Colombian police have closed in on a prominent Panamanian businessman and suspected money launderer for drug cartels, Nidal Waked. The United States said Waked controlled an empire of front companies.
Only minutes after Nidal Waked, an affluent Colombian businessman with a complex network of banking, real estate and retail companies, walked through customs at a Bogota airport, anti-narcotics officers swooped in.
The arrest was part of a broad international operation that targeted the financial support system of major Colombian and Mexican drug cartels. According to American officials, Waked is suspected of funneling drug proceeds through his vast business empire.
A day after the arrest, which took place on Wednesday night, the US Treasury Department said it had frozen the assets of 68 companies in Colombia and Panama City, whose reputation for being a place to hide money was recently exposed by a massive leak of documents known as the Panama Papers.
A web of companies
The companies targeted by the US fell under a drug kingpin designation, which blacklists entities thought to be involved in the trafficking of narcotics.
"This action exposes the Waked Money Laundering Organization and disrupts its ability to launder drug trafficking proceeds using trade-based methods, duty-free retail, real estate development, and financial services throughout the region," said John Smith, the acting director of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Waked and his father, Abdul Waked, are believed to be the co-leaders of a web of companies used to launder money that include a luxury mall, a bank and the zone of duty-free shops at Panama City's international airport.
In 2007, Grupo Wisa, the Waked family's holding company, led a consortium of companies to buy the duty-free zone for $173 million (151.6 million euros). Panama City is located along the route that South American cocaine takes on its way to the US, and the airport shops offered an easy way to convert cash into expensive jewelry, perfume or electronics.
Nidal Waked is in custody in Bogota, but the US has requested he be extradited to face federal charges of money laundering and bank fraud in Florida.
Another one of the family's businesses, the Balboa Bank and Trust, was also taken over by Panama's banking supervision office this week and police officers were posted outside. The bank is also on the US sanctions blacklist.
cjc/uhe (AP, dpa, AFP)