Hezbollah financing evolves beyond Colombia’s Muslim communities

MAICAO, Colombia — Samira Hajj Ahmad flew to Maicaofrom Beirut in 1982 for her honeymoon. She didn’t intend to stay for 31 years. Nor did she expect Hezbollah to follow her.

During her two days of flying to Colombia, war broke out in southern Lebanon, with some of the largest troop movements in her native Beqaa Valley. Israel had invaded southern Lebanon to root out a nascent Shiite extremist group known as Hezbollah that had been using the country as a base from which to attack northern Israel. Her family encouraged her to stay in Maicao, a dusty border town with a free trade zone that is home to Colombia’s largest Muslim population.

Today, Hezbollah is the most powerful political movement in Lebanon — and its influence stretches all the way to Maicao. Each year, millions of dollars of drug money are laundered in Maicao, where some community members openly proclaim their support for Hezbollah. Recent U.S. Treasury Department actions have slowed the flow of cash to terrorist groups, but financiers have fled and new networks have reconstituted that are harder to identify. Meanwhile, the usual suspects — Lebanese descendant Colombians — are tired of taking the blame.

Hajj Ahmad, 49, occasionally reads with shock the Maicao newspaper reports of neighbors blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury Department for financing the terrorist group. Such was the case for a young woman with a pretty face and black hijab or headscarf who lived alone with her sons and tended nearby family shops.