Smuggling ring ferrying African Islamics from terror watch countries had help from corrupt Mexican official in Belize consulate office

See related story: Afghans caught trying Mubai route to Mexico

See Breaching America series on how Islamic immigrants cross U.S. borders

By Todd Bensman

With help from a bribed official in Mexico's Belize consulate office, two men from Ghana ran a transcontinental smuggling operation that ferried dozens of unauthorized immigrants into Texas from countries the State Department regards as terrorist havens, federal court records and interviews show.

Since at least 2005, the operation helped as many as 100 U.S.-bound immigrants, paying as little as $5,000 each, from such countries as Sudan and Somalia, travel by air and ground to Mexico and then over the U.S. border to Houston.

Some of the money ended up in the pockets of at least one Mexican Consulate employee in Belize whose corruption, the two ringleaders have now confessed, provided the crucial link in the pipeline.

A U.S. national security investigation involving Belize and Mexican law enforcement agencies shut the pipeline down with the arrests last fall of Ghana native Mohammed Kamel Ibrahim, based in Mexico City, and Sampson Lovelace Boateng, a Ghanan who lived in Belize.

Both men — Boateng was arrested in Miami and Ibrahim was extradited from Mexico — pleaded guilty last week in Washington, D.C., to charges related to the smuggling. Each faces up to 15 years in prison.

Immigrants brought in by Boateng and Ibrahim hailed from African nations where anti-American terrorist groups are active and spreading, raising the specter that some of them might have entered undetected with ill intent.

Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Homeland Security and formerly a senior FBI administrator, said such complex operations provide a possible conduit for terrorists.

“It's not the ones we catch that we're concerned about, since they're no longer a threat; it's the ones we have not caught, or will not catch. Anybody from a country with known terrorism links is one too many,” he said.

The government flags as “special interest aliens” unauthorized travelers from more than 40 countries in the Middle East, South Asia or North Africa because of fears they might have been sent by terrorist groups. When caught by American authorities, special interest immigrants draw additional investigative scrutiny.

More than 330 special interest immigrants have been caught this year in Texas alone, from countries such as Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iraq, Department of Homeland Security records show. McCraw said it's safe to assume that many others did not get caught and remain in the U.S.

Washington prosecutors, through a spokesman, declined to say whether any of those smuggled by Ibrahim and Boateng into Texas might have had terrorist ties.

A lawyer for Boateng said his client was in business for profit.

“It was basically a service with not a lot of screening,” said appointed defense attorney Edward C. Sussman of Washington D.C. “There was really no knowledge that anyone was anyone, but just people trying to get over the border.”

Last week's guilty pleas by Boateng and Ibrahim highlight a recurring headache for Washington that has defied remedy: mounting instances in which allegedly bribed Mexico's foreign consulate workers supplied fraudulent travel documents.

In 2005, for instance, Mexican authorities fired or tried to prosecute embassy personnel in Beirut for taking bribes that allowed Lebanese nationals to illegally enter Mexico and then the U.S., including one man later convicted in Detroit of supporting the terror group Hezbollah.

Another similar scandal broke out last year in Mexico's Colombia embassy. Earlier this year, Indian authorities caught Afghans en route to Mexico posing as Mexicans with real passports they allegedly bought from a Mexican Consulate office in Mumbai.

Now, the consulate office in Belize is implicated.

According to their plea agreements, recruiters working in Kenya and other African countries steered customers to Ibrahim, considered the organization's leader, in Mexico City. After sending thousands of dollars in fees to Ibrahim, travelers would send their passports to Boateng in Belize.

In Belize, according to Boateng's confession, he would bribe a Mexican Consulate employee to stamp the passports with valid Mexican visas and send them back to the clients in Africa along with plane tickets to Mexico.

Court documents offer no information about who in the consulate office was involved. Mexican authorities did not respond to interview requests.

The travelers would embark on journeys that would stretch to South Africa, then South America, Central America and, finally, Mexico for a land crossing into Texas.

In Mexico, Ibrahim would take over. Charter bus employees on his payroll transported the immigrants in sleeper or luggage compartments to the border. Mexican smugglers would take them across the river.

Court records indicate both men grew confident over time. In one e-mail exchange with a client in Africa who was dubious about a new American border fence going up, Ibrahim replied: “There is a lot of rumor here but there is still a way to enter. Don't worry about that. ... The wall will start building next year. It is still ok from now to February next year.”

James Conway, a former top FBI counter-terrorism official with extensive experience in Mexico, said he fears Mexico is too preoccupied with its war against drug cartels to concern itself with cleaning up foreign consulates.

“These types of cases are not U.S. unilateral operations, and their success is dependent upon the joint cooperation of agencies across the globe,” he said. “With the current level of narco-terrorism with which Mexico is suffering, one has to be concerned as to the level of resources our Mexican law enforcement and intelligence partners can provide.