‘Top Panama drug money launderer’ held in Colombia

Authorities in Colombia have arrested a prominent Panama businessman sought by the US and dismantled an empire of businesses that the US says were part of a top worldwide money-laundering organisation for drug traffickers.

The co-ordinated operation was announced as the US Treasury Department froze US assets owned by 68 companies in this Central American nation and in Colombia under a drug kingpin designation.

As part of the effort, Colombian police arrested Nidal Waked at an airport in Colombia’s capital, Bogota.

The Colombian police showed reporters several videos of Waked taken after his arrest. In one, he is reading the charges against him and a list of rights for prisoners held in Colombia.

The US attorney’s office in Miami said the 46-year-old was arrested on a federal criminal indictment filed on March 24, 2015, charging him with two counts of conspiracy to launder money and bank fraud.

A statement from the US attorney’s office said Waked had been given a designation used for “the most significant money launderers and drug traffickers in the world.”

Waked and a relative named Abdul Waked are accused of being the co-leaders of an organisation that laundered drug profits through a web of companies including a luxury mall, a bank and the duty-free zone at Panama City’s international airport, which had attracted US law enforcement’s scrutiny before.

The family also owns Panama’s oldest newspaper, the Estrella de Panama.

Grupo Wisa, the family’s holding company, issued a terse statement saying the accusations “are false and unfounded”.

The company said it had instructed its lawyers to cooperate fully in the investigation announced by Panama’s attorney general.

The action comes as Panama is struggling to overcome international rebuke of its offshore banking system in the wake of a damaging leak of 11.5m documents detailing how a prominent law firm helped the world’s rich and famous hide their wealth.

Panama’s tradition for financial secrecy and crossroads location along the path of South American cocaine heading to the US has long made it an attractive money-laundering center.

The Drug Enforcement Administration described Waked as “one of the world’s most significant drug money launderers and criminal facilitators”.

It said he faces money laundering and bank fraud charges in Florida.

A law enforcement official said the Waked family is accused of laundering funds on behalf of Colombian and Mexican drug cartels as well as independent drug-trafficking organisations.

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