A South American man with ties to a Middle Eastern terrorist group was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison in Miami federal court on Wednesday after pleading guilty to conspiring to export cocaine to the United States.
Ali Issa Chamas, a Paraguayan of Lebanese descent who is close to a network of relatives linked to Hezbollah, admitted he tried to send a “test” load of three kilos of cocaine to a dealer in Houston as he expanded his drug-trafficking business beyond Europe and the Middle East. In his guilty plea in September, he admitted receiving $5,000 from the Houston contact, “Kuku,” for the planned drug deal last year.
U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams considered a sentencing range of three to four years on Chamas’ distribution conspiracy offense before deciding on his punishment. Although he was not charged with providing support to the U.S.-designated terrorist group, prosecutors argued that the judge should consider his admissions that he distributed cocaine to help finance Hezbollah.
Chamas, extradited this year, has lived for the past decade in Paraguay, which along with Brazil and Argentina form what’s known as the Tri-Border area. U.S. authorities say it’s a hub for a variety of illicit enterprises such as drug trafficking and money laundering that have long operated as fundraising fronts for the Hezbollah. Iran has been suspected of backing Hezbollah’s terrorist activities in the Middle East.
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In court papers, Chamas’ defense attorney insisted he “is not a member of Hezbollah,” a radical Muslim group based in Beirut that was labeled a terrorist organization by Congress after a series of killings and bombings of Israelis and other Western targets, including the deadly 1983 assault on U.S. Marines in Lebanon.
“While he may have extended family in Lebanon with various political affiliations, his immediate family members, including his father, mother, brothers and sisters, are not members of Hezbollah,” assistant federal public defender Bunmi Lomax wrote in a court filing. “In fact, Mr. Chamas, who was born into a Muslim family, married a Christian woman in a church.”
But U.S. authorities depicted Chamas as a sinister trafficker who dealt drugs to support Hezbollah, citing in a court filing his own statements to federal investigators.
After his arrest in August 2016 in Paraguay while trying to send a 39-kilo shipment of cocaine to Turkey, Chamas told U.S. agents there that he was a “global facilitator for Lebanese drug traffickers” and that “some of his family members were Hezbollah and that the Chamas clan was powerful and allied with Hezbollah,” federal prosecutor Aimee Jimenez said in the court filing this month.
She said the defendant admitted to participating in a 31-kilo delivery of cocaine that was seized at Beirut’s international airport in April 2016 and that the profits were going to Hezbollah.
Jimenez said the U.S. attorney’s office was not seeking to enhance Chamas’ sentence based on his alleged assistance to the terrorist group, but she argued that his admissions to Drug Enforcement Administration agents should be considered as part of his punishment.