Miami businessmen face terrorism charges www.privateofficer.com
Three Miami-Dade businessmen face terrorism-related smuggling charges alleging they secretly exported video-game players to a shopping center in Paraguay that U.S. authorities say served as a front for financing the Middle East terrorist group, Hezbollah.
The businessmen — Khaled T. Safadi, Ulises Talavera and Emilio Gonzalez-Neira — were arrested late Thursday on conspiracy charges of violating a post-9/11 law that prohibits any person or company from doing business with a U.S.-designated terrorist group.
Safadi, 56, owner of Cedar Distributors Inc., and Talavera, 46, owner of Transamerica Express of Miami, were arrested in Doral. Gonzalez-Neira, 43, owner of Jumbo Cargo Inc., was arrested in Sunny Isles Beach. Their export and freight-forwarding businesses were also named as defendants in the 11-count indictment unsealed Friday.
While the indictment does not identify the terrorist organization, it explicitly names a U.S. black-listed shopping and office complex in Paraguay to which the businessmen allegedly sold thousands of Sony PlayStation 2 consoles and Sony digital cameras during 2007 and 2008.
The Treasury Department has singled out the commercial mall, Galeria Page, as a funding source for the U.S.-designated terrorist and political organization Hezbollah, based in Lebanon.
Safadi’s defense attorney, Michael Tein, said in an interview that his client was innocent, mocking the indictment by calling it “the great Sony PlayStation caper.”
“Believe it or not, this indictment actually charges these gentleman with supporting Hezbollah by shipping them Sony PlayStations,” Tein said. “I guess that’s a new type of weapon of mass destruction.”
On Friday, federal prosecutors Russell Koonin and Allyson Fritz said the three defendants are flight risks and should be held without bail before trial. Magistrate Judge Peter Palermo scheduled bail hearings for March 1 and arraignments for March 5.
A fourth suspect, Samer Mehdi, who owns a business called Jomana Import Export that operated in the Galeria Page Mall in Ciudad del Este, also was charged. Mehdi, a 37-year-old Brazilian and Paraguayan national, has not been arrested.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents working with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in South Florida began the investigation into the alleged smuggling ring in 2007.
According to the indictment, Safadi was a distributor of the Sony-brand electronics to the freight-forwarders, Talavera and Gonzalez-Neira. They shipped the products to Mehdi.
To conceal the true destination of the shipments, the defendants fabricated invoices with false addresses and fictitious consignees on required export paperwork, according to the indictment.
Also, Mehdi’s wire-transfer payments in Paraguay to the U.S. distributors were routed through various facilities to mask their true origin, the indictment states.
John Morton, assistant secretary of Homeland Security for ICE, said the investigation was aimed at dismantling “criminal organizations that support designated terrorist entities and participate in the illicit trade of commodities that support terrorist activities” against the United States.
According to the Treasury Department, the Galeria Page Mall and offices there are considered the central headquarters for Hezbollah members in the tri-border region of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.
Muhammad Yusif Abdallah, a manager of Galeria Page, paid a regular quota to Hezbollah based on profits he received from the mall, a 2006 Treasury statement said.
The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control also said the mall was part of a South American network that aided Assad Ahmad Barakat, who has been on the U.S. terrorist blacklist since 2004.
“Assad Ahmad Barakat’s network in [South America] is a major financial artery to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Adam Szubin, director of OFAC, said in the release.
Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this report.