On the eve of July 18, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the attack on the headquarters of the Jewish community of Argentina, AMIA, Argentine President Mauricio Macri issued a decree establishing the legal framework for the designation of individuals and groups as terrorists. It is known as Registro Nacional de Personas y Organizaciones Sospechosas de Terrorismo (RENAPOST). The next day, the Financial Information Unit ordered the freezing of assets “of the terrorist organization Hezbollah, specific entities of the military wing that make up the organization and leaders of the organization.” Thus, Argentina became the first Latin American nation to designate this Shia militia as terrorist. That same day, Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) Luis Almagro urged the 34-member countries to follow in the footsteps of Buenos Aires. “Let’s commit ourselves,” he declared, “to appointing Hezbollah as a terrorist organization that undermines the principles of human dignity that we defend in this hemisphere.” Visiting Buenos Aires, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reinforced this request.
It was time for Argentina -a country that suffered Hezbollah´s violence in 1992 (the Israeli embassy bombing) and in 1994 (the AMIA bombing), with a sum total of 114 dead- to designate this militia as a terrorist group, as was done, partially or completely, by the Arab League, the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, the United States and Israel. Although a quarter of a century late, this measure is unprecedented in Latin America and puts Argentina at the forefront of the fight against terrorism in the region.
Indeed, Hezbollah is one of the most important terrorist organizations in the world. It has built a worldwide network of terror that has spread from the Middle East to Latin America. It has carried out suicide bombings, aircraft hijackings, political assassinations, arms smuggling and fired rockets against civilians. It was the first terrorist organization in modern history to have committed a suicide attack; against soldiers of France and the United States in Beirut in 1983 (more than 300 dead). Until Al-Qaeda removed it from the nefarious podium on September 11, 2001, Hezbollah was the group responsible for killing more Americans than any other terrorist organization.
In Latin America, it not only hit in Buenos Aires. On July 19, 1994, Flight 901 of Alas Chiricanas departed from the town of Colón to Panama City with 21 people on board —to never arrive at destination. A man named Jammal Lya blew up a bomb in midair, killing all passengers and crew, including twelve members of the local Jewish community. His body was the only unclaimed, and an unknown group, Ansar Allah, claimed responsibility for the attack. Officials from the US Department of State promptly let go of their suspicions that this group was either a subgroup, or a pseudonym, of the Lebanese Hezbollah terrorist movement. Because it happened a day after the AMIA attack, this brutal deed did not get enough attention outside of Panama and Central America. But it marked the third bloody instance of Islamist terror in Latin America. Hezbollah also planned attacks in Peru and Bolivia in 2014-2015.
Its agents were arrested in the Caribbean, Central America and South America. In a piece in Fox News, expert Emanuele Ottolenghi provided some examples that expose the penetration of this Shiite militia in the region. Paraguay recently extradited Nader Mohamad Farhat, called by Washington “a supporter of Hezbollah.” The representative of Hezbollah in Latin America, Sheikh Bilal Mohsen Wehbe, under sanctions of the United States Department of Treasury since 2010, until recently resided in San Pablo. Hezbollah’s publication, Al-Akhbar has a dedicated journalist in Brazil who also works as a correspondent for Russia Today en español. Washington has just offered a seven million dollar reward for information on Salman Raouf Salman, a crucial operative in the attacks in Buenos Aires, who already had an arrest warrant from Interpol, and who is responsible for creating a terrorist infrastructure in Bolivia, Colombia, Peru and Panama.
In addition, Hezbollah commands prominent criminal operations in the area. Recently, the Barakat Clan, connected to Hezbollah, was disbanded in the Tri-Border area, accused of being involved in drug trading, arms trafficking, merchandise smuggling, currency counterfeiting, money laundering and terror financing. Investigations from the United States have revealed that Hezbollah is a major player in the transit of drugs and money from South America to Europe and the Middle East through West Africa.
In his master’s thesis at Harvard University, titled An Examination of the Nature of Hezbollah’s Evolving Presence in Latin America (2017), Adam Garrett Santiago wrote: “Latin America is one region where Hezbollah has realized enormous success… this study reveals that Hezbollah arrived in Latin America in 1983, establishing a modest beachhead in several Muslim communities and evolved to become a fully operational organization capable of gaining sympathizers, training recruits, directing operatives, generating substantial amounts of revenue, conducting terror attacks, creating alliances with organized criminal enterprises, and creating an alliance with a national government.”
For all these reasons, President Mauricio Macri´s determination was necessary. Let us hope that it will be promptly imitated by other democracies in the region.