- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2006

A drug trafficker who admitted importing a quarter-ton of cocaine from Mexico also plotted to smuggle 20 men he said were Iraqi terrorists into the United States, charging them $8,000 each.

In December 2004, Noel Exinia told associates in recorded conversations that the Iraqis were “gente de Osama” — Osama’s guys — and that they were “really bad people,” who were armed and frightened even the smugglers working with them, according to Justice Department documents filed in federal court in Brownsville, Texas.

In the papers, prosecutors say that Exinia was asked to bring in the Iraqis by his boss in the Gulf Cartel, a Mexican organized crime network.

Investigators moved immediately at the suggestion of a terrorist nexus. “We jumped on that right away,” said a federal law-enforcement official with one of the agencies involved.

But the investigation “did not develop that way,” the official said. “The goods were not as advertised.”

Exinia’s plans never came to fruition. He was arrested the following month, and pleaded guilty last year to drug-importation charges. According to the Brownsville Herald, which first reported the story, his defense lawyers successfully fought to keep any reference to terrorism out of the trial.

Nonetheless, the Exinia case is the latest in a series of cases that have highlighted the security risks posed by human trafficking and weak points in the country’s immigration system.

A naturalized citizen faces charges in Michigan as the suspected head of a ring that has smuggled 200 illegal aliens, most of them Iraqis, into the United States since 2001.

Iraqi-born Neeran Hakim Zaia was indicted in October 2004 along with her husband and three others after an undercover investigation spanning three continents that lasted more that three years and cost millions of dollars, U.S. officials familiar with the case said last year.

Other federal officials said that Mrs. Zaia is just one the so-called Tier One human trafficking targets in the sights of federal investigators and intelligence agencies concerned about their links to “special interest” countries — those where global Islamic terrorists are thought to have a foothold.

The cases are stoking concern that human-trafficking routes, including those across the porous southern border, are increasingly being used to smuggle “special interest” aliens into the United States.

Exinia will be sentenced in March and could face life in prison.

His attorney denied there is evidence of any terrorist involvement with Exinia. “They were terrorists only in his mind,” attorney John Blaylock said.

Mr. Blaylock said his client had been asked about getting people over the border, but the idea that they were Iraqi terrorists “was an invention of Noel Exinia’s.”

Mr. Blaylock said prosecutors — whom he accused of “piling on” — sought to introduce the terrorism issue as “relevant conduct” for the sentencing, but asserted that federal officials “know there were no real terrorists involved.”

According to the presentence review filing by federal prosecutors, the recorded conversations about the “gente de Osama” took place with a pilot who had volunteered to help with Exinia’s drug-importation business and who later become a federal informant.

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