Coinciding with the Iranian Foreign Minister’s visit to South America, analysts specializing in security affairs and the fight against terrorism said that the consolidation of relations with Iran is an extension of the terrorist Lebanese group Hezbollah’s might in the continent.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the executive director at the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS) Joseph Humire revealed the reality of the Lebanese Hezbollah’s activities in Latin America and how Iran is using its embassies there as intelligence centers.
How does Hezbollah operate in Latin America?
Hezbollah operates on two levels in Latin America – on a licit and illicit level. Firstly, on the illicit level, Hezbollah operates through a variety of front companies and illicit businesses used to launder money and move drugs from Latin America to Africa and the Middle East. Operation Titan, a two year case that Colombian and US agents worked on, uncovered a multi-ton, multi-million dollar cocaine trafficking ring in 2008 that led to the arrest of 130 individuals, namely Ayman Joumaa who is designated as a Hezbollah kingpin. More recently, the DEA identified more individuals and entities within Hezbollah’s business and banking network through Project Cassandra. The bottom line is that Hezbollah is intricately involved in the illicit (human, arms, narcotics) trafficking networks of Latin America.
Secondly, on the licit level, Hezbollah is present in various Islamic communities throughout the region, namely Syrian and Lebanese communities, where they establish themselves through Islamic centers and mosques. The Yousseff and Barakat brothers from the Tri-Border Area are examples of this, and they both exported their networks to other countries (i.e. Chile and Brazil, respectively). These networks have now spread as far north as El Salvador and Mexico. Through these communities they raise money for Hezbollah proper in the homeland (Lebanon) and establish logistical networks for sleeper cells strategically placed throughout the region. These communities are also how Hezbollah communicates and cooperates with Iran in Latin America.
How long have they been in Latin America?
Hezbollah has been in Latin America since it was founding in the early 1980s, and was originally in the Tri-Border Area (Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina) and surrounding cities in the Southern Cone of South America. Over time, it steadily spread north into Central America and the Caribbean and now has a presence in Mexico as well. Hezbollah has been in Latin America for more than 30 years.
Which countries are they in?
Hezbollah is in practically every country throughout Latin America. It would be easier to name the countries Hezbollah is not operating in but that might be because I simply don’t know of their particular presence in that country, not necessarily because they are not there. The northern Caribbean (Dom Rep, Puerto Rico, Haiti, etc.) is an area where I have not detected a heavy Hezbollah presence, although they are in Cuba. Their heaviest presence I would say is in Venezuela, Panama, Colombia and Brazil, while still maintaining a significant presence in the TBA, namely Paraguay.
How does Iranian terrorism operate in Latin America?
Iran sponsors terrorism in Latin America by supporting Hezbollah and other terrorist groups through its various embassies throughout the region. Iran’s embassies in Latin America function more as intelligence centers than diplomatic outposts, which provide command and control over some of the Hezbollah networks in the region. The tactical playbook for the AMIA attack in 1994 in Argentina is the best example of how this network operates, and how Iran and Hezbollah coordinate to conduct terrorist attacks. What you learn from studying the AMIA case is that the Iranian embassies use cultural and commercial exchange with Latin American countries to insert its intelligence (MOIS) and military (IRGC) operatives who then augment Hezbollah networks with increased logistical and financial support.
As an example, prior to the AMIA attack in Argentina extending to the current day in Brazil, Iran exploits one of their most important and only legitimate commercial links in the region: the beef trade. By introducing the Halal (permissible) process in Latin America, Iran established the perfect cover for its undercover operatives.
According to Islamic law, all meat imported to Iran must be Halal certified, thus, Iran created Halal certification companies in Argentina to send inspectors who turned out to be intelligence operatives that prepared the AMIA attack. Mohsen Rabbani, the infamous Iranian cleric accused of being the mastermind of the AMIA attack in Argentina, initially entered the country as a Halal beef inspector.
In Brazil, SFS researched this network of Halal beef businesses extensively and found a phantom Iranian “consulate” that was officially registered in São Paulo but did not provide any consular services. This consulate was registered at the same address as several Iranian Halal certification companies, which led us to believe that the same kind of cultural-commercial-diplomatic nexus used prior to the AMIA attack in Argentina is currently active in Brazil. Today, similar activity is taking place in Colombia and Peru.
Are some Latin American counties supporting this terrorism? Why? Which countries?
Iran has made significant inroads in the countries that belong to the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, El Salvador, and some Caribbean countries). These countries provide state support to Iran’s network, both their formal networks and their clandestine ones. More than 75% of the bilateral agreements Iran has signed with Latin America are with these specific countries, and three of these countries stood up a new Iranian embassy within the last decade.
With regards to terrorism, these countries have their own proxy networks (i.e. Cocaleros in Bolivia, Colectivos in Venezuela, etc.) that have benefited from Iran’s expertise in this area. For instance, Iran’s Basij militia helped train the Venezuelan colectivos on clandestine communication prior to their repression of student movements in 2014. In return, these ALBA countries provide several benefits to Iran, most notably immigration services. Again, Venezuela is a case in point.
From 2008 to 2012, our research at SFS identified at least 173 individuals from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, or Jordan who received fraudulent passports, visas or birth certificates from Venezuela. This means that these ALBA countries have created an intelligence and immigration pipeline that provides cover and concealment for some Iranian and Hezbollah operatives to move freely and undetected throughout the region.
Beyond terrorism, these ALBA countries have also established military ties with Iran. In Venezuela, Iran has important strategic mil-mil programs with Venezuela’s military industry (CAVIM). In Bolivia, Iran helped fund the ALBA regional defense school in Warnes, near Santa Cruz. In Ecuador, they established a banking network that is closely tied to that country’s central bank. In Nicaragua, Iran is present within military circles and in Cuba, they have their most longstanding relationship in Latin America with the Castro brothers. I believe Iran’s presence in Latin America has moved beyond supporting terrorism (although that is still a concern) and has entered a new phase of military and paramilitary engagement.
Should the non-ALBA counties be scared of the relationship between Iran and ALBA?
Yes, but not just because of Iran’s relationship with ALBA but also because Iran has focused on the non-ALBA countries as their primary target in recent years. Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina, being the largest countries in the region in terms of GDP would be Iran’s geopolitical prize in Latin America and as such the Islamic Republic has focused on these countries. Moreover, Colombia, Chile, and Peru, have also been a focus for Iran because of their status as members of the Pacific Alliance.
The relationship Iran has with ALBA countries is a major factor as to why Iran has been able to exponentially expand its regional presence. Iran can easily use their ties to the ALBA as a proxy or surrogate force in Latin America to do its bidding. In this sense, Iran’s activity in Venezuela can prove very destabilizing to Colombia who already has tensions on the border with that country.
In Bolivia, Iran’s activity could heighten tensions with Chile over access to the ocean. These types of proxy conflicts is how Iran leverages its control in the region. No different than how it operates in the Middle East, subverting the governments in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and increasingly Bahrain, then using those governments to carry out actions favorable to Iran’s strategic interests.
Iran’s use of proxy networks in Yemen is another example of a different method of population control it has specialized in. These same methods and same specialities is why Iran has seen so much success in Latin America, and most regional governments don’t even realize they are doing this.
In essence, as Iran gains more global legitimacy it becomes easier for it to infiltrate and subvert targeted countries around the world. The nuclear deal with the P5+1 has provided this legitimacy and it is now capitalizing on this in Latin America with the current visit of Iranian FM Zarif to ALBA countries and Chile. Iran has already proven to be capable of doing this in the Middle East, it is now showing that it is capable of doing this in Latin America.
How do the drug cartels operate with Hezbollah? What other activities do they undertake in Latin America?
The drug cartels depend on Hezbollah to transport their products through Africa into Europe and the Middle East. While not exclusive to Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist group has dominated certain routes that make it essential for drug cartels to get their products in eastern markets. Hezbollah has also established an impressive business and banking network that can launder massive sums of money that is useful for the drug cartels in the region.
Does Hezbollah get protection from some Latin American countries? Can it use this protection to strengthen and attack other countries?
Yes, although it is not clear to what extent. It is clear that Venezuela has provided state support in terms of immigration and banking to Hezbollah but it is not clear in what other areas. It is also clear that Hezbollah has established “safe zones” in places like Margarita Island and Ciudad Bolivar. The Venezuelan government has repeatedly denied these claims, but over time more evidence has been publicly revealed of Venezuela’s support to Hezbollah. The most significant, in my opinion, is the immigration services the Venezuelan government has provided for Hezbollah and Iran. For any foreign terrorist organization or intelligence service, having the ability to change or conceal your identity through a legitimate cover provided by a partner nation is a dream come true. Venezuela has provided this service to Hezbollah as the top regional partner of Iran. Bolivia is another country of concern in this regard, but it is not clear to what extent. Nor has much evidence been made public in regard to Bolivia’s support to Hezbollah.