On the surface, Lebanese-born Ali Kassir looked like he was living the American dream in Miami with his bustling shipping business importing electronic products from China and exporting them to Paraguay.
Kassir, a naturalized U.S. citizen, moved millions of dollars in mobile phones, battery chargers and video-game consoles through Miami International Airport.
But then the feds caught him importing counterfeit goods like iPhone and Samsung knockoffs from Hong Kong and shipping them to Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, a commercial hub of keen interest to federal authorities. They believe Ciudad del Este’s currency-exchange houses collaborate with contraband smugglers, drug traffickers and other criminals in money-laundering schemes — including some that financially support the U.S.-designated terrorist group Hezbollah, based in Lebanon.
“It’s a very notorious area,” Miami federal prosecutor Michael Thakur told a U.S. district judge at Kassir’s sentencing hearing on Friday.
Kassir, 34, who pleaded guilty in November to conspiring to commit money laundering along with passport fraud, was sentenced to two years in prison by U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke. Kassir has not been linked to Hezbollah, but his case was investigated by the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force in South Florida. He must surrender to prison authorities on Sept. 6.
Shipping counterfeit goods through Miami represented only a fraction of Kassir’s crime, according to court records. Over a three-year period leading up to his arrest in 2018, Kassir withdrew almost $155 million from his shipping company’s bank account, the majority of the funds for wire transfers, according to a statement filed with his plea agreement. Yet he reported to U.S. Customs that his company, An Imex Inc., exported about $85 million in electronic products to Paraguay.
The huge discrepancy totaled almost $70 million in suspicious wire transfers.
Kassir wasn’t just shipping counterfeit goods from China through his company, An Imex. He also used a shell business, 4G Global Trading, to disguise his illicit transactions. And, he tapped into both to move millions of dollars for global entities that wanted to send money to Paraguayan currency exchanges, which operate like banks, according to the statement filed with Kassir’s plea deal. He also created phony invoices to make it look like the wire transfers were for products being shipped to Ciudad del Este.
“WhatsApp messages and bank records show that Kassir used the bank accounts from the An Imex and 4G businesses that he controlled to provide cover for illicit bulk cash pick-ups within the U.S. and wire transfers to facilitate a global network of unlicensed money transfers,” the statement says.
“Kassir received millions of dollars in third-party international wires made by intermediaries he knew were engaging in money transmitting for a fee, unrelated to the sale or purchase of goods from Kassir, to obscure the true origin of the funds.”
At Friday’s sentencing hearing, Thakur, the prosecutor, described the scheme as “trade-based money laundering,” calling it a “serious crime.”
“He had wire transfers from all over the world that had nothing to do with these products,” Thakur said.
The prosecutor sought a four-year sentence for Kassir, but Judge Cooke gave him half that time in prison after defense attorney Jeffrey Weiner argued for house arrest.
Weiner downplayed his client’s transactions with the money exchanges in South America, saying the “cambios” in the so-called Tri-border area of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina are common and integral to business dealings. He said his client used them for his shipping company, An Imex.
“It doesn’t make it inherently bad,” Weiner said.
In recent years, U.S. authorities have stepped up investigations of numerous companies in Miami and New York that buy and sell electronic products in dealings with businesses in the Tri-border area, especially Ciudad del Este, which is known as a massive money-laundering center for all types of commercial- and drug-smuggling activity.
One federal target is Nader Mohamad Farhat, who was arrested in Paraguay last year and awaits extradition to Miami and New York in connection with three money-laundering cases.
Farhat’s money-exchange company — located in the Jebai Center, the most upscale shopping mall in Ciudad del Este — helped finance the distribution of counterfeit electronic goods as well as wire transfers totaling millions of dollars, according to federal indictments and law enforcement sources familiar with the Miami and New York cases.