A Lebanese businessman with alleged ties to the militant group Hezbollah was arrested by Brazilian authorities for of all things operating a fraudulent scheme in the clothing industry.
Brazil’s Civil Police arrested Hamzi Ahmad Barakat in the city of Curitiba in southern Brazil under allegations that he has connections to a network of front companies that fleeced Lebanese immigrants who have recently moved to Brazil.
Barakat, who has ties to the infamous Triple Frontier region of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, is listed in the United States as a member of Hezbollah and is suspected of trafficking arms, drugs, explosives and counterfeit bills.
“He was preying on his own countrymen, using their identities to create companies to carry out schemes,” Cassiano Aufiero, the police investigator in charge of the case, told The New York Times.
Aufiero added that while he knew of Barakat’s purported ties to radical Shi'a Islamic militant group, he said that he was under arrest for different matters, including embezzlement and the creation of false documents.
Barakat’s arrest does shed a new light on the Triple Border region, which has become a hotspot for smugglers and drawn the attention of the U.S., Israel and governments throughout South America. A 2006 Treasury Department designation named Barakat as a Hezbollah member and funder of the group through a store he owned in Paraguay.
The region has drawn a number of immigrants for the Middle East, particularly from Lebanon, and is believed to be one of Hezbollah's major areas of operation outside of the Islamic world, due to its seclusion, loose borders, rampant political corruption and weak judicial system. While the U.S. has said that Barakat and eight others in the Triple Frontier region were linked to Hezbollah, Brazil’s government said that there were no signs of terrorism financing in the border region.
In 2004, Barakat’s brother, Assad Ahmad Barakat, was named by the Treasury Department as one of Hezbollah’s “most prominent and influential members” and was believed to have used an electronics wholesale store in the Triple Frontier as a cover for raising funds for Hezbollah. The Brazilian police arrested him in 2002 and deported him to Paraguay, where he went to prison for tax evasion.