering Conference and Expo. During his remarks, Blanco told a story of how FinCEN received word from the Financial Services Unit about the activities of the Barakat Clan in their country.
The FinCEN director emphasized to the assembly in Las Vegas how Casino Iguazu was instrumental in exposing the money laundering activities of the Lebanese terrorist network. Blanco’s remarks were designed to highlight the importance of casino’s tracking suspicious activity and reporting to authorities possible money laundering cases.
During his speech, Ken Blanco said, “Last month, following an information exchange between FinCEN and Argentina’s…Unidad de Informacion Financiera (Financial Services Unit)…Argentina took decisive action to freeze assets belonging to a transnational criminal organization linked to Hezbollah and its global terror network.”
“Clan Barakat is infamous for its suspected involvement in smuggling, counterfeiting, extortion, drug trafficking, arms trafficking, money laundering, and terrorist financing.”
Argentina-Brazil Border Trips
The Tri-Border area between Argentina and Brazil has about 40,000 transits per week. Authorities simply cannot stop every single vehicle to check for illicit cash and other contraband. Barakat Clan was using the lax border security to bring large quantities of cash from Brazil into the country and then back.
The purpose was to launder money in Casino Iguazu by converting the cash into chips, then exchanging those chips for different currency when their gaming sessions was over. In doing so, the money would be clean – that is, untraceable or harder for authorities to track.
MAITIC Official on Loose Borders
An official at Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (MAITIC), an Israeli research group with close ties to the Israel Defense Forces, described how border officials cannot police thousands of transits per day.
The MAITIC expert said, “Given such numbers, authorities cannot control each vehicle without bringing traffic to a halt. Without real-time intelligence, it is virtually impossible for Argentina’s authorities to catch large quantities of undeclared cash and thus prevent the exploitation of the casino, merely a hundred yards beyond Argentina’s customs station, for money laundering purposes.”
Casino Iguanzu Reports Money Laundering
Given the difficulty tracking money laundering across border checkpoints, the burden to police suspicious activity falls on businesses on either side of the border. Casino Iguanzu noted that the Barakat Clan members exchanged money in that way hundreds of times over an unspecified amount of time. Casino management can look the other way in such cases, treating such customers as high rollers bringing huge amounts of revenues into the casino. They gamble money like any other bettor, usually losing more than they win.
In the case of Casino Iguanzu, the management thought the activity was suspicious and reported it to Unidad de Informacion Financiera. They investigated and realized the Barakat family members were laundering money to fund Hezbollah’s activities. In such a way, money laundering through casinos can help groups like Hezbollah fund terrorist activities – according to Ken Blanco.
The head of FinCEN added to the audience in Las Vegas, “I believe casinos are good and important partners that have made significant progress in recent years with respect to anti-money laundering and suspicious activity reports, and, for that, I want to thank you all. The reports your casinos file matter. They are valuable. They make a difference.”
Whether the owners of Casino Iguanzu wanted their decision to expose the Barakat crime family’s activities publicly outed is another matter. While Lebanese terrorists probably have more to worry about than extracting revenge on Argentinian casinos, revenge is a key part of terrorist groups’ rationale. Whatever the case, Casino Iguanzu should be lauded for their ethnics and courage.