While an Iranian and U.S. standoff heats up, a lower intensity effort against the Iranian proxy group Hezbollah in Latin America is underway. This month, Argentina became the first country in the region to designate Hezbollah as a “terrorist” organization and froze the known Hezbollah assets in the country.
The decision coincided with the 25th anniversary of a Jewish community centre bombing in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. Argentina also blames Hezbollah for a 1992 attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 people. Hezbollah and Iran both deny their involvement. In June, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions on senior Hezbollah Salman Raouf Salman who is accused of planning the 1994 Buenos Aires bombing and offered a $7 million reward for information on his whereabouts
No one has yet to be criminally convicted for the attack. Earlier this year, eight people were convicted in a cover-up to obstruct the investigation, including a former federal judge and a former head of the intelligence services. One theory is that the bombing was an act of revenge against former Argentinian president Carlos Menem, who is also of Syrian descent and terminated an arms deal with Syria after he was elected. Menem was cleared of wrongdoing in the cover-up.
- Hezbollah is a Lebanese political party and armed group that operates across the Middle East.
- The United States, Canada, the UK Australia, among others, recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization; in 2013, the EU declared the military wing of Hezbollah, the Jihad Council, as a terrorist entity.
- According to Nathan Sales, the ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department, claimed Iran provides Hezbollah with upward of 700 million USD annually.
- VOA reported that officials estimate one-third of Hezbollah’s revenue originates from Latin America, mostly from the Tri-Border Area (TBA) of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.
‘A history of terror’
The issue of Hezbollah and Iran in Latin America has been a preoccupation of U.S. administrations for decades. In June 2008, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas A. Shannon said, Iran “has a history of terror in this hemisphere, and its linkages to the bombings in Buenos Aires are pretty well established.”
However, beyond the alleged links to the Buenos Aires bombings, Hezbollah is most Frequently accused of laundering money from illicit activities, mostly drugs, in the region. Of what is known publicly, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) strongest case, is the cooperation between Hezbollah and the Colombian mafia group the Oficina de Envigado. The DEA claims that Hezbollah’s global drug trafficking network, External Security Organization Business Affairs Component (BAC), has “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.
An explosive report by Politico in 2017, points towards an Obama administration decision as a key factor in Hezbollah becoming a growing player in the regional drug trade. It claims the administration killed a campaign launched by the DEA called ‘Project Cassandra’. The campaign found that Hezbollah earned $1 billion a year globally from money laundering, criminal activities, and the drug and weapons trade. It is argued that the U.S. administration needed to halt the investigation to close the Iran nuclear deal of 2015.
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 Tri-Border (TBA) or ‘triple frontier’ of the border of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, told VOA in 2018 that Hezbollah receives approximately $200 million a year in the TBA laundering money for local organized crime.[vii]The TBA has been on the U.S.’s radar for some time. Just after 9/11, Douglas Feith, George W. Bush’s Pentagon Under Secretary, suggested just after 9/11 that the United States should bomb the TBA rather than invade Afghanistan.
Allegations of cooperation between Venezuela and Hezbollah vary from drug production to gold mining, to the illegal importation of food. In February, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “Hezbollah has active cells”. However, to date, much of the media reporting and statements by officials have been unsubstantiated besides the laundering of money from the drug trade.
In May this year, the New York Times reported on a dossier received from a former top Venezuelan intelligence official. According to the secret dossier compiled by Venezuelan agents, Tareck El Aissami, former Venezuelan vice president and currently industry minister, helps recruit Hezbollah members to expand spying and drug trafficking networks in the region. El Aissami now has a U.S. warrant out for his arrest for alleged international drug trafficking. Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has denied that the group has cells in Venezuela, saying that the country “does not need them,” but that he is in “solidarity with the political leadership and state of Venezuela against the American aggression.”
‘Determined to attack anyone anywhere’
Confronting Hezbollah in Latin America seems like a top priority for the Trump administration. In Buenos Aires Pompeo said regarding Argentina’s designation of Hezbollah, “no country announced today that it is going to follow Argentina, but I hope many will do so” and that “Hezbollah maintains a strong presence in South America, in this region, and is determined to attack anyone anywhere, as it did 25 years ago”.
Pompeo’s statement seems bold given the lack of actual evidence of ‘sleeper cells’ in the region. Nor does it seem apparent that there is any intent by Hezbollah to establish a presence in the region to launch an attack against the U.S. or its allies. All signs point to a group that is satisfied to siphon money off the region’s lucrative drug trade to finance its activities elsewhere.
Nevertheless, efforts should be made to curtail this illicit activity and it could just point to the limits of the U.S. intelligence on this matter. In 2015, then-commander of the U.S. Southern Command, General John Kelly, conceded to Congress that the U.S.’s “limited intelligence capabilities make it difficult to fully assess the amount of terrorist financing generated in Latin America, or understand the scope of possible criminal-terrorist collaboration.”
Image: IDF (link)