TIJUANA, Mexico — The men flocked to the cafe under the sign with the cedar tree, symbol of their Mideast home. In this alien border land, it was the beacon that led to an Arab “brother” who would help them complete their journey from Lebanon into America.
They would come to find Salim Boughader Mucharrafille — the cafe owner who catered to some of Tijuana’s more affluent denizens, including workers at the U.S. consulate. His American customers were unaware that the boss of La Libanesa cafe ran a less reputable business on the side.
Until his arrest in December 2002, Boughader smuggled about 200 Lebanese compatriots into the United States, including sympathizers of Hezbollah, designated a terrorist organization by U.S. authorities. One client worked for a Hezbollah-owned television network, which glorifies suicide bombers and is itself on an American terror watch list.
'What’s the crime in bringing your brother?'
“If they had the cedar on their passport, you were going to help them,” Boughader told The Associated Press from a Mexico City prison, where he faces charges following a human-smuggling conviction in the United States. “What’s the crime in bringing your brother so that he can get out of a war zone?”
A report released by the Sept. 11 commission staff last year examining how terrorists travel the world cited Boughader as the only “human smuggler with suspected links to terrorists” convicted to date in the United States.
But he is not unique.
After Boughader was locked up, other smugglers continued to help Hezbollah-affiliated migrants in their effort to illicitly enter from Tijuana, a U.S. immigration investigator said in Mexican court documents obtained by the AP.
Another smuggling network that is controlled by Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger rebel group — a U.S.-designated terror organization — tried sneaking four Tigers over the California-Mexico border not long after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said Steven Schultz, of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. The four were caught.
Investigation finds many pipelines
An AP investigation found these are just some of the many pipelines in Latin America and Canada that have illegally channeled thousands of people into the United States from so-called “special-interest” countries — those identified by the U.S. government as sponsors or supporters of terrorism.
The AP reviewed hundreds of pages of court indictments, affidavits, congressional testimony and government reports, and conducted dozens of interviews in Mexico and the United States to determine how migrants from countries with terrorist ties were brought illegally to America — and how the smugglers they hired operated.
Many of the travelers, unassociated with any extremist group, genuinely came fleeing war or in search of work. But some, once in the United States, committed fraud to obtain Social Security numbers, driver’s licenses or false immigration documents, court records showed.
One, Lebanese carpenter Mahmoud Youssef Kourani, admitted spending part of his time in the United States raising money to support Hezbollah — at least $40,000, according to an FBI affidavit.
Al-Qaida eyes borders
U.S. homeland security officials maintain they know of no cases of al-Qaida operatives using smuggling operations to enter over the northern or southern boundaries, though they warn that intelligence suggests the terror group is eyeing the borders as a way in.
“Several al-Qaida leaders believe operatives can pay their way into the country through Mexico,” Jim Loy, deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, told a congressional committee in February. Further, he said, “entrenched human smuggling networks and corruption in areas beyond our borders can be exploited by terrorist organizations.”
The Boughader case and others show just how easy it would be.
Smugglers employ recruiters and facilitators in such “special-interest” countries as Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan. One immigrant testified in a 2002 case about a “market of passports” in Iraq where individuals could illegally purchase travel documents.
'Special interest' smugglers
These “special-interest” smugglers use staging areas and transportation coordinators in such places as Quito, Ecuador; Lima, Peru; Cali, Colombia; and Guatemala City. They pay for foot guides, drivers and stash-house operators in Mexico and the United States.
They have moved people by plane — into suburban Washington, D.C., Florida, California. And they have crossed clients in vehicles or on foot into Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California and over the Canadian border.
They have partnered with other smugglers transporting Mexican or Central American migrants.
“People from places in the Middle East will hear about who to go through, and they tend to be people from their same country, but once you get into the system we saw associations that really were driven by, ‘What’s the most effective way for me to move my product?”’ said Laura Ingersoll, an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C.
“A Mafia,” is how one of Boughader’s clients, Roland Nassib Maksoud, once described the business.
$4,000 fee for passage
Maksoud, a liquor distributor, traveled from Lebanon to Mexico on a legal visa in late 2000, he told investigators in Mexican court documents. Two compatriots passed along Boughader’s name for help crossing the U.S. border.
Boughader informed his newest client the fee would be $2,000 up front, plus another $2,000 once Maksoud was in the States. In January 2001, Maksoud was taken to a house on the Mexican side where migrants of “different nationalities” were awaiting passage, he told investigators. One morning, he was crammed into the trunk of a vehicle and driven through the border port of entry.
Other people-couriers, including convicted smuggler Mohammed Hussein Assadi, use altered passports to fly clients to the United States. Assadi schooled his Iraqi customers to carry nothing identifying them as Arab. He advised one migrant to shave his mustache, still another to get a “European” haircut, U.S. court records showed.
Central and South America are popular transit points. Assadi, an Iranian, worked from Ecuador.
Bribery is also common. Boughader’s clients told U.S. and Mexican investigators they paid thousands to obtain fraudulent visas from Mexico’s consular office in Beirut.
Illegal immigrants from every continent
Former U.S. immigration supervisor Maximiano Ramos admitted taking $12,500 to smuggle immigrants from the Philippines, home of the al-Qaida-linked militant group Abu Sayyaf. From 1996 to 2002, at least 40 migrants were diverted from connecting flights at Los Angeles International Airport and escorted out by security guards while Ramos was on duty.
Linda Sesi, an assistant ombudsman for the city of Detroit, is awaiting trial on charges of conspiring with four others to smuggle more than 200 migrants from Iraq, Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries into the United States from 2001 until last September.
Some say human smuggling is too risky to be used by terror operatives. But a former Sept. 11 commission counsel, Janice Kephart, said smuggling already is a chosen transportation mode for such groups.
Intelligence suggests that since 1999 human smugglers have facilitated the travel of terrorists associated with more than a dozen groups, according to the Sept. 11 commission travel report that Kephart helped write.
Smugglers eagerly fill gaps left by arrests
Terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, “use human smugglers and document forgers to a great extent,” Kephart said. “It only makes sense that they would transfer that to infiltrate the United States.”
Dismantling groups smuggling people from countries with terrorist ties is a priority, said John Torres, ICE’s deputy assistant director for smuggling. But often when one smuggler is busted another eagerly fills his shoes.
Following Boughader’s arrest, smuggling of Lebanese through Tijuana ceased for several months, ICE investigator Ramon Romo said in court documents filed in Mexico. Then intelligence in April 2003 revealed that five members of Hezbollah were preparing to cross the border, Romo stated. Mexican authorities made some arrests.
Others have made it through. Kourani entered the United States via the Lebanon-Tijuana pipeline, paying $3,000 in Beirut to get a Mexican visa, according to court documents. On Feb. 4, 2001, he and another man were smuggled into California in the hidden compartment of a vehicle.
Border 'still easy to cross'
Last month, Kourani was sentenced to 4½ years in prison for conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist group.
Boughader acknowledged transporting a Lebanese man who worked at al-Manar, a global satellite television network owned and operated by Hezbollah and included on the U.S. State Department’s Terror Exclusion List.
“I regret that what I was doing is against the law,” said Boughader, a Mexican of Lebanese descent, “but I don’t regret what I did to help people.”
People are still getting such help.
“The checks they do at the border are still very bad,” Boughader said, “because, regardless of everything, it is still easy to cross.”