For years the Lebanese based radical organization known as Hezbollah has held a significant presence in South America. Its activities have ranged from terrorist acts waged against the Jewish community to working through criminal groups to further its goals.
Hezbollah has been building a presence in South America for years. Hezbollah has been linked to the 1992 attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 29, and the 1994 attack on the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 (jta.org).
Analysts today say Hezbollah represents a threat to Latin America and the world. In the Latin America region, Hezbollah works with local organized crime, facilitating their work while bribing politicians and officials. Hezbollah is locally involved in crimes including smuggling, violence, and corruption. For decades, the Lebanese arm of the terrorist organization, Hezbollah, operated relatively freely in the tri-border areas of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. It does this through a series of front groups.
Governments in the region are now taking concrete measures against the Iran-backed Shiite militia. It does this through a series of front groups. One of these groups is Barakat Clan which is reputed to be involved in smuggling, counterfeiting money and documents, extortion, drug and arms trafficking, money laundering, and terrorism financing, UIF-AR stated in a release. It is suspected that the group raises funds for the Lebanese organization Hezbollah. In 2004, the U.S. Department of Treasury designated Barakat as one of the most prominent and influential members of Hezbollah (dialogo-americas.com).
Hezbollah’s fundraising network operates extensively in the area known as the Triple Frontier crossing between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. The Triple Frontier often is mentioned as a place linked to Hezbollah and the Barakat group and has been investigated over the past two decades as a source of money for Hezbollah and other groups’ activities related to terrorism. Argentina’s Financial Information Unit identified at least 14 people linked to the Barakat Clan who registered multiple crossings to Argentina, mainly through the Tancredo Neves International Bridge in the Misiones province. Once in Argentina, the clan members would cash in charges at a casino in Iguazú exceeding $10 million without declaring neither the income nor the discharge of funds when crossing the border (jta.org).
The Brazilian-Argentinian border in the TBA experiences approximately 40,000 transits per day. These include tourists visiting both sides of the world-famous Iguazu Falls and cross-border workers. Given such numbers, authorities cannot control each vehicle without bringing traffic to a halt. Without real-time intelligence, it is virtually impossible for Argentina’s authorities to catch large quantities of undeclared cash and thus prevent the exploitation of the casino, merely a hundred yards beyond Argentina’s customs station, for money laundering purposes. Members of the Barakat criminal network crossed the border hundreds of times with large quantities of cash and used the casino to convert the cash into chips and back – sometimes adding gambling wins in the process. Significant sums of money pass through the casino – more than 18 million Argentinian pesos, or about US$660,000. U.S. neglect of the region since the last round of designations in 2006 meant that U.S. sanction deterrence eroded over time. Hezbollah financiers continued their activities largely unmolested. Local authorities did little to stamp out Hezbollah’s terror finance networks once it became clear that the U.S. lost interest in the TBA (terrorism-info.org).
The activities of these criminal organizations extend beyond generating revenue for Hezbollah. Their practices also include activities aimed at a more discreet means of threatening the United States.
In 2011, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) indicted Ayman Saied Joumaa, a Lebanese-Colombian dual national whose global network of companies operate out of Latin America, West Africa, and Lebanon laundered money for Mexican and Colombian cartels to the tune of $200 million a month of drug proceeds. Joumaa worked with Hezbollah as the kingpin in one of many networks Hezbollah runs globally to sustain its financial needs. When his case came to light, the New York Times quoted a DEA official as saying that Hezbollah operated like “the Gambino’s” on steroids.
Increasing quantities of Schedule 2 drugs like cocaine invade the U.S. from Latin America, adding fuel to the opioid pandemic that has already cost so many lives. Cocaine consumption is as much a national epidemic as opioids and Hezbollah helps make it available to U.S. consumers.
This makes Hezbollah, its senior leadership, and its numerous operatives involved in running illicit drug-trafficking and money-laundering operations on a global scale the perfect candidates for Kingpin and Transnational Crime Organization designations, in addition to the terrorism and terror finance designations already in place. Hezbollah’s involvement in Latin America’s drug trade is significant and expanding. The group – often referred to as the “A-Team” of international terrorism – has reportedly formed partnerships with several of the region’s most notorious crime syndicates, including Mexico’s Zetas, Columbia’s FARC,5 and Brazil’s Primeiro Comando de la Capital. Drug trafficking cases involving Lebanese with suspected ties to Hezbollah are increasingly frequent. Evidence indicates that Hezbollah has ties that span the entire illicit narcotics supply chain. U.S. sanctions, as well as court cases in the United States and overseas, have targeted Hezbollah-linked operatives acting as logistical and financial service providers, traffickers, drug barons, distributors, and, most recently, suppliers of precursor chemicals used to refine cocaine. It seems only a matter of time before Hezbollah-run drug labs emerge, too – the kind that has long been at the center of the group’s operations in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley (docs.house.gov)).
Syrian national Nasif Barakat and the Barakat Transnational Criminal Organization has been connected, along with other groups, as a tentacle of the whole Hezbollah organization. The Barakat TCO is a human smuggling organization based in Homs, Syria, that facilitates the smuggling of Syrian and Lebanese nationals to the United States border using a variety of travel routes.
Since 2013, the Barakat TCO has facilitated the smuggling of hundreds of individuals to the Southwest border of the United States. Nasif Barakat is being designated for materially assisting, sponsoring, or providing financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services to or in support of, the Barakat TCO, and for acting on behalf of the Barakat TCO (hardnoxandfriends.com).
Barakat and members of his TCO operate a global network of human smugglers that coordinate the smuggling of foreign nationals to the United States for an average cost of approximately $20,000; this sum includes fees to obtain fraudulent and/or counterfeit documents. Nasif Barakat often provides travelers with fraudulently obtained passports from many different countries, including European Union countries, to facilitate his clients’ global movement and smuggling to the United States.
Barakat engages in bribery to facilitate human smuggling. The Barakat TCO often utilizes a common route of travel which begins in Syria and transits Lebanon, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates subsequently arriving in and transiting certain South and Central American countries before reaching the Southwest border of the United States. The Barakat TCO’s smuggling activities are linked to other crimes including document fraud which can significantly impair appropriate vetting processes (home.treasury.gov).
In January 2017, the southern U.S. border was very porous. Border Patrol was standing down for the most part from arresting or holding illegals. There were reports of radical Islamic followers sneaking across our southern border often without often without challenges from media or Congress. In addition, there were more than a few sightings of bus and planeloads of “refugees” being transported by night and dropped at locations across the U.S. This may actually be continuing today as some reports are still being made by observers (hardnoxandfriends.com).
Hezbollah’s services come with a fee – and the money collected for acting as the cartels’ middlemen fuels their war machine in Syria, their arms buildup in South Lebanon, and their efforts to carry out terrorist plots abroad. Targets include both Latin America and the U.S., as illustrated by at least two known, recent cases (docs.house.gov).
Hezbollah has had a deep foothold in South America for decades. It has been a powerful threat to the United States as a terror organization. However, the danger it presents has been largely overshadowed by the more audacious acts carried out by the al Qaeda and ISIS organizations. This has allowed Hezbollah and the networks of Shia affiliates to develop and proliferate virtually unmolested by any security forces. A radical organization that receives significant support and training from Iran, Hezbollah operates extensively on a global scale with abilities to carry out highly sophisticated attacks as it has demonstrated several times in the past.
Though the organization has carried out several terrorist attacks in the region in the past, its current interests are not necessarily oriented towards such activities. Hezbollah’s primary political interests are Lebanon and service to Iranian intelligence. It is not likely that they will carry out any audacious attacks outside of the Persian Gulf. Based on intelligence, Hezbollah intends to use its South American networks for financial gain. The threat it will largely pose to the United States will be through its criminal activities transporting large quantities of narcotics, weapons, and people across the borders. However, this could change if Iran’s strategy shifts towards how it engages the United States or any other country in the Western Hemisphere. If that happens, Hezbollah becomes a powerful threat already thoroughly embedded in the American backyard.