Terrorism and Human Smuggling Rings in South and Central America

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 22

The road to the “American Dream” for many illegal immigrants usually leads from home countries through Mexico and then into the U.S. Although almost all of these illegal immigrants are merely looking for a better life for themselves and their families, world-wide human trafficking routes provide ample opportunity for those wishing harm to the U.S. easy access into America. In spite of international efforts in the Americas to break up these human smuggling routes, there are still a number of avenues available whereby the potential terrorist can enter the United States.

Muslim and Middle Eastern Illegal Immigrants and Activities in Central and South America

During 2004 and 2005, a number of individual Muslim and Middle Eastern illegal immigrants were captured in Central and South America. Some of the more unusual cases include:

– A Turkish citizen with a false Dutch passport is arrested in Managua, Nicaragua on September 22, 2004. He had lived in Costa Rica for ten months and entered via Russia and Cuba. While attempting to board a flight to Canada, he was arrested by Nicaraguan authorities. [1]

– Two Jordanians with false European passports were arrested at the San José International Airport in Costa Rica. Their route of travel included Cuba and Guatemala. The two attempted to bribe the Costa Rican authorities with a “large sum of money” [2]. Almost all newspaper reports place the illegal immigrants as having passed through Moscow and/or Cuba.

– In early 2005, Spanish and Italian intelligence and police agencies informed Argentine authorities that members of the fundamentalist Jamaat Tabligh Movement were in Argentina after having attended a meeting in Chile. Spanish authorities believe that members of the European wing of the Movement had been recruited by al-Qaeda to participate in the Madrid bombings. The arrival of 26 members of the movement was confirmed by Argentine Muslim authorities. Members who had entered Argentina included citizens of Malaysia, Syria, Egypt, Qatar, Pakistan and South Africa. Argentine authorities believe that the Islamic fundamentalists are in Argentina in order to recruit members with Argentine passports. When traveling, such individuals will receive considerably less scrutiny by security personnel than those from obviously Muslim countries.

Defunct Smuggling Rings in Mexico and the Americas

Mexican, Honduran, and Peruvian authorities were able to break up three major human smuggling rings. The Mexican and Peruvian rings specialized in transporting Middle Easterners and the Honduran Ring specialized in transporting Chinese into the U.S. All of these individuals were brought into Central or South America and then through Mexico into the U.S.

In mid-2003, one of the Mexican smuggling rings was run by an individual named Salim Boughader Mucharrafille. Boughader is identified only as an Arab. The ring worked primarily out of Tijuana, Mexico. Mexican authorities believed that the ring consisted of 14 individuals, seven of whom have been captured. The Mexican Foreign Ministry employee Imelda Ortiz allegedly worked with this gang while stationed with the Mexican Consulate in Lebanon. She is alleged to have provided a visa to Mexico for Al Afani Sghir, an alleged Shi’ite extremist [3].

In late 2003, the second Mexican ring was run by a Pakistani National Ali Ganzafar Houssein. Ganzafar’s ring operated from the Mexican Southern states of Chiapas and Tabasco through Veracruz up to Matamoros, Tamaulipas on the border with Brownsville, Texas. Ganzafar is alleged to have had numerous connections to Central and South American human trafficking rings. In November 2003, he was arrested at the Mexico City International Airport attempting to board an aircraft for Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

In April 2005, the Honduran Director for Immigration Affairs was arrested for involvement in human trafficking. He worked with Chinese “mafias” to smuggle Chinese, Afghan, and Pakistani citizens into Honduras and then into the U.S. One of the most common routes for the illegal aliens was through Havana, Cuba where they would be provided with false documents such as Honduran or European passports [4].

In September 2005, Peruvian and U.S. authorities were able to smash a human smuggling ring which ran from Peru to the U.S. A Jordanian citizen was apprehended in Peru and three Iraqi-born U.S. citizens were arrested in Chicago. The Jordanian arrived in Peru from Amsterdam in June 2004. This ring allegedly specialized in smuggling Arab and Middle Easterners into the U.S.

Illegal Immigrants in Mexico

The chart below compares the number of illegal immigrants detained in Mexico by the Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM – Mexican National Immigration Institute) in 2004 and 2005.

In 2004, the number of Ethiopians was not significant enough to be on the official statistical chart; yet in 2005, there were a total of 128. In addition, Eritreans are known to use Ethiopian passports. The number of Chinese detained in 2005 nearly doubled from 2004. The number of “all others” increased by more than 100. Statistics for the capture of illegal immigrants in other Central and South American countries are not available.

Islamist Activities in Mexico and Central America

One of the active Salafi organizations in Mexico is run by Omar Weston. Born Mark Weston, he is a British subject who converted to Islam in Orlando, FL, and established the Centro Cultural Islámico de México (Islamic Cultural Center of Mexico) in Mexico City. Weston has a master’s degree in Shari’ah law from Medina University and is currently running an Islamic retreat on Lake Tequesquitengo near Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico. The original center in Mexico City has been renamed Centro Salafi de México (Salafi Center of Mexico) and is now being run by Muhammad Abdullah Ruiz, a Mexican convert and former deputy to Weston. Although the actual size of the retreat is not known, from photos it appears to encompass at least four acres. The retreat is directly on the lake shore and is accessible by road, boat, and two airports. These two organizations maintain contact and are affiliated with Salafi groups and/or individuals in the Mexican states of Coahuila, Chiapas, Chihuahua, Jalisco, Nuevo León, Sinaloa, and Veracruz.

The Mexican Secretary of Governance (Interior) stated that there are a number of international terrorist cells active in Mexico, including ETA, FARC, and Islamic groups. In a report issued by Centro de Investigación y Seguridad Nacional (CISEN – National Center for Investigation and Security), these three groups are allegedly operating primarily in the Federal District and the states of Distrito Federal, Querétaro, México State, Oaxaca, Nuevo León, and Coahuila. Although there are Muslim communities in the states of Coahuila, Veracruz, Morelos, Mexico City, Jalisco, Chiapas, Nuevo León, Quintana Roo, and Yucatán, Mexican authorities believe that there are radical support cells only in Torreón, Coahuila and Mexico City. These federal authorities believe that these support groups are involved in human trafficking, telephone fraud, and automobile theft [6].

In May 2004, Said Ould Bah, representative of the Islamic Organization for Culture, Science, and Education in Honduras sponsored a meeting of Muslims from 24 Latin American nations. The original meeting was to have taken place in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. However, for reasons of “pressure in Honduras” from unidentified sources, the meeting was moved to Guatemala City and scheduled for late June 2004 [7].

In late June 2004, Omar Weston scheduled an international meeting with Islamic speakers from all over the world to include the UK, Pakistan, Panama, and the U.S. at the retreat on Lake Tequesquitengo. The meeting was originally scheduled for late June or early July 2004. The meeting was postponed until July 24 through August 8, 2004 [8].

Possible Involvement of Transnational Gangs

According to Central American authorities, the transnational gang Mara Salvatrucha may have become involved with Islamic militants [9]. The Mexican train routes (both east and west) are the primary means for illegal immigrants to transit Mexico on their way to the U.S. Up to 99% of these are freight and not passenger trains. The Mara Salvatrucha are controlling the eastern Mexican train route Transportación Ferroviaria Mexicana (TFM – Mexican Rail Line Transportation) which runs from Chiapas to Tabasco through Veracruz to northern Mexico. Rumors are that they are also beginning to control the west coast train route Transportación Marítima Mexicana (TMM – Mexican Maritime Transport) [10]. Salvatrucha members extort sexual favors or money from the illegal immigrants in order to allow them to board the empty freight cars. If the “taxes” are not paid, the immigrant could be beaten, thrown off the train, or even killed [11]. In addition to their control of the train routes, Salvatrucha members are known to be working as protection for drug cartels as they smuggle their contraband into the U.S. [12].


A number of Arabs, Middle Easterners, and other Muslims are still using Central America and parts of South America as jumping off points. With the break-up of a number of human trafficking organizations specializing in Middle Easterners and Arabs, illegal immigrants (to include potential terrorists) have had to look for other avenues for entering the U.S. Two conceivable avenues of entry are: 1) the current Salafi network in Mexico which currently runs from the southernmost state of Chiapas to the northern Mexican border (many of the elements of this Islamic network are located at or near the train lines of the TMM and the TFM. These elements could provide any needed support to potential terrorists traveling via rail); and 2) The Mara Salvatrucha are a violent gang with no allegiance to any country or cause except their gang. As they control the rail lines through Mexico, terrorists wishing to use the trains as a way of entering the U.S. would have to do via the Mara Salvatrucha.

Of further interest was the postponement of the two international Islamic conferences. Both conferences took place in rather isolated areas and occurred approximately one month before the al-Qaeda operative Adnan El Shukrijumah was alleged to have been seen in the northern Mexican state of Sonora. Part of the Salafi network includes several Muslims in Hermosillo, Sonora, not far from the U.S. Border [13].

The number of illegal immigrants detained by Mexican authorities in 2005 decreased as compared to 2004. However, the number of South Americans, Ethiopians, Chinese, and “all others” increased significantly. This increase, in all probability, included a significant number of Arabs. South America, especially in the Tri-Border area, has a very large Arab/Muslim population. This combined with the recruitment efforts of the Jamaat Tabligh Movement in Argentina and the significant increase of Ethiopians and “all others” increases exponentially the possibility that terrorists are making their way from South and Central America through Mexico and into the U.S.


1. https://www-ni.laprensa.com.ni/archivo /2004/septiembre /22/nacionales /nacionales-20040922-17.html

2. https://www.elsalvador.com/noticias/ 2004/09/21/nacional/nac6.asp

3. https://www.lacronica.com/EdicionImpresa/Hoy/General/13.asp

4. https://terra.com.hn/noticias/nacionales/articulo/html/nac37585.htm

5. www.inami.gob.mx

6. https://secure.milenio.com/nota.asp?id=148425

7. https://www.laprensahn.com/nacionales.php?id=1091&tabla=August_2004&fecha=20040823

8. https://www.islam.com.mx/index.php?art_id=29&categ=25&expand=25&file=view_article.tp#

9. https://secure.milenio.com/nota.asp?id=148425

10. https://www.am.com.mx/notap.asp?ANIOX=2005&ID=62373

11. https://www.univision.com/content/content.jhtml?chid=3&schid=181&secid=182&cid=666912

12. https://www.cronica.com.mx/nota.php?idc=195064

13. https://secure.milenio.com/nota.asp?id=148425