MAPUTO, Mozambique — There are no bars on the windows of his luxurious home, no heavily armed guards in sight. Yet Mohamed Bachir Suleman is, according to the U.S. government, an international drug trafficker.
In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, the former orphan street vendor who is now one of Mozambique's richest men insists he's no kingpin.
Last year, President Barack Obama put Suleman on a list of specially designated narcotics traffickers and barred Americans from doing business with him. U.S. authorities fear this former Portuguese colony could become Africa's next narco-state. The U.S. says Suleman, who runs a chain of grocery stores and owns a glitzy mall, is capitalizing on Mozambique's corruption and porous borders to transit drugs to Europe.
The balding, mustachioed 53-year-old is a very wealthy man in a very poor country, and claims his business successes created enemies vicious enough to lie to U.S. authorities to get him blacklisted. Washington has not elaborated publicly on the evidence that led it to place Suleman on the so-called kingpin list. Suleman has hired American lawyers to fight his blacklisting, a move that few of those who land on the list bother with. None has succeeded from having his or her name expunged from Washington's kingpin list.
Relatives say it's not unusual to find the soft-spoken and slight Suleman loading goods at the grocery story that anchors his mall.
In the interview at his Maputo home, Suleman insisted he never spends more than $100 a night on a hotel on his rare overseas business trips.
"Is this how a drug lord lives?" he asked.
Mozambican authorities say they have launched their own investigation into the allegations against Suleman.
Annette Huebschle, an organized crime researcher with South Africa's Institute for Defense Studies, says traffickers are turning to Mozambique, located in southeastern Africa along the Indian Ocean, since U.S. and European authorities clamped down on West African transit points for cocaine bound for Europe.
"Mozambique most definitely is one of those areas that is a growing concern," Huebschle said.
Cocaine from Brazil, also a former Portuguese colony, is arriving in Mozambique, Huebschle wrote in a recent review of organized crime across southern Africa.
Suleman denies having anything to do with narcotics.
"I want to prove my innocence," Suleman said. "And I want people to believe in me."
Since designations were first made a decade ago, 101 alleged kingpins have been listed.
Suleman could not substantiate his claims he had been framed, other than to say his suspicions had been raised when he read WikiLeaks accounts of fellow businessmen complaining about him to U.S. Embassy officials in Mozambique.
Mozambicans have questioned how Suleman raised the money for a six-story, marble-and-steel mall he opened in 2007. There, designer clothes and even governing political party souvenirs are for sale. But Suleman said the mall succeeded, like all his businesses, because of patience, prudence and foresight. He said the government gave him the land for the mall in 1997 in exchange for nominal transfer fees and a pledge to develop what was then an abandoned area.
He has given generously over the years to the governing Frelimo party, which has been accused of overseeing an increasingly corrupt state.
To build the mall, Suleman said he borrowed from banks and saved his own money over the next 10 years.
The mall has been a popular site for gatherings, including a concert and an education fair organized by the U.S. Embassy in 2009. He showed the AP photographs of himself with the then-head of the U.S. diplomatic mission.
"How can they say in 2009 we are good friends, and just a few months after, I am a drug kingpin?" Suleman asked.
Donna Bryson can be reached on http://twitter.com/dbrysonAP