Federal agents are investigating an unlicensed money-transfer business that allegedly sent hundreds of thousands of dollars overseas illegally and operated out of the Eritrean civic center in Northwest Washington, law enforcement sources said yesterday.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents seized records and computers this week from the business, which rented an office in the center at Sixth and L streets NW, the sources said. There were no arrests in the raid, part of a nationwide crackdown on money-transmitting businesses.
The law enforcement sources, who spoke on the condition that they not be named, said investigators were exploring the money transfers to see whether they supported terrorist activities or went to customers' relatives back home.
"It's too early to tell at this point," one law enforcement source said.
Eritrean and Ethiopian immigrants expressed shock over the probe, saying local people had used the money-transmitting service for years to send funds to friends and relatives in North Africa.
"This is nothing clandestine or new," said Abdul Kamus of the Ethiopian Community Development Council.
Authorities alleged that the Eritrean operation skirted regulations imposed on money-transfer businesses. The regulations require, among other things, reporting suspicious financial transactions and checking the names of customers against a list that includes alleged terrorists.
In addition, the Patriot Act, passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, requires money-transfer businesses -- which range from tiny, hole-in-the-wall outfits to giant companies such as Western Union -- to register with the U.S. government.
Dean Boyd, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, declined to comment on the raid. But he said 36 money-remittance businesses had been indicted in the past year for failing to register.
"Certainly, we are not looking at targeting immigrants," he said. "We're just targeting the financial infrastructure that operates outside the law, because of the fact these systems can be exploited."
Immigrants sipping coffee at the Eritrean Cultural and Civic Center said yesterday that six or seven law enforcement officers arrived about 10 a.m. Tuesday and went upstairs to an office that the immigrants believed had a relationship with the Eritrean Embassy.
"They took boxes from upstairs, about four or five boxes," said Mike Naizghi, 45, an auto mechanic sitting in the center's restaurant, where a television blared Eritrean programs.
The men said they did not know what went on in the upstairs office. But leaders of the local Eritrean and Ethiopian communities acknowledged that for years, immigrants had used the office to send money.
Kamus and other immigrants said the center had functioned as an unofficial embassy for Eritrean nationalists during their homeland's long war for independence from Ethiopia, which ended in 1991. The rebel organization that eventually took over Eritrea's government had established a conduit for immigrants to send money and letters to their relatives, they said.
Many Eritreans continued to use the money-transfer service because there are few banks or financial institutions in their homeland and because the service could locate Eritreans who lacked phones or street addresses, immigrant leaders added. Kamus said it was also used to send money to Eritrean refugees in Sudan.
"It was common knowledge in our community, they were doing it. We never had Western Union," Kamus said. "They work like Western Union with low cost."
Asgede Hagos, who heads the Organization of Eritrean Americans, said he was sure the service had no links to terrorism.
"We are so peaceful. Things like that are unimaginable. Eritreans may make mistakes because of not knowing the rules of the game," he said.
Calls to the Eritrean Embassy seeking information were not returned yesterday.