In the early 2000s, a scandal erupted in Latin America when a shipment of 3,000 AK-47s and 2.5 million rounds of ammunition was illegally diverted from the Nicaragua to Colombia, where they ended up in the hands of the right-wing paramilitary group and designated terrorist organization known as the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). A subsequent OAS investigation found that Shimon Yelinek, a Panama-based Israel arms dealer, was “likely” guilty of committing fraud and violating Colombian anti-terrorism laws. It was also found that two additional Israelis, Ori Zoller and Uzi Kissilevich, who were in charge of a Guatemalan arms dealership were negligent in “their failure to make any attempt to verify the actual destination for the arms.” According to a Wikileaks cable, Zoller eventually became an asset to both the US Drug Enforcement Agency and the US Embassy in Guatemala, although the timeline is unclear.
According to the official report of the OAS investigation of the affair:
The original, legitimate, transaction was to be a trade between the Nicaraguan National Police and a private Guatemalan arms dealership, Grupo de Representaciones Internationales (GIR S.A.). The Nicaraguan Army introduced GIR S.A. to the police. GIR S.A. offered the police a quantity of new Israeli manufactured pistols and mini-uzis in return for five thousand surplus AK47s and 2.5 million rounds of ammunition. This was an attractive arrangement for the police since it was a cashless transaction and would provide the police with arms more suitable for police work.
GIR S.A. shopped for a buyer for the police arms and settled on Shimon Yelinek, an Israeli arms merchant based in Panama. Yelinek claimed to be representing the Panamanian National Police, and during the negotiations presented GIR S.A. and Nicaraguan officials with a Panamanian Police purchase order, which has been proven to be a forgery. Neither GIR S.A. nor any Nicaraguan official ever questioned the purchase order or attempted to verify that Panama had in fact offered to buy the weapons.
Yelinek inspected the police weapons some months after the deal was made, and after Nicaraguan authorities had given permission for the transaction. He declared them to be unserviceable and unsatisfactory. This threatened the transaction. GIR S.A. and the Nicaraguan Army solved the problem by arranging a swap of 5000 surplus police AK47s for 3117 serviceable weapons in the Nicaraguan Army inventory. GIR S.A. delivered the Israeli arms to the police and the Nicaraguan Army took over responsibility for delivering the AK47s. Although the parameters of the transaction changed, no new authority was requested from responsible Nicaraguan agencies.
Yelinek identified a Panamanian maritime company, Trafalgar Maritime Inc., to pick up the arms in Nicaragua and take them to Panama. The arms were transported by the army to the port of El Rama, Nicaragua, and were loaded aboard the company’s only ship, the Otterloo, which declared for Panama. Instead, the Otterloo sailed directly to Turbo, Colombia where the arms were delivered to the AUC. The Captain of the ship disappeared shortly thereafter, and the maritime company was dissolved several months later. The Otterloo was sold to a Colombian citizen.
Immediately after the shipment left Nicaragua, GIR S.A. began to organize another sale to Yelinek from the Nicaraguan Army, using the same purchase order, this time for an additional five thousand AK47s and 17 million rounds of ammunition. Prices were exchanged between the three, Yelinek made a down payment, and the deal was under way.
When the diversion of the initial shipment became known, the intelligence services of Colombia, Nicaragua and Panama agreed to organize a “sting” operation, ostensibly to track this second shipment and identify those responsible for the first diversion. This plan fell apart fairly quickly when GIR S.A. found out that it was in play and canceled the shipment.
A Wikileaks cable from the US Embassy in Guatemala dated 2 December 2009 states the following:
Unknown to OAS, [GIR S.A. owner Ori Zoller] was cooperating with a DEA-led sting operation and continued the deal at their request, even after Yelenik told him openly around February 2002 that the weapons were destined for Colombia. A now-retired DEA agent, who worked with Zoller in the sting operation, stated that “Zoller cooperated with us in everything.” When asked if he thought Zoller knew the true destination of the first weapons shipment, the retired agent refused to speculate, saying “whether he knew about it or not, as soon as we contacted him, he jumped fully on board with us.”
It gets weirder. According to the OAS report’s description of the “sting” operation:
Towards the end of January, 2002, Colombian authorities became aware that the AUC had received the Nicaraguan arms, and informed the Panamanian Naval Intelligence Service, who in turn informed the Nicaraguan Army on January 30, 2002. This put into motion a three-nation effort on the part of Colombian, Panamanian and Nicaraguan intelligence services. Representatives of the three services met in Managua in early February, and on February 6, signed an agreement called “Operation Triangle” (Operación Triangulo), described as a “sting” operation to catch the arms traffickers, utilizing the second deal being organized by Zoller. […]
Zoller, in an interview with the Investigative Team, said that on or about February 15, 2002, he decided to stop the second deal when General Calderón informed him of Operación Triangulo. He notified Julio Solis of Agencia Vassali as well as his own agent, Leonel Cordon, that he no longer needed the containers. General Calderón told the OAS Investigating Team that Zoller knew nothing about Operación Triangulo.
Under a section entitled “Issues Requiring Further Investigation,” the OAS stated that:
Although the Team had no mandate to delve into the details of the second shipment, it presents a number of inconsistencies which require further investigation and which may also shed more light on the initial diversion: The documentation shows that the purported “sting” operation (operación triangulo) was conceived after Nicaraguan and Panamanian officials became aware that the original shipment had been diverted to the AUC. These officials became aware of the diversion on or about January 30, 2002. Yet it appears that Zoller and the Nicaraguan Army were much further along in the operational execution of the second shipment than previously reported since it had been initiated more than two months before officials in any of the countries involved knew that the initial shipment had been diverted. Only three weeks after the first shipment left Nicaragua, on November 21, 2001, Zoller sent the Nicaraguan Army a written request to purchase an additional 5000 AK47s and 17 million rounds of ammunition, using the same false Panamanian purchase order dated February 10, 2000. On January 11, 2002, the Nicaraguan army issued an invoice addressed to the PNP for $980,000 for payment for the arms and ammunition, but sent the invoice to Zoller and not the Panamanian Police. Zoller acknowledges sending his November 21 note to the army, but claims that he sent it on January 31, 2002, and that it was back-dated to November 21, 2001 at the request of the army. This series of facts leads the Investigative Team to suspect that Zoller and the Nicaraguan Army were well aware that the Panamanian purchase order was fraudulent, and that the second shipment of arms was not going to the PNP. Otherwise, why send the invoice to Zoller instead of the PNP?
- “Colombian gun-running scandal links shady Israelis, Al-Qaeda” by Ed Blanche, Special to The Daily Star, 13 August 2003
- “Doing the US’s Dirty Work: The Colombian Paramilitaries and Israel” by Jeremy Bigwood, NarcoNews, 8 April 2003