Hezbollah in Latin America: An Update

1.0 Introduction

Hezbollah maintains a strong presence in South America, particularly in Venezuela, where it operates as a proxy for Iran. This close relationship between Hezbollah and Iran has resulted from Iran’s covert operations in Venezuela. Venezuela plays a vital role in providing political, financial, and logistical support to Hezbollah. Another area where Hezbollah is present is the Tri-Border Area (TBA) of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. This serves as a hub for illicit activities like drug trafficking, money laundering, and smuggling. Hezbollah is suspected to be involved in these activities to fund its operations.

2.0 History

2.1 Hezbollah 

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Logo of Hezbollah.

Hezbollah is a Shiite political party and militant group that operates in Lebanon and has a significant presence in the country. Hezbollah’s paramilitary wing is the Jihad Council. Its political wing is the Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc party in the Lebanese Parliament. With Iranian support, Hezbollah has created a so-called resistance that is committed to resisting occupation, the non-recognition of the State of Israel, and the liberation of Jerusalem (source).

Its organisation is based on three pillars:

  • Military infrastructure: Hezbollah has a military arm called “The Islamic Resistance” (Al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya).
  • Civilian institutions: Large-scale network of civilian institutions with the aim of improvement of the well-being of the Shiite population.
  • Media activity: Its role is to disseminate the political messages and ideology of Hezbollah and Iran in Lebanon, the Middle East, and other parts of the world. They use a full spectrum of media and new technologies. This includes Internet presence, to shape public opinion, gain supporters and sympathisers, fundraise, and wage information warfare against Israel and the Western World.

(Source)

2.2 Hezbollah in Latin America

Since at least the early 1980s, Iran has operated an intelligence network in Latin America. Thanks to this, Hezbollah has expanded its operations to the region. The goal is to target Israeli and Western interests, taking its concept of Islamic Resistance worldwide. 

The organisation has been accused of various activities in the region. Hezbollah was held responsible for the attacks on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992. It was also blamed for the bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), a Jewish cultural centre. Before denouncing a connection between Iran and the suspected terrorists, Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman was assassinated. Hezbollah’s External Security Organization (ESO) has evolved into an organised crime group (OCG) in Latin America. It has links to the Oficina de Envigado in Medellín in 2011 and the Brazilian PCC in 2014 in the Tri-Border Area (TBA). The TBA is now known as South America’s largest drug market.

(Source), (source)

3.0 Structure

Three main Hezbollah networks are operating in South America, mainly in Venezuela. These are the Saleh, Nassereddine, and Rada Clans.

  • The Saleh clan. Is led by brothers Ali Mohamad Saleh and Kassem Mohamad Saleh. It has been identified as a network that facilitates weapons and drug trafficking across the Venezuelan border in collaboration with Hezbollah and the Oficina de Envigado in Medellín.
  • The Nassereddine clan. Is led by Ghazi and Abdallah Nassereddine. It has acted as an intermediary between the Venezuelan government and Hezbollah. In 2009, Hugo Carvajal Ramos and Tareck El Aissami, who respectively served as Chavez’s head of military intelligence and interior minister, met with Hezbollah representatives in Damascus. It is suspected that it was a weapons trade between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Hezbollah.
  • The Rada clan. Is led by Abdala Rada Ramel. It is reportedly involved in drug trafficking operations out of Maicao. Ramel has stated that he is cooperating with Salman Raouf Salman, who is allegedly the head of Hezbollah’s External Security Organization (ESO). He faced charges related to the AMIA attack.

(Source), (source), (source)

3.1 Plausible Deniability

Hezbollah’s criminal activities and organisational structure are designed to maintain plausible deniability. Therefore, the lack of substantial evidence makes it difficult to take legal action against the group.

In May 2020, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) charged Adel El Zabayar with drug and weapon trafficking charges involving Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The former head of intelligence Hugo Carvajal Ramos also accused Tareck El Aissami of attempting to recruit Hezbollah militants. 

Despite the increasing number of accusations, the lack of publicly available evidence makes it challenging to prove Hezbollah’s presence in Latin America beyond a reasonable doubt. This strengthens their plausible deniability.

(Source)

4.0 Activity

Hezbollah and Iran took advantage of the mass migration of Lebanese immigrants to South America during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). They infiltrated their agents and recruiters among the Muslim migrants. Hezbollah is considered the most organised terrorist organisation in the world. Its involved in illegal financing activities, and the group funds its regular operations through all sorts of crimes (source). 

4.1 Tri-Border Area (TBA)

Triple Frontier
Map illustrating the triple border between Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil.

Hezbollah has a presence in South America, particularly in the TBA of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. The TBA is a hub for illicit activities such as drug trafficking, money laundering, and smuggling among others. Hezbollah is involved in these activities to fund its operations (source). As a result of their proselytising efforts, analysts believe that Hezbollah established a significant number of cells in the area. It is estimated that they had 460 operatives by mid-2000 (source). 

Researchers and judicial authorities in Paraguay indicate that the drug trafficking gangs in the Triple Frontier region have various connections and associations with Hezbollah. For example, in 2021, authorities dismantled a criminal organisation closely tied to Hezbollah in the TBA. The network was led by Nasser Abbas Bahmad and concealed a significant amount of drugs within coal containers (source).

The exact extent of criminal activity occurring in the TBA is difficult to determine. However, some estimates suggest that Islamic extremist groups operating in the TBA receive illicit profits ranging from $300 to $500 million annually (source). The significant profits of up to $800 million per week generated from trafficking in the TBA make it highly probable that Hezbollah has retained a minimal presence in the region. The goal is to generate funds for its activities in Syria and Lebanon.

(Source), (source)

4.2 Venezuela

A poster showing the photos of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and former Egyptian President Jamal Abdel Nasser. The text beneath each translates, respectively, as “Symbol of international resistance,” “the fulfilled promise,” and “ignited the light”. Credits: Ramzi Haidar.

The group has a tight relationship with Iran, and ever since Iran established its covert operations in Venezuela, Hezbollah has come along as its proxy. Venezuela has been a crucial source of political, financial, and logistical support for Hezbollah (source). 

According to a secret dossier compiled by Venezuelan agents a few years ago, Tareck El Aissami, former Venezuelan vice president and current industry minister, helped recruit Hezbollah members to expand spying and drug trafficking networks in the region. Since 2020, Iranian tankers have transported more than 1.5 million oil barrels to Venezuela in exchange for gold from the Orinoco reserve. In addition to this, in 2019, Mahan Air, an Iranian-sanctioned airline linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), began flights to Venezuela.

Furthermore, Hezbollah has established a crime structure in Venezuela that operates through segmented familial groups, such as Nassereddine, Saleh, and Rada. These groups infiltrate both the illicit economy controlled by the regime and its political apparatus. Hezbollah exerts control in specific regions like Margarita Island, where they can operate safely (source) (source).

Hezbollah, backed by Tehran, has established an efficient and advanced criminal network in Venezuela. This network extends its influence into neighbouring Colombia and other countries in the region (source).

(Source), (source), (source)

4.3 Colombia

For many years, Hezbollah has tried to penetrate the Lebanese and Shia Arab communities in Colombia. These communities are predominantly concentrated in the coastal city of Barranquilla and the border city of Maicao. These areas are renowned for their smuggling activities.

Hezbollah members in Colombia present themselves as legitimate businesspeople. This is possible because many acquire Colombian nationality. This, in turn, provides them with unspecified protections for themselves and their companies. Through their business activities and fraudulent acquisition of Colombian citizenship, Hezbollah operatives have managed to camouflage themselves as ordinary businesspeople. This allows them to blend in and operate discreetly without raising suspicion (source).

As far back as 2004, evidence also emerged indicating a connection between FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). Hezbollah cells are involved in cocaine trafficking and money laundering  (source). There is also evidence of ongoing communication and shared training with the ELN (National Liberation Army), a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group in Colombia (source).

(Source)

4.4 Argentina

In March 1992, the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires was bombed, resulting in 29 deaths and 242 wounded. The responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Islamic Jihad Organization. This group has been associated with Iran and potentially Hezbollah (source)

Iran and Hezbollah were also accused of being involved in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires.  This attack on the AMIA left 85 people dead and more than 300 wounded. The Argentine Intelligence Service accused Hezbollah of carrying out the attack, with Iran masterminding it (source). 

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Overview of the AMIA bombing, Buenos Aires, 18 July 1994. Credits: Agencia Noticias Argentinas.

Tensions over the AMIA bombing and the indictment of senior Iranian officials for their roles in the attack resulted in poor diplomatic relations between Argentina and Iran for many years. On July 12, 2018, the Argentine Financial Information Unit issued an order to freeze the assets of Hezbollah financiers operating in the TBA (source).

Despite the public exposure of Iranian and Hezbollah operatives in this deadly attack, both continue to develop intelligence and logistical support networks in the region without restraint.

(Source), (source)

4.5 Cuba

Some analysts believe that Hezbollah also operates in Cuba. Reports observed that Hezbollah tried to set up a base in Cuba to extend its terrorist operations and aid in attacking an Israeli target in South America. The operation, “The Caribbean Case,” had an alleged budget of $1.5 million. Initially, the Cuba base would serve logistical functions such as gathering intelligence, networking, and forging documents.

(Source), (source)

4.6 Nicaragua

The Israeli press also accused Iran and Hezbollah of trying to set up a training camp inside Nicaraguan territory. The article argued that Hezbollah was trying to conduct terrorist training in a covert site situated in the northern region of Nicaragua, close to the border with Honduras (source).

5.0 Financing

It is difficult to estimate the value of Hezbollah’s business in Latin America due to its illicit nature. However, a significant portion of it purportedly originates from the TBA. Hezbollah raises its funds in two main ways. The first is through illicit activities, and the second is through Iran. 

5.1 Illicit Activities

In terms of illicit activities, Hezbollah is mainly engaged in money laundering, drugs and arms trafficking (source). Some reports indicate that approximately one-third of Hezbollah’s revenue originates from Latin America, most of it from the TBA (source).

5.1.1 Money Laundering

Hezbollah is frequently accused of laundering money from illicit activities, mostly drugs, in the region. Hezbollah has traditionally used the TBA’s illicit economy as a money-laundering hub. This strategy cleans their illicit profits over various continents, including the Western Hemisphere, West Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. 

Analysts believe that Hezbollah receives approximately $200 million a year in the TBA laundering money for local organised crime. For example, the Financial Intelligence Unit of Argentina discovered that Hezbollah used a casino located in Iguazú, Argentina, for money laundering. According to the press release, clan members allegedly collected over $10 million in unreported funds from the casino as fraudulent prizes. 

In October 2008, Colombian authorities dismantled an international cocaine smuggling and money laundering network allegedly connected to Hezbollah. It is believed that 12% of the group’s profits were used to fund Hezbollah. This led to the arrest of nearly 130 individuals suspected of being part of this alliance, which involved a prominent Colombian drug syndicate called “North Valley,” former and current members of FARC (a leftist militant organisation), and Lebanese smugglers.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) also investigated the cooperation between Hezbollah and the Colombian mafia group the Oficina de Envigado. The DEA claimed that Hezbollah’s global drug trafficking network, ESO´s Business Affairs Component (BAC), successfully established business relationships with South American drug cartels, such as the Oficina de Envigado. The laundered money is reportedly used to buy weapons for Hezbollah in Syria.

(Source), (source), (source), (source)

5.2.2 Drug Trafficking

Hezbollah has created an efficient multibillion-dollar money-laundering and drug-trafficking machine in Latin America over the last several decades. Large cocaine shipments linked to Hezbollah’s money-laundering networks often originate in Colombia and Venezuela. Colombia is Latin America’s leading producer of cocaine. And Venezuela, under Nicolas Maduro’s Iran-friendly narco-regime, is a vital transit route for cocaine shipments.

Main cocaine routes and volume between America, Africa and Europe.

According to evidence given before the US Congress by the US Drug Enforcement Administration, Hezbollah is one of the “major terrorist organisations that exist in the Tri-Border Area…[,] who are using cocaine trafficking to provide economic assistance to terrorist movements in the Middle East.”

(Source), (source), (source), (source)

5.1.3 Weapons Trafficking

The DEA launched ‘Project Cassandra’, a decade-long operation which sought to stop Hezbollah from trafficking drugs into the United States and Europe. The campaign found that Hezbollah earned $1 billion a year globally from money laundering, criminal activities, and the drug and weapons trade. According to some reports, Hezbollah-linked gangs have allegedly smuggled weapons into Brazil since 2006 (source). 

According to Project Cassandra, Hezbollah launderers often receive a 7-15% commission on the funds they launder. Based on just one scheme discovered by the DEA in 2011, that amounts to $14-30 million every month. Even after accounting for expenses, Hezbollah keeps a sizable portion of the proceeds. 

(Source), (source), (source), (source)

5.1.4 Other activities

Researchers believe that Hezbollah is involved in various forms of crime, such as illegal logging, “blood diamonds (gems dug in war zones and used to fund illegal activity), wildlife trafficking, and gunrunning (source). According to some investigators, Hezbollah may earn up to $1 billion per year through illicit operations in support of narcotics trafficking, a sizable percentage of which flows through the TBA (source).

5.2 Iranian funding

Despite their illicit activity in the region, Hezbollah continues to rely on financial support from Iran. According to Western reports, Iran and to a lesser extent, Syria, provide the majority of Hezbollah’s financial, training, weaponry, explosives, political, diplomatic, and organisational support (source).

According to several US officials, Iran provides Hezbollah with upward of 700 million USD annually. The US has accused the Iranian government of employing shell and front organisations, as well as falsified records, as a means of hiding its actions. One of the main purposes behind these tactics is to finance terrorist activities (source).

(Source)

6.0 Recruitment

6.1 Modus Operandi

Establishing Hezbollah cells abroad requires significant investment and time commitment. The group carefully selects dedicated operatives to enter new regions without any support. These operatives must establish networks, raise funds for the leadership in Lebanon, familiarise themselves with the area and potential targets, and initiate operational planning. One common objective of these missions is to infiltrate or establish mosques and “Islamic centres” to expand Hezbollah’s influence, legitimise its cause, and promote global jihad.

Each Hezbollah cell consists of multiple components:

  • A proselytising and recruitment segment that utilises religious figures, Islamic centres, online platforms, and local media.
  • A fundraising component responsible for overseeing legal and illicit business activities and relationships.
  • An operational component that handles logistics, planning, surveillance, and mission execution.

Ultimately, every Hezbollah cell’s primary purpose is to carry out operations, with the timing and location determined by the supreme leader. The establishment of infrastructure in foreign countries aims to minimise the time gap between decision-making and execution of operations.

(Source)

6.2 Local Collaborators

Logo of Hezbollah Venezuela. Credits: Andrew Comings.

Hezbollah is actively engaging in co-optation and recruitment efforts within the substantial Lebanese and Shia diaspora residing in Venezuela and Colombia. This allows Hezbollah to establish a significant presence and exert influence among the influential familial clans that dominate the Syrian and Lebanese communities in both countries. 

The Lebanese and Shia communities in Venezuela and Colombia have risen to prominence as significant figures in the political and business spheres of both countries. It is worth noting that several of these clans maintain strong ties with President Maduro’s regime and are deeply involved in Venezuela’s growing illicit economy. In some cases, they actively participate in the trafficking of cocaine and engage in various other illegal pursuits. Additionally, these clans exert considerable influence in neighbouring Colombia, which happens to be the primary source of Hezbollah’s cocaine supply.

This strategy of building relationships and recruiting individuals not only enhances Hezbollah’s and Tehran’s political sway but also provides a source of revenue for the militant organisation. Hezbollah uses these funds to strengthen its influence within Lebanon and carry out operations in the Middle East.

(Source), (source)

7.0 Political Influence

Hezbollah has also sought to exert political influence in Latin America through alliances with sympathetic political parties and groups. Hezbollah’s increased influence is attributed, in large part, to receiving “official” support from certain governments in Latin America, such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua (source).

7.1 Compromised Institutions

Iranian President meeting with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in Saadabad Palace, 2015. Credits: Hossein Zohrevand.

Hezbollah’s External Security Organization (ESO) units in South America are likely benefiting from and indirectly protected by an imperialistic narrative of US and Western interference to expand illicit activities. 

The degree of Hezbollah’s penetration within the Venezuelan government and criminal regional geopolitics cannot be accurately determined at this time. This highlights a successful strategy of maintaining plausible deniability while still being visible enough to overtly threaten US and Western interests. Nevertheless, this plausible deniable Hezbollah presence enhances the group’s criminal activities in South America for both financial and political purposes.

(Source)

7.2 Corruption

Hezbollah has managed to reduce the risk of being detected not only by heavily relying on supporters from its diaspora communities. The desperate situation in some countries such as Venezuela has made it easier for Hezbollah members and their associates to bribe and manipulate border security officials and law enforcement. These are often unwilling to resist such illicit offers (source).

8.0 Conclusion

The analysis indicates that Hezbollah, supported by Iran and Venezuela, has adopted an offensive strategy of asymmetric warfare against the United States. The primary aim of this strategy is to enhance Hezbollah’s influence in a region that holds strategic significance for the United States, thereby undermining US interests.

Through its networks in Latin America, Hezbollah finances itself through illicit activities. These funds are subsequently dedicated to its fight against Israel and the United States. The permissiveness of certain governments, the effectiveness and secrecy of the group, and the presence of some immigrants willing to support these activities make it difficult to counter the organisation. It is therefore likely that Hezbollah’s presence in the region will continue for the foreseeable future.

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