Hezbollah in Latin America: prioritizing the threat

The Congressional subcommittee hearing Thursday on Hezbollah's presence in Latin America distracts from other, bigger regional threats, warns guest blogger James Bosworth.

On Thursday of this week, a US Congressional subcommittee will hold a hearing on Hezbollah in Latin America and its impact on US homeland security.

Too often, analysis on the issue of Hezbollah in Latin America comes only at the extremes of "Ignore" and "Everybody Panic" and this subcommittee hearing is certain to bring out the panicked crowd. It's hard to find nuance in the analysis. Rarely does anyone try to place the threat of Hezbollah within the wider question security in Latin America.

The threat of Hezbollah in this hemisphere exists. Over 15 years ago, they were responsible for two of the worst terrorist attacks this hemisphere has ever experienced that left hundreds of casualties. Today, they still operate various finance and logistics cells involved in money laundering and illicit trafficking. They maintain links to other illegal groups operating in this hemisphere and back to certain factions in the Iranian government. That said, I'd argue the threat is small, less important than at least a dozen other security-related topics, and mostly containable.

If we're going to hold hearings on individual non-state groups that are threats in the hemisphere, lets 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.

I'm sure if Congress called for a hearing on the threat of radical Buddhist terrorists obtaining biological weapons in Peru, they'd find three expert witnesses ready to testify. I don't mean to mock the threat of Hezbollah, but I say that to point out that when Congress holds hearings, it creates attention to specific topics and sets priorities that perhaps don't match the reality of what the priorities should be. A low probability threat suddenly gets attention at the expense of bigger issues.

Due to their actions in the past and their potential capabilities today, Hezbollah certainly deserves to be on the list of bad guys who are monitored, investigated, and hopefully arrested by the security and police forces in this hemisphere. I don't believe it should be ignored. But it's only one group on that list and far from the most threatening or destabilizing security issue this hemisphere faces.

On Friday morning, once the hearing is over, I'm sure I'll read an article in the media about Congress holding the hearing on the Hezbollah threat. Then I'll go on to the next article about a beheading in Mexico or a mayoral candidate murdered in Guatemala or a journalist killed in Honduras or a massacre in Colombia or a new military siege in a favela in Rio.

Forty thousand people are dead in Mexico from the ongoing conflict there. The murder rates in the Northern Triangle of Central America, Jamaica, and Venezuela are higher than many war zones. Colombia continues to fight a complex and changing conflict against a mix of terrorists, insurgents, and criminals. Every time over the last four years that Congress has asked someone from the US military or intelligence community what the biggest threat is in Latin America, the answer is transnational crime and illicit trafficking. None of the current instability or insecurity is caused by Hezbollah or Iran.

Perhaps one useful hearing Congress could hold right now would be on prioritizing security threats in this hemisphere. There should be an open debate over what are the first-, second-, and third-tier threats. We should discuss what are the big threats today (the Zetas), what are the low probability but potentially dangerous issues lurking out there (Hezbollah, dirty bombs) and what are the threats on the horizon (cyber-attacks, non-state UAVs, etc.). Congress should ask a wide range of experts what the threat priorities are rather than try to dictate them hearing topic by hearing topic. It would be a better use of our limited time, attention and resources in this hemisphere.

--- James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant based in Managua, Nicaragua, who runs Bloggings by Boz.

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