The U.S. government said Thursday that it was hitting two Lebanese-Colombian men and dozens of companies they run with sanctions for allegedly laundering money on behalf of Mexican and Colombian drug cartels.
Officials said one of the companies was tied to an alleged drug kingpin who has been accused of running a money-laundering scheme on behalf of the militant group Hezbollah.
The move blocks any assets in the U.S. belonging to Lebanese-Colombian nationals Jorge Fadlallah Cheaitelly and Mohamad Zouheir El Khansa, and blocks Americans from doing business with them.
Panamanian and Colombian authorities did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
The Treasury Department said Cheaitelly leads a Panama-based drug trafficking and money laundering organization with operations as far as Hong Kong. El Khansa is seen as a key partner.
The department also applied sanctions to nine people with ties to the men, and 28 entities in Colombia, Panama, Lebanon and Hong Kong. The companies placed under U.S. sanction include electronics stores, luggage outlets and several money-exchange businesses.
The department’s sanctions chief, Adam Szubin, said the U.S. was forcing a major money laundering network out of the international financial system, undermining its ability to help the cartels.
According to the Treasury Department, Cheaitelly has ties with Ayman Joumaa, who has been indicted in U.S. federal court on charges of leading a drug conspiracy that provided income for Hezbollah, which has been designated by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization since 1997.
The Drug Enforcement Administration has alleged that Joumaa’s organization laundered money using 50 used car lots in the United States. Cars were exported to Lebanon and West Africa.
Prosecutors have accused Joumaa of involvement in a massive international scheme in which Lebanese financial institutions, including banks and two exchange houses linked to Hezbollah, passed money through the U.S. financial system to launder narcotics trafficking and other criminal proceeds through West Africa and back into Lebanon.
The government said substantial portions of the cash were paid to Hezbollah.
According to Thursday’s announcement, one of Cheatilly’s companies used to be run by Joumaa, and Joumaa’s brothers continue to help operate it.