Government and judicial corruption are allies of organized crime and Islamic terrorism in Latin America.
Hezbollah: the export of terror and violence from Iran
International and transnational terrorism are often used as synonyms, which can lead to a conceptual misunderstanding.
Terrorism itself is a planned act of violence that seeks greater psychological and social consequences on people through terror that will last for a long time on the victims. This planning of terror becomes transnational when there are different operational cells of the terrorist organization located in different countries and with the possibility of realizing their objective by involving people of different nationalities.
It is therefore correct to include international terrorism as part of transnational terrorism but not as a synonym: the international character is when the terrorist organization seeks the global reach, or a considerable number of countries, of that terror and violence.
The Lebanese Shiite organization Hezbollah, also known as the Party of God, is a clear example of transnational terrorism. In the service of the Islamic Republic of Iran, but also of Syria, in its project to export the revolution since 1979, it has established itself in some areas of the capital Beirut, the south of the country and the Bekaa Valley. Lebanon suffers from the infiltration of Hezbollah, which has constituted itself as a real parallel state that limits the national government’s foreign policy and poses a major threat to the state of Israel and its neighbors.
Since their founding between 1982 and 1985 because of the civil war, they have pledged allegiance to Supreme Leader Khomeini and have achieved a very close association through the Quds Forces, an elite IRGC corps, especially with General Soleimani killed in January 2020. Since their founding years they have received not only religious but also ideological and military indoctrination from Iranian forces. Their current secretary, Hassan Nasrallah, has studied in Qom , one of Iran’s institutions known for exporting violence, Judeophobia and anti-Western preaching.
They are part of Shi’ism, a faction of Islam under the leadership of Ali Husayn, and strongly violent in speaking out against the existence of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. Their terrorist facet has been known on several occasions in Lebanon and abroad. After beginning its history in Beirut with attacks on American and French targets, also attributed to Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah perpetrated attacks in different parts of the world, the most lethal being the attacks on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and the AMIA in 1994.
The Party of God is also politically represented and has managed to win a considerable number of seats in parliament. Since the poor results of the last elections, it can be predicted that Nasrallah’s grouping will call for war and increased hostility towards Israel to divert attention from Lebanon’s severe economic crisis, where many Lebanese, especially the youth, point to the grouping as responsible for many of their problems such as unemployment and violence.
Hizbollah, therefore, operates in four dimensions: political, social-clientelist, guerrilla and transnational terrorist.
The funding in the TBA
Hezbollah’s primary source of funding comes from the Islamic Republic of Iran, a country known for sponsoring and sustaining terrorist groups in its proxy scenarios: Syria and Yemen as well as Lebanon. Different sources agree that the Persian country sends between 100 and 300 million dollars a year to the Shiite militia.
The second source of resources, not only financially but also in terms of political influence, is the Lebanese diaspora scattered around the world. Millions of Lebanese have left their countries since the 1970s and 1980s in the wake of the terminal economic and political crises that Hezbollah’s destabilization produces in the country. Hezbollah reportedly earns more than $10 million a year from remittances sent by Lebanese diaspora sympathetic to its cause through legal and commercial fronts that conceal the illicit financing of transnational terrorism.
The Tri-Border Area (TBA) is a geographical point linking Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, where criminal activities coexist and which Hezbollah uses to finance its structure composed of a Shura Council and different committees where the organization plans its activities.
Three cities stand out for their proximity to the border: Ciudad del Este in Paraguay with 312,652 inhabitants according to data from the Alto Paraná government; Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil with approximately 200,000 inhabitants and a better quality of life than Ciudad del Este; and Puerto Iguazú in Argentina with 42,849 inhabitants, resulting in more than half a million people living permanently. However, the number of people passing through is multiplying and this is thanks to the traffic on the Amistad bridge, which links Foz and Ciudad del Este, and the Tancredo Neves bridge, which links Puerto and Foz. The authorities estimate a daily traffic of 15,000 vehicles and 40,000 people a day crossing between the three countries.
It is a region with a strong presence of Arab communities, especially in Ciudad del Este, which are appropriated by Middle Eastern Islamist groups, such as Al Qaeda in the past and now Hezbollah. These communities, also composed of adherents to the terrorist cause, have served as operational bases and hideouts, or alibis, for the planning and execution of various attacks around the world.
Certainly, there are differences between the objectives that a terrorist organization fulfills and those pursued by a criminal organization: for the former there is a political objective while for the latter there is an economic objective. However, the modus operandi of these groups is similar in all those free trade or unregulated zones that are exploited by organized crime and terrorism to form a real grey zone where a group like Hezbollah can finance its activities through drug trafficking, a major scourge in Latin America, or arms trafficking. Other regional security challenges include Venezuela’s Isla Margarita, Colombia’s Maicao and Chile’s Iquique.
The funding of jihadist terrorism by organized crime
One of the hotspots of organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean is in the Triple Frontier. In addition to Arab communities, especially Lebanese, which can support Islamist organizations, there are criminal groups from China, Ghana, Libya, Lebanon, Russia, Nigeria, Taiwan and Italy, as well as those operating indigenously between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.
The use of legal commercial fronts is one of the most characteristic features of Hezbollah’s search for funding in the TBA. Not only are there reports from security forces and intelligence agencies, but since 2002 there have been court cases involving citizens of Lebanese descent on charges of terrorist financing. One of the many has been the Barakat clan, led by Assad Ahmad Barakat, a 51-year-old Lebanese descendant, who has been charged since 2003 when a considerable quantity of counterfeit goods was confiscated from one of his commercial businesses, located in the former Galerías Pagé in Ciudad del Este, and sold to generate profits that were then sent to Lebanon.
Since then, and after being sentenced to prison, the clan has earned its reputation as one of the Lebanese terrorist group’s biggest fundraisers. In 2018, following a joint effort between the Argentine FIU and American agencies, the assets and money connecting the clan to Hezbollah were frozen after detecting anomalous movements in casino collections in Puerto Iguazú where non-Argentine citizens had collected more than 11 million dollars in prizes that were never duly reported to the Argentine authorities when crossing the border in accordance with the legislation in force.
At the beginning of 2021, the Arab news channel Al-Arabiya, pointed to another citizen of Lebanese descent named Nasser Abbas Bahmad, based in Ciudad del Este, as the head of a criminal organization established in 2014 with the aim of transporting shipments of tons of drugs camouflaged in coal containers to different parts of the world, including Beirut. The criminal aspects of the TBA are commonly used by terrorists to camouflage their activities: money laundering and forgery of documents, especially passports.
The alliance of transnational jihadist terrorism and organized crime endangers Latin America’s already fragile democracies. On 6 June 2022, Boeing 747-3B3(M) flight ESU9218/9 landed in Argentina with aircraft YV3531 that had belonged to the Iranian airline Mahan Air, sanctioned for its links to the transfer of weapons to Middle East war zones. Allegedly purchased by the Venezuelan company Emtrasur, the aircraft arrived in Buenos Aires after a stay in Ciudad del Este where the crew members met with criminals and drug traffickers from Uruguay.
One of the crew members, Gholamreza Ghasemi, is an Iranian member of the Quds Forces and commander of cargo flights to Syria and Lebanon. It should be noted that, under US law, the transfer of an aircraft from one sanctioned company to another is illegal, as they are seeking to avoid the sanctions imposed.
According to journalistic sources, the aircraft arrived at Guaraní Airport, Paraguay, on 13 May 2022 to pick up a shipment of cigarettes from the company TABESA, belonging to the Cartes group led by Hugo Cartes, a former ruler of Paraguay sanctioned by the United States for corruption, generating the suspicion of the Paraguayan authorities given that the operation of the flight was more costly than the shipment that was destined for Aruba.
The route taken by the aircraft in the weeks prior to landing in Buenos Aires is fundamental for the security and intelligence authorities: flights between Iran, Venezuela, Paraguay and finally Argentina, with another stop in the province of Córdoba. Such a large aircraft, without cargo and with so many crew members.
Corruption not only damages the credibility of politics and good governance but is also indispensable for these criminal and terrorist groups to operate without major problems. In Argentina, the judiciary is prosecuting Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and the Public Prosecutor’s Office has requested in August a 12-year prison sentence and a lifetime disqualification from holding public office. This is of particular interest in the United States, especially after the sanctioning of Paraguay’s former vice-president Hugo Velázquez for high corruption.
The lack of credibility and transparency is also a reason why organized crime and terrorism are spreading throughout Latin America: it is not only a phenomenon of Paraguay or Brazil, with the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), but is also beginning to act with increasing presence in Argentina and neighboring countries.
Finally, Iran’s political objectives are also a threat to the region because they would allow the export of Iranian Islamic fundamentalism to countries with weak institutions, easily corruptible governments, with a strong anti-imperialist discourse and also against Israel and the Jews, as in the case of political leaders linked to the movement led by Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and with dark precedents such as the murder of the Argentine National Prosecutor Alberto Natalio Nisman who was investigating the AMIA bombing.