Breaching America: Continued, part 3

Web Posted: 05/21/2007 02:37 PM CDT

The smuggling business in Damascus and Amman was deep underground. Smugglers and their agents hovered in the shadows of places like Al Nawateer, at the Iraqi bakery just up the street and at the brothels where Iraqi women catered to Iraqi men.

Refugees tell of well-oiled Arab mafias, based in South Africa; of an Iraqi Kurdish group living in Sweden that fields recruiters in Jordan; and of local Syrian groups that specialize in guiding paying clients into Turkey and Greece, which are considered launching pads for illegal passage to any other country in the world.

Refugees with little or no means are left to register with the United Nations, apply for visas and resign themselves to the real possibility of never leaving. But for those who have enough money, there are many ways to escape.

"They're here. They're everywhere," said Joseph Dauvod, an elderly Iraqi refugee who once paid a smuggler to get him to the U.S. but got caught crossing the Turkish border. "It's just that no one knows who they are until they approach you. I know so many people who have left that way from here."

Ahmad Ali, a 21-year-old Iraqi Sunni Muslim living in Amman, has made several attempts to get himself and his mother to Sweden, whose lenient asylum laws and immigration regulations have made it the most popular destination in Europe for Iraqi refuges.

Ali said he paid a local smuggler $4,000 last year to get him into Sweden, but border guards arrested everyone in his group.

In March, he said, he and his mother traveled on legal visas to Turkey to try again. In Istanbul, he connected with an Arab smuggling group based in South Africa. His mother paid $16,000 for her own passage to Stockholm.

"It was all-inclusive, hotel, food, plane tickets to Stockholm," Ali said.

The group delivered, as part of the package, Ali said, "a legal, original Venezuelan passport," which his mother used to board a plane from Turkey to Stockholm. When she landed in Stockholm, she destroyed the passport, claimed political asylum and is laying plans to get her last son, Ali, to Sweden.

Such stories abound in the streets and coffee shops of Syria and Jordan. Those who are actively in the market know the price lists well enough to recite them by heart.

"If you are an Iraqi and you stand by the corner of the Grand Mosque (in the Old City of Damascus), they'll come right up to you and say, 'When do you want to go?'" said Omar Emad, an Iraqi refugee who has been unable to save enough money to pay a smuggler.

"All you have to do is stand there."

Smugglers are known to offer discounts to persuade travelers to cross at the Texas border instead of California. The Texas border, at least in recent times, was considered more porous and the journey through Mexico less risky.

Smugglers also offer needy clients sliding pay scales. American court records from a half-dozen smuggling prosecutions show that well-heeled Middle Eastern travelers have paid upward of $25,000 a person for illegal passage through Latin America to get over U.S. borders. Often, they have entered through Canada — after first arriving in Latin America, like Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia.

Many routinely paid smugglers $8,000 to $10,000 a person. Whatever the cost, many of the trips can't be done for anyone — rich or poor — without the vital enabling role of foreign embassies or consulate offices, often those of Latin American nations that are based in the Middle East.

Boles, who earned about $180 a month at his steam iron, worked for only one reason: to protect his precious bundle of U.S. dollars that he knew was the key to America's back door.

And they disappear

The man who would help Boles leave Syria probably was a small independent operator or a recruiter for larger organizations that paid commissions.

They met at Al Nawateer, a restaurant popular with young lovers and businessmen as well as refugees.

The smuggler, who said his name was Abu Nabil, offered to take Boles' Iraqi passport to Jordan and get it stamped at a Guatemalan consulate office. The two men would meet again, they resolved, when the smuggler returned to Damascus, with Boles forking over $750 for his stamped passport.

They agreed to the deal and parted ways — each leaving Al Nawateer, Boles probably forever.

Al Nawateer's friendly, backslapping manager, Haithem Khouri, remembers Boles and how he vanished. It's not unusual. Table 75, for instance, is a gathering place for larger groups from which patrons simply disappear.

"They come in every day to eat, drink and then, one day, they're just missing and I ask, 'What happened?'" Khouri said.

But he knows, or has a pretty good idea. Those who vanished went to America. Or Europe. Refugees themselves tell of friends and whole families happily reporting back from new homes half a globe away. Those who leave almost invariably do so without saying goodbye because advertising their illegal travel plans would imperil smuggler and refugee alike.

Boles did not see Abu Nabil again for two months. Then one day the smuggler rang his cell phone. When the call came, Boles was resting in his small dormitory-style apartment. The walls were bare, and there was a radio.

"I have your passport," the smuggler said. "Where do you want to meet?"

They met outside Al Nawateer. It was dark. Boles opened his passport under a streetlight and saw that it was indeed stamped with a three-month visa to Guatemala. It looked official, but he wondered aloud if it was real.

"It's real," the man assured Boles. "And no one will ask any questions in Guatemala."

Boles handed the smuggler $750 and the two went their separate ways.

Boles had known better than to ask the question that had been on his mind for weeks. Why would Guatemala, of all countries, keep a consulate office in the Middle East that was willing to hand out visas to Iraqis when few others would?

The answer is that some foreign embassies and consulate offices based in the Middle East have no qualms about providing Iraqis and local citizens with visas that enable them to get within striking distance of a U.S. border. One of them is the Guatemala consulate office in Jordan.

The consulate is about 150 miles southeast of Damascus, in Amman. A blue and white national flag of Guatemala snaps atop a 20-foot flagpole on a busy street in the financial district. The flag advertises the presence in a strip shopping center of Guatemala's "Honorary Consul" in the Kingdom of Jordan: Patricia Nadim Khoury, who represents Guatemala's foreign affairs from a home-furnishings shop catering to Amman's wealthy.

This is the only place that Boles' smuggler could have secured a real Guatemala tourist visa.

One day recently, Khoury, a petite auburn-haired woman who appears to be in her mid-30s, sat behind a heavy oak desk as workers finished renovating the store.

She wore a blue denim jacket with slacks and a red sweater tied around her waist.

After agreeing to a brief interview, Khoury said she was born in Guatemala and took over honorary consul duties from her father when he died seven years ago. Most people who apply for visitor's visas, she said, are Jordanians, Syrians and a few Iraqis.

Several thousand Palestinians, Jordanians and other Arabs, as well as their descendants, have lived in Guatemala City for decades.

The country's rules for acquiring tourist visas require applicants to show bank statements for three months and demonstrate that they have credit cards. Citizens of the U.S. and most European countries can apply by mail.

Although it's unclear whether Iraqis and other Middle Easterners are required to personally appear to apply, Khoury said she interviews every applicant before issuing a visa, in part to determine whether they are trying to cross illegally into the U.S.

"I don't give visas to people who don't come personally here." Khoury also said she requires bank statements and other documents from applicants in addition to the personal interviews.

When asked how Boles and several other Iraqis might have obtained Guatemala visitor's visas from her office without showing up, Khoury offered, "Maybe it's not a legal visa."

Khoury said she would not accept payment in exchange for issuing visas to an unqualified applicant and that no one ever offers.

"If someone came and asked, I would kick him out," she said. "I can maybe get the police."

A mile away, another honorary consul spoke freely of how money makes things happen in a society where bribes are an accepted means of doing business.

"I've been offered lots of money — thousands of dollars," said Raouf N. El-Far, a Jordanian businessman who was appointed Mexico's consul to Jordan in 2004.

The bribe offers come from Iraqis, Syrians and Jordanians, many of whom openly disclose plans to get themselves smuggled over the U.S. border once in Mexico, El-Far said. One man recently offered to pay him $10,000 to secure a tourist visa for an Iraqi. If all went well, the man said, he would bring El-Far 10 Iraqis a month at the same price, a pipeline amounting to $100,000 in bribes every 30 days.

Is he tempted by such offers?

El-Far chuckled. "Yes, I am," he said.

But, then, turning serious, he said he does not take bribe money "because it's against my principles."

Under U.S. pressure after 9-11, El-Far said, Mexican intelligence services for the first time conducted a background investigation on a Jordanian consul. The check, he said, was so thorough "they wanted to know how many times I kissed my wife before I go to bed."

Khoury and El-Far acknowledged granting visas on a regular basis to Middle Easterners who meet the requirements for documentation. But they said they can't thoroughly check the veracity of the papers and the travelers' stated plans.

"It's not my business to guard against this," Khoury said.

The U.S. Justice Department has prosecuted nearly a dozen major smuggling rings that specialized in moving Middle Eastern clients since 9-11.

The majority of the smugglers planned to bring their clientele into South American countries, such as Ecuador, Peru and Colombia, and Guatemala, to prepare them for the final trip north.

Smugglers could simply buy visas outright from corrupt consular or embassy officials, according to these court records. For example, before U.S. and Mexican authorities shut his organization down, Salim Boughader-Mucharrafille, a Mexican national of Lebanese descent, smuggled hundreds of fellow countrymen from Tijuana into California. The scheme involved bribing Mexican consular officials.

Venezuela is another jumping-off point to the American border, according to court records of smuggling cases.

Because of its antagonistic relationship with the United States, Venezuela does not cooperate on counterterrorism measures, according to the U.S. government, and shows no concerns about issuing visas to special-interest migrants.

One day recently, the Venezuelan Embassy in Damascus, its walls bedecked with large portraits of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, was packed with Syrians seeking one of nine types of visas offered.

The U.S. State Department has complained in recent years about Venezuela's cozy relationship with Syria and Iran. Earlier this year, the first nonstop flights began from Tehran, Iran, to Caracas, Venezuela — a development that some U.S. counterterrorism specialists say opens a new avenue for potential terrorists to the American border.

Some of the government's most senior Homeland Security officials have spoken of yet another source of terrorist infiltrators: the area where Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet, known as the "Tri-Border" region.

Tens of thousands of Arab immigrants there have been under scrutiny by American intelligence services since 9-11. The U.S. Treasury Department in December named people and organizations that "provided financial and logistical support to the Hezbollah terrorist organization."

Last year, Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, commander of the U.S. Army's Southern Command, warned the House Armed Services Committee that some of these groups "could move beyond logistical support and actually facilitate terrorist operations."

Kephart, the lawyer who served as counsel to the 9-11 Commission and co-wrote the final report, testified in March 2005 before the Senate Judiciary Committee about a classified document she'd seen while serving on the commission.

She said the document, which since had been declassified, was a Border Patrol report about meetings in Spain between members of al-Qaida and a Colombian guerrilla group. A topic of discussion at the meeting, Kephart said, was the use of Mexican Islamist converts to infiltrate the U.S. at the Southwest border.

A journey begins

Boles may have had his Guatemala visitor's visa, but he would not be able to complete his trip from Moscow without a transit visa through Cuba.

This would prove to be no problem in Damascus, and he has plenty of company among Syrians, Iraqis, Jordanians, Lebanese and others passing through.

Carrying his Iraqi passport, Boles took a 15-minute cab ride to the three-story whitewashed Cuban Embassy just three blocks from the American Embassy.

Inside, friendly clerical workers handed him an application. He filled it out and handed over $70 cash with his passport and some passport-sized pictures. About a half-hour later, his passport was returned stamped, no questions asked.

Cuba's consul in Damascus said in an interview that his country happily grants visas to any Middle Easterner who asks "because America doesn't give anyone the opportunity to take refuge, especially after 9-11."

"But we work another way," said Armando Perez Suarez. "We put conditions on American people who are making war with everyone. The Arab people are the peaceful ones. We give visas to anybody who wants to visit our country."

Suarez said he is well aware that Cuba, with its economic problems and poverty, is not anyone's idea of a final destination.

"After that, if he wants to travel to any other country, the U.S., or Central America, this is not our problem," Suarez said. "It's not our burden."

He scoffed at American concerns about terrorist infiltration.

"I'm sorry your president is from Texas," he said. "Now you're receiving your own medicine. The problem started in Texas and it's finishing in Texas."

Boles, his Cuba transit visa in hand, was almost ready to go.

Digging once more into his dwindling bundle of cash, he bought tickets from Damascus to Moscow, from Moscow to Cuba, and finally, from Cuba to Guatemala City. Total cost: $2,100. Total travel time: about two days.

He told no one of his plans, though he asked around about Guatemala and learned that lots of Arab merchants who speak his language and might be of help to him operate businesses in Guatemala City.

In June 2005, Boles packed a single suitcase, including toiletries, a sport coat and a couple of pairs of jeans.

He had a flight to catch.

Bound for Damascus International Airport, he hailed a taxi in Jaramana and bid it farewell.

News Researcher Julie Domel contributed to this report.

How this series was reported

To document the hidden world of special-interest aliens, San Antonio Express-News reporter Todd Bensman and photographer Jerry Lara traveled to Damascus, Syria; Amman, Jordan; throughout Guatemala; the southern border state of Chiapas, Mexico; Brownsville and elsewhere along the Texas border; and Michigan. Bensman documented routes used by smugglers to move immigrants from Islamic countries, including a popular one from Syria to Texas traveled by Iraqi refugee Aamr Bahnan Boles.

The Express-News hired Arabic language interpreters in Syria, Jordan and Texas, where Boles was first interviewed extensively. Bensman obtained materials from overseas smuggling investigations and hundreds of daily intelligence summaries reflecting Texas border crossings. He interviewed U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials in both countries, and examined U.S. court records from a dozen federal smuggling prosecutions. Some dialogue and scenes described in this series were reconstructed based on interviews with Boles and, when possible, others who were present.

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