Ecuador Police Bust Cocaine Ring With Suspected Hezbollah Links, 19 Arrested

QUITO - Police broke up an international cocaine ring led by a Lebanese restaurant owner suspected of raising money for the Islamic militant group Hezbollah, Ecuadorian authorities announced yesterday.

They declined to elaborate on the ring's alleged links to terrorist activities "until further investigation."

But an internal police report obtained by The Associated Press said preliminary evidence "confirms the relationship between this organization and the terrorist movement Hezbollah." The document said the gang sent "up to 70 percent of its profits to the Islamic group."

The group smuggled cocaine principally to Europe and Asia in shipments valued at $1 million each, the report said. Authorities detected the operation in September.

Anti-narcotics police on Tuesday presented a lineup of the alleged Lebanese ringleader, Rady Zaiter, and five other male suspects from Lebanon, Syria, Nigeria, Algiers and Turkey, in addition to an Ecuadorean woman. Some of the suspects tried to cover their faces with their handcuffed hands while local journalists took photographs.

The Ecuadorean investigation led to the arrests of 19 people in Brazil and the United States, the report said.

Brazilian authorities, however, said yesterday they had no evidence that 14 Lebanese arrested in their territory on Friday were connected to Hezbollah.

"We have discovered nothing linking these people to Hezbollah or to any other extremist group operating in the Middle East," said Julio Bortolato, of Brazil's federal police.

According to the Ecuadorean police report, Zaiter "had organized a large narcoterrorist infrastructure," using his Arab food restaurant in northern Quito as a front.

He and Maher Hamajo, the Syrian who was arrested, allegedly used couriers who hid cocaine in suit cases and ingested it into their stomachs to smuggle the drugs into Europe, Asia and other South American countries.

The group "recruited" Ecuadorean airport officials to evade security checks, according to the report. The report also said police discovered four houses used by the suspects and seized two autos, two motorcycles, two pistols, two shotguns and $174,115 in cash.