In debate, Romney, Perry warn of Islamist terrorists in Latin America. Are they right?

In last night's Republican presidential debate on foreign policy, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry warned that Hezbollah and Hamas are operating in Latin America and pose a major threat to the US.

Evan Vucci/AP
Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry gestures as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney listen at a Republican presidential debate in Washington on Tuesday.

Amid last night's Republican presidential debate on foreign policy, one of the more obscure references made by candidates was to the threat of Islamic terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah operating in Latin America.

Both Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney cited Islamist threats in Latin America. Governor Perry claimed that "Hamas and Hezbollah are working in Mexico, as well as Iran, with their ploy to come into the United States," and warned of Iran's close ties to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

And after former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said his first international visits would include Central and South America, Governor Romney agreed about the importance of Latin America to US security. "We have, right now, Hezbollah, which is working throughout Latin America, in Venezuela, in Mexico, throughout Latin America, which poses a very significant and imminent threat to the United States of America," he said.

Are Perry and Romney correct?

The answer to Perry's two main claims appears to be "no and sort of."  It isn't clear what Perry is referring to in regards to Hamas and Hezbollah operating in Mexico.  Mexican Ambassador to the US Arturo Sarukhan took issue with Perry's claim, tweeting, "Despite statements during #CNNDebate, Hamas & Hezbollah are not active in Mexico, as most recent @StateDept Annual Terrorism report confirms."

But as to Perry's warning about Iran's relationship with Venezuela and President Chavez, those ties are well documented. Given Iran's purported involvement with Mexican gangsters in the October assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador to the US and Iran's close relationship with Hezbollah – both are part of an anti-Israel "Axis of Resistance" – Perry may have mistakenly conflated the two relationships, resulting in his claim that Hezbollah is operating in Mexico.

As to Romney's statements about Hezbollah in Latin America, he is partially correct.  While Hezbollah and Mexico seem unrelated, as discussed above, Insight Crime researcher and Monitor guest blogger Elyssa Pachico wrote in July about a US congressional hearing that Hezbollah does appear to have established contacts in South America.

A panel of experts, who testified before the U.S. Subcommittee hearing, did offer convincing evidence that Hezbollah has some presence in Venezuela. Multiple panel members testified that Margarita Island, about 200 miles from Caracas, is likely a fundraising center for the group; Venezuela's close diplomatic relationship with Iran was also identified as a major concern for U.S. policy interests.

Monitor guest blogger James Bosworth, writing about the same hearing, noted that Hezbollah was "responsible for two of the worst terrorist attacks this hemisphere has ever experienced that left hundreds of casualties" over 15 years ago.  But while the group may be present in the Americas, Mr. Bosworth wrote that they are at most a "third-tier" regional threat, well below the Zetas and Sinaloa drug cartels and Colombia's FARC rebels.

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.
40,000 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.

So Romney is technically correct that Hezbollah is a threat in Latin America.  But in the range of regional threats, it is a minor one.

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