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Police tell of smashing arms ring


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 20, 2000

MIAMI -- A joint operation by U.S., Israeli and Colombian authorities may have thwarted one of Latin America's largest illegal arms deals, interrupting alleged plans to ship as many as 50,000 AK-47 automatic rifles, as well as other weapons, to armed groups in Colombia.

Police in Colombia and Israel who infiltrated what they described as a $100-million arms smuggling ring say the deal was being underwritten with large sums of counterfeit dollars being manufactured in Colombia, as well as cash from cocaine sales.

In coordinated operations police in Israel and Colombia made five arrests last month. Three Israelis were detained in Colombia as part of Operation God of Death, and large amounts of forged dollar notes were seized. Two more Israelis were arrested in Tel Aviv in an Israeli police investigation dubbed Operation Aging Boy.

The investigation began after police in Colombia became aware last year of a large-scale counterfeiting operation being managed from Tel Aviv by suspected organized crime figures.

The U.S. Secret Service, which is the law enforcement branch of the U.S. Treasury Department responsible for protecting the integrity of the currency, confirmed it provided technical assistance in identifying and tracking the forged bills. Colombia is the source of about one-third of the $140-million in counterfeit U.S. currency seized each year.

The Russian-designed AK-47 rifles were thought to be from leftover Cold War stocks made in the former East Germany and were to be shipped from Austria by boat to the Ecuadoran port of Guayaquil. The arms merchants also allegedly discussed providing rockets, bazookas and even helicopters. Police say it is not clear for whom the weapons were intended. The buyers may have planned to use them to set up an arms bazaar for all the many rival armed groups in Colombia, including guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug traffickers.

Authorities decided to take no chances and swooped in before the weapons could be shipped. The group "was in the advanced stages of organizing a shipment of guns to the members of various terrorist groups in Colombia," an Israeli police statement said.

"We couldn't take the risk of the arms reaching Colombia," added Col. German Jaramillo, director of the DAS, Colombia's secret police. The Colombian government is engaged in tense peace talks with two heavily armed guerrilla armies, with a total of 20,000 armed men and women, as well as similarly sized paramilitary forces. The decades-long civil conflict in Colombia has been fueled by weapons smuggled into the country from neighbouring Ecuador and Venezuela.

Ecuador has long been an arms and drug smuggling route for Colombian guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug traffickers. The weapons are hidden in trucks carrying foodstuffs and building materials that regularly cross the remote border region. Intelligence sources have also detected planes loaded with military supplies leaving Ecuador and dropping the weapons from the sky without landing.

There is a heavy Israeli presence in both Colombia and Ecuador. Ex-Israeli commandos and security experts are accused of having armed and trained the private armies of Colombia's notorious drug cartels. Israel has also provided official anti-terrorist training for the government of Colombia, as well as legal arms sales.

Ecuador was the first country to recognize Israel as an independent state, and there has been a strong relationship ever since. Israel has never denied Ecuador export licenses for arms, even during its recent border conflict with Peru. Most legitimate business is carried out by Israeli Aircraft Industries, an official sales branch of the Israeli military, which has an office in Quito, the Ecuadoran capital.

None of the men arrested appear to have had any connection to the official Israeli arms industry.

Police have released almost no details about the five men arrested. The two men arrested in Israel on May 27 -- Yaron Cohen, 45, and David Birnbaum, 52 -- are being held on counterfeiting charges, according to Tel Aviv police spokesman Miriam Perlmutter. Police also say they are under investigation in the arms deal.

Colombian police say they confiscated $100,000 in forged U.S. currency when they arrested Amos Shimoni, a 36-year-old Israeli who had been living in Colombia for a number of years.

The investigation also revealed links between the Israeli counterfeiting suspects and drug smugglers in Cali, the cocaine capital of Colombia. On May 25 two of the Israelis -- Isaac Richter, 55, and Ofer Zismanovitch, 46 -- were arrested in Cali. Police say wiretaps on their phones revealed they were in negotiations with known drug traffickers.

U.S. officials said the case was a good example of the type of international police cooperation required these days to thwart global criminal enterprises. Officials said it is not uncommon for counterfeiting, drugs and guns to be mixed up together in one case.

"We see very few counterfeit cases that don't involve some other type of crimes," said Jim Mackin, spokesman for the U.S. Secret Service. "Drugs and weapons are very prevalent."

-- Times correspondent Samantha Newport in Quito, Ecuador, contributed to this report.

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