Hezbollah in Latin America
by Veronica Del Torre
Lebanon’s long civil war (1975-1990) produced an exodus of almost one million people and left at least 120.000 dead. While global eyes were focused on the political dynamics of the war, it neglected to monitor some of the long-term impacts, such as sectarianism and radicalism. Hezbollah grew from the Lebanese civil war. Created in 1985 as a Shi’a guerrilla group by Iran, for over 35 years Hezbollah has emerged as a political party in Lebanon while establishing a worldwide network of supporters, fundraisers and training camps.
Indeed, Hezbollah took advantages of Lebanon’s diaspora and solidarity between compatriots in order to grow, especially in Central and South America, were almost 9 million Lebanese are estimated to live. Over the past two decades, investigations have uncovered terrorist plots planned in Latin America and the nexus between terrorism and criminal organizations, involving Hezbollah, is acute. While many concentrates on terrorist activities in the Middle East, the fundamental role that Latin America geographically plays is glossed over.
From its beginnings, Hezbollah relied primarily on Iranian finance and training (1). After some time, it began to earn its own money through the solicitation of private donations and via the diversion of revenue from businesses, charities and religious organizations. Although Shi’a precepts – as in every other religion– are very strict regarding sins, Hezbollah cleverly wove its way through them. Accordingly, the ‘Party of God’ is involved in numerous criminal activities, including human, drug and arms trafficking, smuggling, money-laundering and financial fraud, not to mention terrorism and murder. La triple frontera – the Tri-Border Area (TBA) – between Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil is a principal centre for organised crime in the region and Hezbollah exploits that. In fact, the Tri-Border Area’s lawlessness, encouraging a culture of corruption, is a safe haven for Hezbollah.
Hezbollah’s showcase operations took place in 1992 with the bombing of Israeli’s Embassy in Buenos Aires, and later the bombing of the Associación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) in 1994. These were the only terrorist attacks conducted by Hezbollah in the region. Yet, due to the high level of corruption and strong relations between senior members of some governments of the region and Iran, Hezbollah received political cover. Consequently, it is understandable why the organization decided to use the Tri-Border Area: a geographical position in the US’ backyard and the group’s political connections made the region an ideal base for training, planning and as an international fundraising and money-laundering node.
In 2007/2008, Colombian authorities uncovered the intimate relations between Hezbollah and drug cartels. After a decade of investigations and joint operations, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) revealed the full extent of Hezbollah’s terror-crime nexus and its centrality to its organizational structure. In addition to private donations and revenues from the Lebanese diaspora, the DEA (in 2011) was able to uncover its money laundering network. In the Tri-Border Area, Hezbollah provided finance and logistical services to narcotrafficking groups: cocaine was sent from Colombia to European markets via Africa. Drug proceeds, made in Europe and the US, were mixed with legitimate used car sales’ profits in Africa and sent to the Lebanese-Canadian Bank through exchange houses. Following the money, authorities linked a large portion directly to Hezbollah; a part was used to purchase consumer goods from Asia, shipped to consumer product dealers and sold in South America, in a scheme to pay off cocaine suppliers. Yet, another part of the money returns to the US to buy more used cars to sell in Africa – and so the circle continues.
Investigation outcomes showed the importance of Latin America – especially the Tri-Border Area – for Hezbollah’s global network to finance terrorism. Despite obstacles during the Obama Administration –done to save the nuclear deal with Iran – it is now clear that Hezbollah is capable of raising substantial sums of money (more than $20 million annually), which further enables the organization to fulfil objectives of international consequence. In the subsequent years, several Hezbollah facilitators were arrested in Europe, the US and Latin America. This money-laundering scheme is still active and it is now fundamental to tighten cooperation between law enforcement agencies and also to truly understand Hezbollah’s global capacities and networks – in order to disrupt it.
(1) Iran did not just provide found, but also manpower and training. Indeed, the first generation of Hezbollah was formed almost completely by Iranians; only from the second generation the members were Lebanese.