Handout video grab released the Police of Colombia showing Panamanian Nidal Ahmed Waked Hatum (R) after he was arrested in Bogota on May 4, 2016
Bogota (AFP) - Colombia will extradite a leader of a prominent Panamanian business family to the United States, where he is charged with laundering money for ruthless drug gangs, authorities said Friday.
Police branded the suspect, Nidal Ahmed Waked Hatum, the most-wanted money launderer in the world.
They arrested the 44-year-old at Bogota's airport upon arrival from Panama on Wednesday, Colombian officials said, after US authorities blacklisted him and seven associates.
"Procedures have been launched via the state prosecution service to carry out the protocol to extradite him to the United States," the vice head of the Colombian police's drug squad, Ricardo Alarcon, told a news conference.
A court in Florida has charged Waked on money laundering and bank fraud charges.
His family runs at least 68 companies with activities including luxury goods and duty-free shops, real estate and newspapers.
The US Treasury Department said it had put the family's Grupo Wisa on a sanctions list, classing it as a major drug money laundering organization.
Wisa includes companies such as the La Riviera luxury goods chain, the Balboa Bank and Trust and two top newspapers. It reportedly employs thousands of people.
The Treasury said the co-leaders of the laundering operations were Waked Hatum and a man identified by Panamanian media as his uncle, Abdul Mohamed Waked Fares, 66.
It said they used "false commercial invoicing, bulk cash smuggling and other money laundering methods to launder drug proceeds on behalf of multiple international drug traffickers."
Waked Fares said the accusations against him and his company were "false and unfounded."
"We have instructed our lawyers to cooperate fully with the state prosecutors so that this regrettable confusion can be cleared up as soon as possible," a statement read.
In separate comments quoted by one of the Panamanian newspapers his company owns, La Estrella, Waked Fares distanced himself from his nephew, saying Waked Hatum was not involved in the business.
- Pressure on Panama -
According to the US Treasury, Waked Fares is a national of Panama, Colombia and Lebanon. His nephew is a national of Spain, Colombia and Panama.
Panama has been in the spotlight over suspect finance operations since the Panama Papers tax evasion scandal that broke last month.
Leaked documents revealed how a Panamanian law firm helped the wealthy stash their assets in offshore firms.
Panama's President Juan Carlos Varela moved to calm concerns about the impact of the Waked affair on the country's finance sector, after authorities seized control of Balboa Bank.
He said the country's state prosecutors were investigating.
"Our banking and stock regulators have taken immediate measures to protect the integrity of our stock market and of account holders," Varela said in a statement.
- Duty-free shops -
The United States named six other suspects accused of participating in the money laundering operations, including three brothers of Waked Hatum and a son of Waked Fares.
The Waked family is well-known across Latin America for its airport duty-free shops.
It also operates boutiques for top European brands such as Mango, Burberry and YSL.
It has developed a new $350 million luxury shopping, residential and hotel complex, Soho Panama, in downtown Panama City, which was to include a Ritz Carlton hotel.
Colombian police said Waked Hatum was accused of laundering drug money by investing it in his shops in duty-free zones.
Waked Hatum "has a long history of money laundering on behalf of some of the world's most ruthless and sophisticated drug trafficking and criminal networks," US Drug Enforcement Administration Deputy Administrator Jack Riley said.
The arrest and sanctions were "a crippling blow to his criminal regime," Riley added.