Hezbollah in Latin America: an over-hyped threat?

The indictment of a Lebanese man accused of running a money-laundering and drug-trafficking ring for Hezbollah in Colombia has sparked fresh concerns about the Islamic militia group's connections to organized crime in Latin America.

By , Guest blogger

On Dec. 13, a United States federal court in Alexandria indicted Ayman Joumaa for allegedly running a drug-trafficking and money-laundering ring linked to the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah. Among other things, Joumaa was charged with selling almost 100 tons of Colombian cocaine to the Zetas, the notoriously violent Mexican drug gang, from 2005 to 2007.

Joumaa is at least the second Lebanese national in three years to be accused of using drug money in South America to fund the Shiite militia. In 2008, Colombian officials arrested Chekri Harb, alias “Taliban,” who was accused of laundering millions of dollars annually, much of which allegedly went to Hezbollah.

These incidents have added fuel to the debate in the US over the Lebanese group’s level of support in the region, which some believe poses a major security threat. Concern over this issue has been growing in recent months, likely in response to a House subcommittee hearing held in July, which saw testimony from several witnesses who claimed the group represents an immediate risk to hemispheric security.

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Since then, politicians in Washington have continued to hold up Hezbollah influence as one of the biggest dangers in Latin America. In September, Michelle Bachman raised eyebrows when she spoke out against normalizing relations with Cuba due to Hezbollah “missile sites” on the island. The subject even briefly became part of the presidential campaign, when three leading Republican candidates voiced concern over Hezbollah support networks in the region in the Nov. 22 CNN GOP foreign policy debate. Texas Gov. Rick Perry even called for a “21st-century Monroe Doctrine” to be applied to the region, as a means of preventing the group from spreading their influence.

This is not just a concern among politicians. In October, the influential American Enterprise Institute (AEI) released a report which argues that the Lebanese group is “using the Western Hemisphere as a staging ground, fundraising center, and operational base to wage asymmetric warfare against the United States.”

The report, entitled “The Mounting Hezbollah Threat in Latin America,” is coauthored by former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega and Foreign Policy’s Jose R. Cardena. In addition to deepening their ties to organized crime, the two claim that Hezbollah has developed friendly relationships with President Hugo Chavez and “other anti-American governments in the region.”

It may be true that Hezbollah has a significant degree of support in the region, primarily among Lebanese immigrants who fled the country in response to the bloody Lebanese civil war in the 1980s. Latin America was a popular destination for these refugees, and sizable Lebanese immigrant communities exist in Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela. But Hezbollah’s most notorious support base lies in the tri-border region of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay, where it is believed that the group has connections with local gangs who engage in drug trafficking, arms trafficking, counterfeiting, and money laundering.

However, this support is largely financial, and Hezbollah is not believed to actively direct criminal enterprises in the region. Instead, the group likely obtains donations from individuals who are sympathetic to the cause of spreading Islamic revolution. Despite the amount of attention they received in the press, the charges against Joumaa and Harb reflect this. Neither is accused of being a member of Hezbollah, only of cooperating with it on some level. Aside from seeking financing, there appears to be very little reason for Hezbollah to involve itself heavily in organized crime in Latin America, much less to direct criminal activities.

However, there is scarce evidence for allegations that the group is developing its political connections in the region. The AEI paper cites the improved relationship between Chavez’s Venezuela and Iran, which provides covert support for Hezbollah. Because Chavez is deepening ties to Iran, Noriega and Cardena argue, he is opening up his country to the Islamic militia by proxy.

However, the Venezuela-Iran connection is likely not so nefarious. Both nations are founding members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) with similar economic interests, a point which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stressed in his recent visit to the country.

It should be noted that Hezbollah’s presence in the region is a definite concern, as the organization has been linked to several terrorist attacks on Jewish communities in Argentina in the early 1990s. But the security threat that Hezbollah poses is often grossly exaggerated. Security analyst James Bosworth has stated this quite well, arguing:

If we're going to hold hearings on individual non-state groups that are threats in the hemisphere, let's start with Sinaloa, the FARC and the Zetas; work our way through the second tier of Los Rastrojos, PCC, Betran Leyva, etc.; and then maybe after a few days or weeks of hearings we could get to the third tier that includes Hezbollah, the Russian mafia, and the Triads.

--- Geoffrey Ramsey  is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region.Find all of his research here.

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