Luciano Mondino

Iran’s silent terror tactics in Latin America

The landing of Venezuelan-Iranian planes in three countries in the region ignited arms in the region and exposed the lack of regional counter-intelligence coordination.

The Islamic Republic of Iran, the theocratic regime whose bestiality was again on display after the assassination of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Moral Brigades, is known for its export of terror through IRGC troops and the elite Al Quds Forces, responsible for the bombings of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and AMIA in 1994.

Latin America is the laboratory of transnational terrorism

The relationship between Iran and Venezuela is the operational base of transnational terrorism in Latin America, as they share certain characteristics that would even cover the nuclear relationship through uranium. This region, in addition to being subject to political vulnerability and economic deterioration, continues to maintain high levels of anti-Semitism that increase every time the tension between Israel and Hamas escalates.

Both countries share international sanctions: the Iranian regime is sanctioned for its nuclear weapons programme, while Venezuela is sanctioned for repression, crimes against humanity and human rights violations.

The relationship between the two began in 2005 amidst the authoritarian advances of Chavismo and the consolidation of Iran as a nuclear power that Israel and the United States had to confront. The Caribbean country was a host country for former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and later became the nexus for Argentina to sign the Memorandum of Understanding with Iran in 2013.

Iran’s extra-regional links reach a Latin America with decimated economies and institutions, fragile democracies and unsustainable political parties. Transnational terrorism, like organised criminal groups, finds its way into increasingly poor societies, with fractured social fabrics and groups of people highly vulnerable to the words of extremist clerics.

The Iranian-owned Mahan Air is an airline sanctioned by the US State Department (under OFAC sanctions) for using commercial fronts to supply weapons to war zones (Syria and Yemen) or to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Thanks to the sanctions, more than a few countries have prevented these aircraft from landing in order to avoid being targeted by sanctions against the funding of transnational terrorism.

Thanks to the OSINT investigation, it is possible to affirm that Iran, through the airline Fars Air Qeshm, has transported Afghan members of the IRGC’s Fatemiyoun brigades on a Tehran-Damascus flight. 

The Venezuelan response

is the objective of the air alliance between Venezuela and Iran the long-range strategic transport, avoiding international sanctions?

In Buenos Aires, Argentina, the landing of an Iranian plane with a Venezuelan and Persian crew sparked a political and media debate in a country that has suffered first-hand from Islamist terrorism in 1992 and 1994.

The web that the plane uncovered was not only the malfunctioning of Argentina’s intelligence services, but also a suspicion that Venezuela may be imitating Iran’s evasive manoeuvres: creating commercial covers to evade sanctions and deepen its political and even military alliances. It is for this reason that Nicolás Maduro’s regime in 2020 created a state-owned company, in the form of a joint stock company, called Empresa de Transporte Aerocargo del Sur, S.A. (Emtrasur).

The first particularity of Emtrasur is that, unlike any other national airline of another country, it operates from the El Libertador Air Base and in its adjacent hangar is the hangar of Empresa Aeronáutica Nacional S.A., which is where, among other things, the drones that Iran exports as military technology to Venezuela are assembled. This, a priori, allows us to address the first question: is the objective of the air alliance between Venezuela and Iran the long-range strategic transport, avoiding international sanctions?

It must be remembered that as of September, the Iranian regime started to equip Russian troops with the same kamikaze drone technology that they use on civilians in Ukraine, even attacking Jews in the holy city of Uman on the last Rosh Hashanah.

In second place, the links between the recently created Emtrasur and Mahan Air formally began in 2021 when, through an operating lease, both countries reached an agreement to incorporate a Boeing 747 that had been operated by the Iranians since 2007, but which would take until February 2022 to land in Venezuela and become the aircraft with registration number YV3531.

Since the scandal with Argentina began in June and up to now, the alleged purchase of the aircraft has been denied and the operation is supposed to be under an operating lease in which Venezuela rents the aircraft and the crew, which is effectively Iranian. To add to suspicions, Emtrasur does not have an official website, nor does it have a telephone number or social media accounts like any other airline in the world.

The third highlight is the routes the aircraft flew between February and June when it visited 32 different destinations in Russia, Belarus, Serbia, Pakistan, Paraguay and Argentina. The repeated connections between Tehran and Moscow show that trade routes mimic the Ayatollahs’ political alliances.

Aircraft routes and connections

what were the crew members doing in Ciudad del Este, one of the most notorious hotspots of terrorism and organised crime in the Triple Frontier between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay?

On 14 May 2022, EMTRASUR’s BOEING 747 YV3531 3B3M landed in Ciudad del Este, one of the cities identified as a hotspot for Islamic terrorism and organised crime because it belongs to the Triple Frontier, with a crew of 7 Iranians and 11 Venezuelans.

After taking over a $755,000 shipment from a cigar company linked to Grupo Cartes, a former president of Paraguay accused of corruption, the aircraft took off for Aruba on 16 May.

The questions that arise here are twofold: first, does the reduced profit margin justify such a long journey and the costs involved in moving a Boeing 747? And secondly, and perhaps most shockingly, what were the crew members doing in Ciudad del Este, one of the most notorious hotspots of terrorism and organised crime in the Triple Frontier between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay?

To speak of terrorism in Latin America is also to speak of drug trafficking, which is why it is prudent to conceptualise a grey zone where transnational terrorist groups (such as Hezbollah, which is located in the aforementioned TBA) and organised crime groups coexist. The Paraguayan government maintains that the 19 crew members were escorted in Ciudad del Este by Santoro Vasallo, who is a member of the organisation led by Uruguayan Sebastián Marset, who is accused of commanding drug trafficking in the waterway and of masterminding the murder of Paraguayan prosecutor Marcelo Pecci in Colombia on 10 May.

If the Paraguayan government’s hypothesis is confirmed, there would be a connection between the Venezuelan and Iranian crew members who were travelling on aircraft YV3531. Santoro Vasallo would have been in charge of the transfer and the booking of accommodation at the Dazzler Hotel in the Paraguayan city.

The landing that ended up escalating the scandal politically and in the media was in Argentina from 6 to 8 June, when the plane left Querétaro, Mexico, with a cargo of auto parts that was supposed to land at the Ministro Pistarini airport in Ezeiza, Buenos Aires, but finally had to land in the province of Córdoba due to bad weather.

Once landed in the Argentinean capital, the aircraft was unable to refuel due to OFAC sanctions, so it remained at the airport for 48 hours and took off on 8 June for Montevideo without considering that it would be denied permission to land on Uruguayan soil and that it would have to return to Buenos Aires, where it would finally be detained.

By then, the Argentine government was facing a very sensitive international issue with serious implications: despite the fact that the country maintains Interpol alerts against five Iranian citizens accused of the AMIA bombing, an aircraft with a Persian crew landed in the country and about which Paraguay had warned Argentina that the aircraft belonged to Mahan Air and that it is indicated for its links to terrorism.

The aircraft and crew remained in Buenos Aires for 48 hours without any of the additional security measures that would be required to deal with such a situation. The refusal to refuel corresponded to the fact that oil companies, including Argentina’s state-owned oil company YPF, could also be sanctioned by the United States.

Some journalistic sources point to an incident that has not yet been clarified: the oil companies YPF, SHELL and AXION have allegedly claimed that the Ministry of Security of the Nation requested that they supply fuel to the aircraft regardless of being subject to OFAC sanctions. Although the Ministry of Security denies this version, it is worth mentioning that the current Minister of Security of the nation is Aníbal Fernández, who was also an official in the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner at the time of the murder of Prosecutor Alberto Nisman hours before filing his accusation of cover-up and treason against Fernández de Kirchner.

The return of the aircraft to Buenos Aires after being denied by Uruguay prompted the Argentine National Directorate of Migration to order the retention of the crew’s documents and the intervention of the Airport Security Police. It is not clear why the Argentine government acted 48 hours later, having been alerted by Paraguay and other foreign intelligence agencies.

On 11 June, the first crew list was leaked, consisting of 11 Venezuelans and 7 Iranians, and a second list in which the information did not match: five Iranian names did not appear on the second list and three Iranian names only appear on the second list. However, in both lists there was one name that was repeated and that also appeared on the list that had come down in Paraguay: Gholamreza Abbas Ghasemi.

The Quds Forces managed to land in Buenos Aires

if they bother, let us know and we’ll kill them all (…) we’ll do a genocide

The name of Gholamreza Abbas Ghasemi then coincided with that of a member of the IRGC and an administrator of Fars Air Qeshm, the other Persian airline accused of transporting munitions and armaments, something incredibly denied by the security minister, Anibal Fernandez, who said that the Ghasemi who was in Buenos Aires was a namesake.

Finally, the evidence corroborated that Ghasemi was not only part of the Quds but that emtrasur flight YV3531 was hiding something as yet unresolved: after weeks of suspicions, suspicions and with an unusual deadline imposed on the judge in the case to resolve the judicial situation of the crew and the aircraft within 10 days, the investigations on Ghasemi’s mobile phone yielded photographs linked to IRGC, Quds, images of soldiers, missiles, weapons, war tanks and a sign saying “death to Israel”. In addition, the experts found a terrifying message saying: “if they bother, let us know and we’ll kill them all (…) we’ll do a genocide” that came from another pilot who had made the trip to Paraguay. In addition, the judicial file mentions a person by the name of Naghi as the person responsible for carrying out the threat.

Despite the threat of killing everyone and committing genocide, the Argentine justice system surprisingly allowed the crew members of the plane to leave the country, who are already in Venezuela. The judicial case continues since the judge considers that the evidence does not allow for a declaration of lack of merit, but it is not credible that the investigation will be successful, considering that Iran has never handed over those accused of blowing up the AMIA, has circumvented Interpol’s red circulars and, as if that were not enough, neither the Persian country nor Venezuela has an extradition agreement with Argentina.

The pilot Ghasemi left the country with a photo of him making a V-finger, a very typical symbolism in Argentina that identifies the phrase “until victory always” and which is appropriated by Kirchnerist groups and followers of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Chile: the Conviasa route

how much luggage were the crew and passengers on board the YV3533 aircraft that landed in Chile? And also what did this luggage contain?

Aircraft linked to the Venezuela-Iran alliance also landed in Chile, a neighbouring country governed by Gabriel Boric, an openly anti-Semitic president who rejected the credentials of Israel’s ambassador and has spoken out publicly in favour of Palestinian militancy.

On 6 April, Chile and Venezuela signed a memorandum of understanding to broaden the air commercial spectrum and on 22 June at 2.30 p.m. an Airbus A340 aircraft landed from Caracas, operated by Conviasa (another Venezuelan airline sanctioned by the US Treasury Department) with the registration number YV3533.

The case of Chile is perhaps more serious: firstly because it signed a memorandum of understanding with a sanctioned company and later allowed the landing of an aircraft whose company was flagged and investigated in Argentina and Paraguay for activities linked to terrorism.

According to official sources, the plane stayed only a few hours on Chilean soil and the purpose of the flight is unknown, as is the identity of the crew and passengers… could the same mistake have been made in three different countries?

It is also very striking that the same aircraft YV3533 had made several flights to Tehran, including the group that transported Nicolás Maduro and his entourage, as well as other routes to Havana, Caracas and Moscow. Up to the first days of October, five flights could be counted that covered the Santiago de Chile-Caracas route.

What remains to be known in Chile is the following: how much luggage were the crew and passengers on board the YV3533 aircraft that landed in Chile? And also what did this luggage contain?

Iran’s intrusive policy in Latin America has become a very complex plot that connects the political interests of the Islamic theocracy and has entered Latin America, which is an adverse territory for counter-terrorism. Many questions remain unanswered on a sensitive issue with many implications.

About the Author
Master's Degree in International Politics from the Complutense University of Madrid. Interested in transnational terrorism, organized crime, radicalism and the fight against anti-Semitism.
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