Ilan Eichner W
Lawyer & Law Professor

Iran and Hezbollah are infiltrating Latin America

Created by ChatGPT with DALL-E, 2024.
Created by ChatGPT with DALL-E, 2024.

In recent years, the expanding presence and activities of Iran and Hezbollah in Latin America have elicited substantial concern among security experts and policymakers. This development demands a comprehensive examination of the multifaceted operations of these actors within the region, their strategies, objectives, and the attendant implications for regional and global security. Interviews with authorities such as Emanuele Ottolenghi offer profound insights into the intricacies of their presence, encompassing incidents, financial networks, ideological dissemination, and terrorist activities.

This represents a current situation, rather than a potential threat for the future. A significant example of an incident underscoring Iranian and Hezbollah activities in Latin America was the arrival of a Venezuelan-Iranian aircraft in Argentina in June 2022. Operated by Emtrasur, a subsidiary of the Venezuelan state airline Conviasa, the plane was scrutinized due to several irregularities. Its itinerary included politically sensitive destinations such as Moscow, Tehran, and Managua, which deviate from typical commercial flight patterns. According to Emanuele Ottolenghi, the aircraft made multiple stops, often remaining for several days at each location—an anomaly for commercial cargo flights—raising suspicions about the true purpose of these journeys. Furthermore, the plane transported cargo that did not justify the high operational costs, such as car parts to Buenos Aires but returned empty. This pattern suggests these flights could be a cover for intelligence operations, the establishment of contacts, or the transport of sensitive materials. Reports from sources like Diálogo Américas and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) have highlighted the suspicious nature of this incident, underscoring the broader implications of Iran and Hezbollah’s activities in the region.

As stated before, Hezbollah’s involvement in Latin America is not a recent phenomenon; the group has been active in the region for decades. They have leveraged significant Lebanese expatriate communities, particularly in the Triple Frontier area where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay converge. Known for its porous borders and rampant illicit activities, this region is ideal for Hezbollah’s operations. The Triple Frontier is notorious for drug trafficking, arms smuggling, contraband, and money laundering, all of which Hezbollah exploits to generate revenue that is funneled back to support its operations in the Middle East. Investigations have documented Hezbollah’s deep involvement in these networks, emphasizing their objective of resource generation to support their military and terrorist activities. Reports from the Washington Institute and Diálogo Américas have detailed Hezbollah’s extensive operations in this area.

Hezbollah’s priorities in Latin America align closely with Iran’s broader geopolitical objectives. These include generating substantial revenue through illicit activities to reduce reliance on state sponsorship and ensure the sustainability of their operations, establishing networks and infrastructure to facilitate intelligence gathering and potential terrorist operations, building alliances with sympathetic political movements and governments to secure operational freedom and impunity, and spreading Iran’s revolutionary ideology through educational and cultural institutions. Hezbollah’s financial operations in Latin America are sophisticated and multifaceted, leveraging local businesses, including import-export companies, real estate investments, and charitable organizations, to launder money. These activities are often conducted in areas with significant Lebanese communities, where Hezbollah can exploit ethnic and familial ties to establish trust and cooperation. For instance, in the Triple Frontier, Hezbollah operatives have established numerous businesses that serve as fronts for money laundering, including supermarkets, electronics stores, and currency exchange houses, funneling profits from drug trafficking through these enterprises and making it difficult for authorities to trace the money back to its illicit origins. Analysts from the FDD and the Washington Institute have extensively covered the financial strategies employed by Hezbollah in Latin America.

Created by ChatGPT with DALL-E, 2024.

A prominent case highlighting the extent of Hezbollah’s financial operations is the Lebanese Canadian Bank (LCB), identified in 2011 by the U.S. Department of the Treasury as a primary money laundering concern under Section 311 of the USA PATRIOT Act. The investigation revealed that Hezbollah was using LCB to launder hundreds of millions of dollars from drug trafficking and other illicit activities. This involved depositing drug proceeds into accounts at LCB, which were then transferred to various financial institutions worldwide. These funds were subsequently used to purchase goods shipped to South America and West Africa, where they were sold for local currency. This complex network of transactions helped Hezbollah obscure the origins of its funds and evade detection. This case has been well-documented by sources like the FDD.

Iran and Hezbollah’s strategy in Latin America also involves the ideological propagation of the Islamic Revolution through educational and cultural institutions that promote Iran’s revolutionary ideals and recruit sympathizers. A key player in this strategy is the Al-Mustafa International University, based in Qom, Iran, which offers courses in theology, Islamic studies, and other subjects to students from Latin America. These students often receive scholarships and other incentives to study in Iran, where they are indoctrinated with the principles of the Islamic Revolution. Upon returning to their home countries, these individuals take up leadership roles in local mosques, cultural centers, and community organizations, spreading Iran’s ideology and strengthening Hezbollah’s influence. Iran’s media strategy in Latin America includes the establishment of channels like HispanTV, which broadcasts content aimed at a broader Spanish-speaking audience. Established in 2012, HispanTV offers news, analysis, and cultural programming that mirrors Iran’s political perspective, while presenting the content in a format tailored to meet the standards of Western audiences. The channel covers topics such as social justice, indigenous rights, and anti-imperialism, themes that resonate with many in the region. This approach helps Iran and Hezbollah build a broad base of support in Latin America, which can be leveraged for political and operational purposes. Certainly, the content created by Hezbollah in Persian and Arabic is unrelated to the material they broadcast in Latin America. Insights from Diálogo Américas have been crucial in understanding these cultural and ideological influences.

Hezbollah’s approach to terrorist activities in Latin America is characterized by a preference for sophisticated, high-impact operations that require extensive planning and resources. Historically, Hezbollah has avoided the type of low-cost, high-frequency attacks favored by groups like ISIS, opting instead for large-scale attacks with significant strategic impact. One of the most infamous examples is the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people and injured hundreds. This attack was carried out by a suicide bomber driving a van loaded with explosives, consistent with Hezbollah’s preference for complex operations. More recently, Hezbollah has been linked to plots targeting Israeli and Jewish interests in the region, with an operative arrested in the United States in 2017 for gathering intelligence on potential targets in Panama, conducting surveillance since 2011. This highlights Hezbollah’s long-term approach to planning and executing attacks. In addition to their operatives, Hezbollah has increasingly turned to subcontracting local criminals for specific tasks, extending its reach and capabilities without exposing its members to additional risk. A notable example uncovered in Colombia involved local operatives hired to assassinate former Israeli diplomats and businessmen, leveraging local knowledge and connections crucial for the success of an operation, making it more difficult for authorities to trace the operation back to Hezbollah, as the immediate perpetrators are local criminals rather than foreign operatives. These points have been extensively covered by experts and analysts at the FDD and the Washington Institute.

The presence and activities of Iran and Hezbollah in Latin America are evidently presenting significant challenges to regional security. These challenges involve illicit activities, intelligence operations, and terrorist plots that destabilize the region and undermine the rule of law. Their efforts to build political alliances and spread revolutionary ideology threaten to erode democratic institutions and promote authoritarianism. Countries in the region have taken various steps to counter these threats. For instance, Argentina designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization in 2019, allowing for more robust legal measures against the group’s activities. However, not all countries in the region have followed suit; Brazil, for example, has yet to take similar action, hampering regional cooperation in combating Hezbollah’s influence. Analysts at the Washington Institute have highlighted these discrepancies and their impact on regional security efforts.

Combating the influence of Iran and Hezbollah in Latin America requires robust international cooperation. The United States has been a key player in these efforts, providing support to local authorities through training, intelligence sharing, and financial assistance. Multilateral organizations such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) play a crucial role in strengthening anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing frameworks in the region. One successful example of international cooperation is Operation Titan, a joint effort between the United States and Colombia that targeted Hezbollah’s drug trafficking and money laundering networks, leading to the arrest of several high-ranking Hezbollah operatives and disrupting their financial networks. This showcases the effectiveness of coordinated international efforts. Despite these efforts, significant challenges remain. The complex nature of Hezbollah’s operations, coupled with their deep-rooted connections in local communities, makes it difficult to dismantle their networks completely. Political and ideological divisions within the region also hinder a unified approach to addressing the threat. To enhance the effectiveness of countermeasures, countries in Latin America should adopt comprehensive legal frameworks to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and criminalize its activities, facilitating more effective law enforcement actions and international cooperation. Improved intelligence sharing between regional and international partners is crucial for identifying and disrupting Hezbollah’s operations, including sharing information on financial transactions, travel patterns, and communication networks. Providing training and resources to local law enforcement and intelligence agencies can enhance their ability to detect and respond to Hezbollah’s activities, including specialized training in financial investigations, cyber surveillance, and counter-terrorism operations. Raising public awareness about the threat posed by Hezbollah and its activities can help build community resilience and encourage cooperation with authorities, focusing on the risks associated with illicit activities and the importance of reporting suspicious behavior. Tackling the underlying factors that enable Hezbollah’s presence in the region, such as corruption, weak governance, and economic inequality, is essential for long-term success. This requires a holistic approach that combines security measures with development initiatives. These recommendations are supported by findings from various experts and institutions.

The activities of Iran and Hezbollah in Latin America represent a complex and multifaceted threat that requires a coordinated and comprehensive response. Their involvement in illicit financial networks, intelligence operations, and terrorist activities poses significant risks to regional and global security. Robust international cooperation, comprehensive legal frameworks, and a holistic approach addressing underlying enabling factors are essential to counter this threat effectively.

About the Author
Lawyer, Law School Professor, Zionist activist, and writer, specializing in the geopolitical dynamics of the Middle East. His work, published in various esteemed journals, focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, offering in-depth analyses that blend historical, legal, and ethical insights. Known for his ability to unravel complex geopolitical issues, he provides insightful and nuanced viewpoints on contemporary challenges in the region.
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