WASHINGTON — Federal prosecutors in New York are ratcheting up an aggressive strategy to pursue terrorists, drug traffickers and corrupt public officials who operate on foreign soil.
The expansion of traditional crime-fighting boundaries has its roots in an approach begun by the office in the 1990s. Advocates say using American law to apprehend international figures whose crimes connect to the United States may be the only way to attack an increasingly sophisticated, global criminal threat.
Former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo became the latest target this week when he was arrested by Central American police on conspiracy charges unsealed in New York. A federal grand jury in Manhattan accused Portillo of conspiring to divert millions of dollars in children's book donations and military funds into the pockets of relatives and close political aides. Some of the allegedly laundered Guatemalan money found its way into U.S. banks, court papers say.
Since taking office last year, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has launched or revived criminal cases against a young Somali pirate accused of hijacking the ship Maersk Alabama in the Indian Ocean; three African men charged with conspiracy to commit narcoterrorism that would support al Qaida in the Islamic Magreb region of north Africa; and a Guantanamo Bay detainee who had been charged in the 1998 African embassy bombings, which killed 224 people.
"The world is becoming more interdependent and more global and so is crime," Bharara said in an interview. "You have to go where the evidence is, where the crimes are plotted and where the money is being hidden."
In the past three years, prosecutors in New York's Southern District have traveled to more than 40 countries across the globe, from Afghanistan to Egypt to Poland and Venezuela, a spokeswoman said.
The New York office prosecuted the first World Trade Center bombing case in 1993 and two years later secured a conviction in another landmark terrorism case against Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, also known as the blind sheikh, lawyers said.
The most famous international fugitive to be indicted in Manhattan, Osama bin Laden, remains at large.