How to handle Hezbollah in Latin America

Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has established a criminal and financial network across the region, and while the US has taken steps to disrupt these resources in the past, more needs to be done.

Mohammed Zaatari/AP
Hezbollah fighters attend the memorial of their leader Sheikh Abbas Mussawi, killed by an Israeli airstrike in 1992, in Tefahta village, south Lebanon, Feb. 14, 2014.

This piece was submitted in response to Christopher Sabatini's article considering the Islamist threat in Latin AmericaThe views expressed are the author's own.

In his inaugural address, President Trump pledged to eradicate radical Islamic terrorism “from the face of the earth.” A good place to start is Latin America.

For nearly four decades the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has relied on local expatriate communities to establish vast networks across the region. Over time, these networks have bought political influence among local elites, built alliances with organized crime, and offered financial services to both. As a result, today Latin America is a key center for Hezbollah’s increasingly sophisticated global financial network.

The Trump administration should disrupt Hezbollah’s Latin American sources of revenue by targeting its operatives and their businesses with a sustained sanctions campaign, it should strengthen the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) efforts to try Hezbollah operatives involved in drug trafficking, and it should punish local elites who facilitate Hezbollah’s continuing presence in the region.

Leveraging existing executive orders and sanctions legislation, the Obama administration targeted Hezbollah’s financial operations, mainly in Lebanon and the Gulf, after Congress passed the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act in late 2015. However, it avoided taking action in Latin America, despite evidence of Hezbollah’s growing presence there. 

In his previous capacity as head of US Southern Command, now-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told Congress in 2015 that Hezbollah enjoys support among Lebanese diaspora communities in Latin America. These include merchants and operatives involved in “lucrative illicit activities like money laundering and trafficking in counterfeit goods and drugs.” Drying up their sources of funding is therefore essential to a successful counterterrorism strategy.

Washington has used sanctions to target Hezbollah’s Latin American activities in the past, albeit with limited success. In 2006, the Treasury Department designated nine individuals, a company, and a shopping center in Paraguay as terror financiers for Hezbollah. They included Hezbollah operative Sobhi Mahmoud Fayad for his involvement in illicit activities that included trafficking drugs and counterfeit US currency. In 2010, the Treasury added Bilal Mohsen Wehbe, a Lebanese cleric currently based in Brazil, to the list. 

These measures have had limited impact, however, because, as I wrote elsewhere, none of the Latin America-based Hezbollah operatives sanctioned during the last decade has suffered any significant consequences, either personally or to their business. Local governments have either ignored or protected them. 

Targeting Hezbollah’s drug activities through law enforcement has been more successful. Over the years, cases prosecuted both in US and foreign courts targeted Hezbollah-linked operatives acting as logistics and financial service providers to drug cartels and, more recently, as traffickers, distributors, and suppliers of precursor chemicals used to refine cocaine.

In 2008, the United States extradited two members of the Zaiter clan, Nemr Zhayter from Paraguay and his brother Yahya Zaitar from Romania, for international trafficking of cocaine and heroin. They were convicted in 2012.

In 2011, the Treasury designated Ayman Saied Joumaa, a Sunni Lebanese with a Colombian passport, for his key role in the Canadian-Lebanese bank case, a Hezbollah money laundering scheme for Colombian cocaine that crisscrossed Latin America and West Africa, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in the process.

In February 2016, a joint DEA-European operation disrupted a Hezbollah network responsible for selling cocaine in Europe and using the revenues to finance the group’s ongoing military involvement in support of the Syrian regime. According to reports, the network worked with Latin American cartels.

Evidence of Hezbollah’s partnership with Latin American organized crime points to a deepening relationship between criminals and terrorists for their mutual benefit, and reveals the financial value of the operation. It also reveals Hezbollah’s vocation not just as a global terrorist organization, but also as a global criminal one, where its criminal branch works to finance its terrorist arm.

What can be done?

First, the Trump administration should initiate a thorough review of existing sanctions against Hezbollah operatives in Latin America. Many are more than a decade old and require updates. This exercise will likely reveal new businesses and activities associated with people already under sanctions that should be added to the current list.

Next, the continuing business activities of individuals and entities sanctioned by the Treasury occur because local governments are either reluctant to implement US sanctions or actively cooperate with the terrorists. The administration should demand that they either comply or face consequences. These should include imposing 311 designations on financial institutions known to be used by Hezbollah financiers to move their revenues, designating banking sectors of countries that facilitate Hezbollah’s terror finance as zones of primary money laundering concern, working within international forums like the Financial Action Task Force to have such countries blacklisted, and denying implicated politicians visas to the US and making them personae non gratae in Washington.

The DEA should be given the necessary resources and political support to successfully complete its investigations. That includes more than just added funding: The White House should lean on Latin American governments to facilitate DEA operations in their own territory, expedite extradition requests, and cooperate rather than obstruct ongoing investigations.

Much more can be done to disrupt Hezbollah’s illicit financial networks in Latin America. Recognizing the threat and initiating the above steps would be a good place to start in the fight against the global threat of radical Islamic terrorism.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an expert at its Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance focused on Iran.

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