- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 13, 2011

MAPUTO, Mozambique | Mozambicans look on Mohamed Bachir Suleman’s glitzy shopping mall towering over the capital’s harbor as a symbol of a modern future for their impoverished country.

Mr. Suleman throws Christmas celebrations for the poor and gives liberally to the long-ruling party.

He is so well known that most Mozambicans just call him MBS. But Washington calls him a drug lord, abetted by “endemic corruption” in this country that risks becoming Africa’s newest narco-state.

In June, President Obama put Mr. Suleman on a list of specially designated narcotics traffickers and barred Americans from doing business with him. Nine months later, the business tycoon has not been arrested and lives in luxury, although authorities insist they are investigating him.

Mr. Suleman, who lives down the street from President Armando Guebuza in a mansion boasting a huge chandelier in a glass-walled entryway, is believed to have given millions of dollars over the years to the ruling Frelimo Party, which has won every election since the nation’s first multiparty vote in 1994.

These donations raise questions about whether Mr. Suleman is using drug money to buy the support of powerful protectors who will allow Mozambique to become Africa’s next narco-state, like countries in West Africa that became trans-shipment points for Colombian cocaine bound for Europe.

This nation located along the Indian Ocean in southeast Africa has already become a drug trans-shipment point, with smugglers taking advantage of its long borders and “endemic corruption,” the U.S. State Department said in an annual report released this month.

The United States believes heroin and other drugs, mostly from south Asia where Mr. Suleman’s family originally lived, are being sent to Europe and South Africa through Mozambique.

Despite all this activity, the State Department notes that: “Mozambique has yet to convict any major drug traffickers in the courts.”

Mozambicans may have been shocked to see one of their leading citizens listed by Washington as a drug trafficker, but there is a certain admiration for anyone who has managed to make it, by whatever means, in one of the world’s least developed countries.

Soon after the United States listed him as a drug kingpin in June, Mr. Suleman called reporters to his office to deny the allegations. State TV broadcast his news conference and another statement he made shortly afterward from his home in which female relatives could be seen in the background, sobbing behind their veils.

The appearances are YouTube favorites among Mozambicans. Mr. Suleman, at times tearful, declares death would have been preferable to such public humiliation. He laments that his son was forced to leave the American International School of Mozambique because of the blacklisting.

Mr. Suleman declined a request from The Associated Press to be interviewed, saying through intermediaries that his doctor has advised him to rest because of an undisclosed illness.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Tobias Bradford said individuals are blacklisted only after lengthy investigations and reviews. He added that no central figure has been removed because of error in the decade the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Act has been in existence.

The United States has not elaborated publicly on evidence against Suleman.

Adam Szubin, director of the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said Mr. Suleman is “a large-scale narcotics trafficker in Mozambique, and his network contributes to the growing trend of narcotics trafficking and related money laundering across southern Africa.”

As for Mr. Suleman’s complaints that his son had to leave school, Mr. Bradford said that American businesses are barred from taking “unclean money” under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Act.

Mr. Suleman is celebrated for his generosity in Mozambique. He gives to the poor at Christmas and paid for renovations at a downtown mosque. He also presents gifts to opinion makers in this former Portuguese colony.

Milton Machel said that when he was an editor at a Mozambican newspaper in 2005, he was surprised to receive at Christmas a DVD player from Mr. Suleman, whom he did not know.

Mr. Machel said senior editors persuaded him to look on the DVD player as one would a card or calendar from a lesser businessman.

Mr. Machel wonders about the relationships Mr. Suleman has forged with other journalists through such gifts. Some Mozambican newspapers have defended Mr. Suleman, angrily questioning U.S. motives.

Mr. Machel kept the DVD player. He is now a researcher for Mozambique’s Center for Public Integrity, an independent anti-corruption watchdog group, and says that today, he will not shop at Mr. Suleman’s mall.

“You can choose to not be an accomplice,” Mr. Machel said. “If people stop buying things, it’s a way of putting pressure on the government to come and show he’s not a drug dealer. They have to show us.”

But the Maputo Shopping Center is proving to be a star attraction in the capital, Maputo. President Guebuza even presided over the ribbon-cutting in 2007.

During a typical weekend, luxury cars ease into the narrow parking lot of Mr. Suleman’s mall. Escalators connecting its six marble floors are such novelties that giggling pre-teen girls dare each other to step on them.

Shops specialize in Polo and Armani and Frelimo caps and scarves. (Frelimo used to be a Portuguese-language acronym for rebels of the Liberation Front of Mozambique.)

Mr. Suleman has been quoted by local media as saying he was able to build the mall, at a cost estimated at $32 million, thanks “to the strength of Allah and of my family.”

While most Mozambicans remain poor, some have benefited from a boom in real estate, tourism and other industries. The extent to which drug trafficking has contributed to this new-found wealth remains a question mark.

In 2005, when he was used to receiving glowing press, Mr. Suleman told Toronto’s Globe and Mail: “I’m trying to be an example. If a local business can build something so big, maybe foreigners will see that Mozambique is stable and will want to come here.”

Mr. Suleman started out as a dealer in capulanas, the brightly patterned lengths of cloth Mozambican women wrap around their waists as skirts. He later moved from northern Mozambique to the capital and went on to sell electronics before expanding into real estate.

Mohamed Bachir Suleman is “a large-scale narcotics trafficker in Mozambique, and his network contributes to the growing trend of narcotics trafficking and related money laundering across southern Africa.” Adam Szubin, director of the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control

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