Washington’s silent war against Hezbollah in Latin America

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The Hill, by Joseph M. Humire, October 8, 2018:

On July 11, 2018, the government of Argentina took its first action against Hezbollah by freezing the financial assets of 14 individuals belonging to the Barakat clan in South America. Last week, Brazilian Federal Police arrested the leader of this clan, Assad Ahmad Barakat, who was sanctioned by U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in 2004 and is considered one of Hezbollah’s most important financiers. These recent actions against Hezbollah in Latin America signal a shift in the priorities of regional governments, with Washington’s help.

Hezbollah’s presence in a subregion of South America known as the Tri-Border Area (TBA), at the crossroads of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, long has been known to regional authorities, but recently factors have prompted action. One element was the June 2017 extradition from Ciudad Del Este to Miami of Lebanese-Paraguayan Ali Issa Chamas, for shipping cocaine through U.S. ports and airports.

Many circumstances contribute to a high-level extradition but, fundamentally, both nations need political will to carry out this type of operation. The Obama administration repeatedly failed to extradite Hezbollah operatives when given the opportunity. For example, Obama’s Department of Justice and State Department failed in 2011 to bring Syrian-Venezuelan drug trafficker Walid Makled to the United States after he provided significant evidence of Hezbollah’s ties to Venezuelan officials shipping drugs to Europe and America. And, in 2016, Ali Fayad, a Lebanese-Ukrainian arms dealer charged in a New York court with “conspiracy to kill officers and employees of the United States,” was released from prison in the Czech Republic and returned to Lebanon.

In a bombshell article last year, Politico accused the Obama administration of turning a blind eye to Hezbollah’s illicit activities in favor of the nuclear deal with Iran, though members of Obama’s administration vehemently deny this was the case. President Trump is sending a different message to South America regarding Hezbollah, with results beginning to show.

Regional governments have started cracking down on Hezbollah’s criminal activity, namely in illicit financing. Argentina’s recent financial freeze affecting Barakat members is an official acknowledgment by the Argentine government that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. Since Argentina does not yet have a legal mechanism to designate Hezbollah as such, its Financial Intelligence Unit (UIF) used the terror-financing prevention framework within its anti-terrorism law to issue the sanctions. This led to subsequent raids this past summer of casinos, hotels and money-exchange houses in the TBA that led to the capture of Assad Ahmad Barakat in Brazil.

Barakat was imprisoned in the past in Paraguay, convicted of tax-evasion charges in 2002. But this time, the political playing field is different and the Trump administration is likely to place tremendous pressure on Brazil to extradite Barakat to Argentina or the United States.

To stay ahead of the problem, Attorney General Jeff Sessions established the Hezbollah Financing Narcoterrorism Team (HFNT) in January 2018, led by veteran prosecutor John Cronan at the Department of Justice. This interagency task force, entrusted with combating Hezbollah’s terror finance, is focused not just on prosecuting Hezbollah operatives both in the United States and, with the cooperation of regional prosecutors and law enforcement agencies, in Latin American countries.

With President Trump’s election and the establishment of the HFNT, there is a noticeable difference in Latin American governments’ attitudes toward Hezbollah. In the weeks prior to Barakat’s arrest, several U.S. experts were invited by local authorities to take part in a conference on the crime-terror convergence in the TBA organized by the Department of Justice and U.S. Embassy. Similar seminars were held in recent months in Panama, Peru and Colombia, some of them sponsored by the Department of Defense in cooperation with local counterparts.

Congress also has weighed in, holding several hearings on the topic and passing the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Amendments Act of 2017. Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.), the vice chair of a new subcommittee on terrorism and illicit finance, helped pave the way for greater regional cooperation by holding a Parliamentary Intelligence Security Forum with the UIF in Argentina in November 2017.

Latin America is paying attention to the whole-of-government approach that has formed in Washington. There is still much more to do to curb Hezbollah’s crime-terror activities, and action by our regional partners is critical to success. The recent arrest of Barakat demonstrates that Latin America indeed is ready to act, if given political and technical support. President Trump would be wise to capitalize on this momentum and prioritize Latin America in our global counterterrorism efforts.

Joseph M. Humire is the executive director of the Center for a Secure Free Society and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the co-editor of “Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America” (Lexington Books).

Brazil: Conservative Bolsonaro Wins Round 1 of Presidential Race, Heads to Run-off with Socialist

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Breitbart, by Frances Martel, October 7, 2018:

Conservative candidate Jair Bolsonaro won the first round of Brazil’s presidential election Sunday, securing the top spot against socialist Fernando Haddad in a run-off race scheduled forOctober 28.

Bolsonaro, representing the right-wing Social Liberal Party (PSL), almost secured the 50 percent of the vote necessary to become president without a second election. With 98 percent of precincts reporting, O Globo reports that Bolsonaro received 46.43 percent of the vote, about 49 million votes. Haddad of the socialist Workers’ Party (PT) came in second with 28.73 percent of the vote, or slightly over 30 million votes, at press time. Final tallies are subject to change as the final precincts report their votes.

Bolsonaro outperformed the latest polls taken late last week. A poll by the firm Datafolha found 39 percent of voters saying they would vote for Bolsonaro. Haddad also appeared to pick up some voters, having received 25 percent of respondents’ support in that latest poll.

Datafolha found, as another poll by the firm Ibope did last week, that Haddad and Bolsonaro would be in a statistical tie in a run-off election.

Bolsonaro released a short video Sunday night thanking Brazilians and urging them to maintain their enthusiasm for his campaign through the run-off election.

“The second round won’t be easy,” he told them, promising to “diminish the size and power of the state.”

“I am very thankful to those who voted for me, together we will construct our Brazil, God willing,” he concluded.

Bolsonaro’s supporters maintained a festive climate outside the candidate’s house and throughout the country in major rallies, singing the national anthem.

Brazilian commentators noted last week that both candidates have high disapproval ratings. As of last week, Datafolha found Bolsonaro’s disapproval at 45 percent and Haddad’s 40 percent. Their task by October 28 will be to amass as much support as possible from among voters who supported the losing candidates in Sunday’s race, playing upon each other’s high disapproval ratings, as an overwhelming majority (over 80 percent) of supporters of either candidate said they were not interested in switching the vote.

Sunday’s election showed that Bolsonaro’s campaign, which focused on combatting corruption in Brazilian politics and undoing the socialist policies previous PT presidents put in place throughout most of the 21st century, hit a nerve among the Brazilian population. O Globo notes that Bolsonaro appears to have significant coattails; conservative candidates nationwide are beating left-wing opponents in congressional and gubernatorial elections. Of particular note is the election for governor of Rio de Janeiro, where relatively unknown former judge Wilson Witzel appears to be winning against former governor Eduardo Paes. Bolsonaro personally endorsed Witzel before his surge in support.

In Sao Paulo, Eduardo Bolsonaro, the presidential candidate’s son, was elected to represent Sao Paulo in the Chamber of Deputies with more votes than anyone in the history of that race. The fourth winningest candidate for the Sao Paulo congressional seat, a former clown named “Tiririca” (“Grumpy”), was also elected to serve alongside Bolsonaro after quitting Congress in disgust in March.

Eduardo Bolsonaro saw an increase in support between this campaign and his last run for the seat of 2,030 percent, according to O Globo.

Conversely, socialist candidates appear on the downswing. Perhaps the loudest rejection of the socialist PT occurred in Minas Gerais state, where Dilma Rousseff, the impeached former president of the country, lost her race for Senate. Minas Gerais is the state where Bolsonaro was nearly stabbed to death in early September, the victim of a violent socialist who told police he was ordered by God to kill the candidate.

Rousseff’s predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, watched the election results from prison, where he clocked in six months of his 12-year sentence for taking over $1 million in bribes as president.

Lula became one of the defining characters of this year’s election and, according to most polls, was the frontrunner for months before being sentenced to serve over a decade. He used this status as an excuse to refuse to let the PT pick another candidate for president, even though the sentence banned him from running for office indefinitely. He finally stepped aside in mid-September, giving Haddad little time to campaign.

The outrageous corrupt of the PT era – which police cataloged in an extensive nationwide investigation known as “Operation Car Wash” – became a key talking point of the Bolsonaro campaign, channeling the anger that brought millions of Brazilians out on the streets to demand Rousseff’s ouster in 2016.

Brazilian newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo described Sunday’s election as “the biggest convulsion to shake the social fabric of Brazil since redemocratization,” which occurred after the fall of the military dictatorship in 1985. Whether or not Bolsonaro wins the presidency, the newspaper asserted, “message received.”

“The economic and political debacle of the government of Dilma Rousseff (PT)” and “the moral climate around Operation Car Wash” were to blame for the shift rightward, Folha asserted.

***

Also see:

State: Iran’s Proxy Hezbollah Operating Across Western Hemisphere, Including U.S.

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Breitbart, by Edwin Mora, September 20, 2018:

The “world’s preeminent state sponsor of terrorism” Iran and its proxy Hezbollah maintain an operational presence across Latin America and in the United States, the U.S. Department of State (DOS) reported this week.

For years, State and the U.S. military have warned against Iran and Hezbollah’s growing activities in Latin America, including the terrorist group’s involvement in drug trafficking and money laundering.

According to State’s Country Reports on Terrorism for 2017 released Wednesday, which tracks terrorist activities across the world, Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism with a “near-global reach.”

While briefing reporters about the terrorism reports on Wednesday, Nathan Sales, the State Department’s ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism, declared:

Iran is the world’s preeminent state sponsor of terrorism, and it brings to its terrorist activities the resources of a state. We have seen Iran’s and its proxies’ terrorist-related activities across the globe. There are active fundraising networks in places as far afield as Africa, in South America. We’ve seen weapons caches planted around the world. We’ve seen operational activity not just in Lebanon by Hizballah, but by Iran-backed terrorists in the heart of Europe. Iran uses terrorism as a tool of its statecraft. It has no reservations about using that tool on any continent.

The annual Country Reports on Terrorism for 2017 added:

Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism worldwide remained undiminished through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force [IRGC-QF], its Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and Tehran’s proxy Hizballah, which remained a significant threat to the stability of Lebanon and the broader region

State noted that authorities across the Western Hemisphere, including the FBI in the United States, arrested several Hezbollah (or Hizballah) operatives and disrupted various plots last year.

“As far as Iran-backed terrorist organizations are concerned, we’ve arrested a number of operatives who allegedly were casing targets in support of Iran-backed terrorist organizations, and they’re now facing charges in federal court,” Sales told reporters.

In early June 2017, the FBI arrested Ali Kourani, 32, of the Bronx, New York, and Samer el Debek, 37, of Dearborn, Michigan, on charges linked to their alleged activities on behalf of Shiite Hezbollah.

Referring to one of the defendants, State noted:

In addition to its financial and fundraising activities in the Western Hemisphere, Hizballah also maintained interest in the region during 2017. A Hizballah operative was arrested by the FBI in the United States in June 2017. Among other accusations, he was allegedly involved in surveilling U.S. and Israeli targets in Panama.

Latin American authorities also arrested several Hezbollah jihadis and disrupted some plots linked to the Shiite terrorist group last year.

DOS reported:

[B]olivian security services previously uncovered and disrupted a Hizballah cache of explosive precursors in the La Paz area. The Peruvian government’s prosecution of a Hizballah member arrested in 2015 is still ongoing, with the Peruvians successfully appealing a ruling acquitting this operative of terrorism charges.

With the help of U.S. counterparts, Paraguayan law enforcement officials arrested multiple Lebanese Hizballah-linked suspects in the Ciudad del Este area who were engaged in money laundering and drug trafficking activities, some with links to the United States.

“Panama cooperated with U.S. law enforcement on various counterterrorism cases this year, including individuals linked to Hizballah,” State added.

A local Peruvian news outlet reported in 2016 that Shiite Iran’s terror proxy Hezbollah had registered as an official political party in Peru’s Abancay province, home to the nation’s largest Muslim community.

In previous terrorism reports, State acknowledged that the socialist country of Venezuela, which is hostile to the United States, provides “a permissive environment” that benefits known terrorist groups like Hezbollah.

State reiterated in its latest report:

In May 2017, for the twelfth consecutive year, the U.S. Department of State determined, pursuant to section 40A of the Arms Export Control Act, that Venezuela was not cooperating fully with U.S. counterterrorism efforts. The country’s porous borders offered a permissive environment to known terrorist groups.

Politico found last year that former U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration “derailed” a DEA operation targeting Hezbollah’s drug trafficking activities in Latin America to secure approval of the controversial Iran nuclear deal.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, which has taken a tough stance against Iran, pulled out of the nuclear deal and is expected to reimpose sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

Under the deal, Iran was expected to reduce its nuclear weapons activities in exchange for sanctions relief.

While financial support for Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies by the heavily sanctioned regime may be drying up, the terrorist group is believed to be generating hundreds of millions of dollars from drug trafficking.

Moreover, the terrorist group is believed to be laundering billions of dollars. Forbes this year deemed Hezbollah the richest terrorist organization with an annual income of $1.1 billion, generated primarily by “aid funding from Iran, drug manufacture and trade.”

Breitbart News has learned that Iran is operating up to 100 so-called cultural centers across Latin America manned by Hezbollah and IRGC recruiters.

With Cartels In Control, There Are No Easy Answers To The Border Crisis

Much of Mexico and Central America is ruled by cartels, and until we come to terms with the role they play in migrant smuggling, the crisis will worsen.

The Federalist, by Daniel Davidson, June 26, 2018:

In the debate over President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration, pundits and politicians from across the political spectrum are offering simplistic solutions to the problems along our southern border.

On the Left, outrage over family separation has morphed into outrage over family detention with Trump’s announcement last week that families would be kept together but still prosecuted for illegal entry. Although they won’t come right out and say it, most liberals would like to return to a policy of catch and release, in which families caught crossing illegally are assigned a court date and released into the country.

On the Right, many seem to think it’s possible to solve illegal immigration simply by building a wall, or carrying out mass extrajudicial deportations, or separating parents and children as a deterrent.

Libertarians, too, are grasping for simple solutions. Over at Reason, J.D. Tuccille suggests that “better smugglers” are the best way to fight Trump’s draconian border policy. “Immigrants and their supporters should give some thought, and effort, to improved smuggling channels that treat migrants better than the existing criminal networks, and offer them a better chance of success,” writes Tuccille. He doesn’t mention the possibility that these new smugglers might find themselves at odds with the old smugglers, whose profits are at stake, or that jumping into Mexico’s migrant smuggling trade as a freelancer carries the risk of, say, being beheaded by one of the cartels.

Tuccille’s facile take is emblematic of the way the media has more or less ignored the role that “criminal networks” are playing in all of this—a role that makes easy solutions impossible. Throughout the border crisis, the media’s attention has been focused on the plight of Central American families and the chaos created by Trump’s zero-tolerance policy. Sure, the president likes to exaggerate how many MS-13 gang members are crossing the border, but neither Trump nor his detractors are thinking seriously about the escalating violence and accelerating social collapse now underway in Mexico and Central America, and how crime syndicates are playing into illegal immigration along the southern border.

Violence In Mexico Is Out Of Control—And Getting Worse

National elections in Mexico are set for July 1, and so far 121 political candidates, most of them running for local office, have been assassinated, along with dozens of their family members. Hundreds more have been attacked. On Thursday, a mayoral candidate in Ocampo, in the western state of Michoacan, was killed outside his residence—the third politician to be killed in Michoacan in just over a week. Federal police responded by arresting the entire town’s 27-officer police force on suspicion of involvement with the murder, another reminder that across Mexico drug cartels have infiltrated local and state police forces, political machines, and major industries. Candidates who speak out against corruption and vow to stand up to the cartels are especially in danger.

The violence is bad enough that the U.S. State Department has issued “do not travel” advisories for five Mexican states—Colima, Guerrero, Michoacan, Sinaloa, and Tamaulipas, whose northern boundary runs along the U.S. border from Brownsville to Laredo, Texas. These are the same travel advisories in place for countries like Libya, Syria, and North Korea. For much of the rest of Mexico, including nearly the entire U.S.-Mexico border, the State Department advises Americans to “reconsider travel.”

Tamaulipas is so dangerous right now that the interim governor of Nuevo Laredo, which sits directly across the Rio Grande from Laredo, has warned his citizens not to try to travel to the United States through Tamaulipas, and especially not through the town of Reynosa, across the river from McAllen, Texas. The official warning came a day after gunmen believed to be associated with the Gulf Cartel ambushed marines with the Mexican Navy three times in Nuevo Laredo, killing one and injuring 12 others. According to Mexican officials, the gunmen wore marine uniforms and drove vehicles with government markings. The ambushes only stopped when the marines called in a helicopter gunship for support.

Part of what’s driving the violence in northern Mexico is the breakdown of the Gulf and Los Zetas cartels. The most recent wave of violence began last April when Mexican authorities in Reynosa killed Juan Manuel Loisa Salinas, the leader of the Gulf Cartel. His death created a power vacuum, and various factions are now competing for a piece of the cross-border drug trade and other criminal enterprises.

Signs of the grisly cartel violence that was associated with Juárez back in 2010—severed heads, bodies hanging from highway overpasses—are now cropping up in border towns further east along the Rio Grande. In March, cartel gunmen dumped bags filled with dismembered body parts outside a gas station in Reynosa, where more than 500 people have been killed in the past 12 months.

Cartel violence is getting worse all over Mexico, not just along the border. Last year brought a record 28,710 homicidesnationwide, and this year is on track to surpass 30,000. May was the deadliest month ever recorded in Mexico since the government began releasing homicide data in 1998—2,890 people were killed, an average of four people per hour. By comparison, only Syria is more violent.

The Migrant Crisis Benefits The Cartels

Into this maelstrom have come a relentless stream of refugees and migrants from Central America, driven by worsening gang violence and poverty in the “Northern Triangle” of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Most of those crossing Mexico’s southern border are headed for safety and better prospects in the United States, which puts them at the mercy of Mexican cartels that have developed diverse income streams, from child organ trafficking to migrant smuggling.

In an interview with the Daily Beast last year, Eric Olson, deputy director for Latin America at the Wilson Center, explained that “Over the last several years more sophisticated criminal organizations have begun to take control of the migratory schemes,” citing growing competition among cartels “for control of routes and people coming through.”

Migrant smuggling has become a lucrative business for the cartels, which charge migrants anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 a head for passage over the Rio Grande. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told a Senate Committee last month that human smuggling brings Mexican cartels more than $500 million a year, but that figure is almost certainly too low. The fact is, the cartels began to professionalize human smuggling around 2010, when large numbers of Central American migrants began coming through what had long been drug smuggling routes. In response, the cartels created a system of fees for migrants and dedicated personnel to police the routes.

The effect of tougher immigration enforcement like Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy is that the coyotes, as the smugglers are called, increase their fees while often misleading migrants about what they can expect once they cross into the United States, promising them visas or some form of amnesty. The coyotes are notorious for abandoning migrants on either side of the Rio Grande once they get paid, or, for those who run out of money, raping or kidnapping helpless customers, some of whom are sold into human trafficking near the border.

Because migrants must often pay for each leg of their journey up from Central America, including bribes for various law enforcement officials along the way, by the time they reach the U.S.-Mexico border they’re often out of money and completely at smugglers’ mercy. Migrants who can’t pay are sometimes forced to carry large packs of drugs over as payment for their fare.

Ironically, the tougher immigration enforcement is on the U.S. side, the greater the potential profits from migrant smuggling—not just because coyotes charge more but also because migrants and recently deported illegal immigrants have no other way of getting into the United States, and are willing to take greater risks. The mainstream media doesn’t seem to grasp this connection, which is why the Washington Post can publish a lengthy feature on a couple trying to illegally cross the border and barely mention the role of smugglers or the connection they have to larger criminal syndicates.

All of this is to say that we can’t have a serious conversation about the border crisis without being clear-eyed about the role the cartels play in societies that are essentially collapsing. Pretending that illegal immigration isn’t really a problem, as liberals and libertarians tend to do, ignores the close connection between human smuggling, drug trafficking, and cartel violence on both sides of the border. Pretending that it’s an easily solvable problem, as conservatives tend to do, is like claiming there’s an easy way to defeat Islamic radicalism—as if the cartels will agree to stop smuggling and trafficking just because we put up some more border fencing or ramp up deportations.

But until we get real about the almost unimaginable levels of violence and corruption in Mexico and Central America, our immigration crisis will fester, and eventually the chaos south of the border will spill over onto our side—no matter how high Trump builds his wall.

Also see:

Iran In Latin America: Identifying The Problem and How We Need To Confront It

Center for Security Policy, by Luis Fleischman, Feb. 1, 2018:

Originally posted on the London Center for policy research

Last December, Politico uncovered a story with serious and far-reaching implications.The Obama Administration undermined and blocked a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) program in its eagerness to secure a nuclear deal with Iran.This program targeted a billion dollar per year Hezbollah cocaine and arms trafficking operation in Latin America and the United States.

The Hezbollah operation also involved arms trafficking and money laundering. According to the report, cocaine trafficking originated inLatin America, specifically through Venezuela and Mexico, with profits generated in the U.S. and laundered through the purchase of used cars. According to U.S. agents involved in the investigation, the criminal operation was directed and planned by Hezbollah’s innermost circle and “its state sponsors in Iran.”

According to Politico, the money collected by Hezbollah went directly toward its military activities in the Middle East, particularly to the Assad regime in Syria where more than half a million people have been killed and millions more have been displaced. Furthermore,the drug profits aggravated issues at home; tons of cocaine were sold in the U.S.at a time when drug addiction constitutes one of America’s most pressing crises, having claimed close to 50,000 American lives in the past year alone.

The DEA sought approval to continue investigations, order arrests, extraditions and prosecutions of suspects, and impose financial sanctions on some of the operation’s major players. However, the Departments of Justice and Treasury rejected, delayed, or blocked those requests. Likewise, the State Department rejected requests to pursue cooperation with countries that could have helped target key suspects involved in those criminal activities.

The story reported by Politico is not merely about a criminal operation; rather, it follows a larger trend that has serious security implications for the entire Western Hemisphere. Iran has had a presence in Latin America for decades. However, its role in the region expanded and intensified after Hugo Chavez took the reins of the Venezuelan state in 1999. Chavez based his rule on a revolutionary transnational agenda that included a quasi-socialist authoritarian revolution at home, and an aggressive, expansionist foreign policy aimed at spreading his revolution throughout the region.

Unlike Napoleonic France or the Soviet Union, Venezuela did not have armies to expand its revolution by force. Rather, Chavez began to funnel money to candidates in different countries in the region who held views akin to his ideology and proceeded to establish alliances with regional guerilla movements to organize subversion across Latin America.Indeed, Chavez believed that to expand the revolution abroad, he needed to count on the power of asymmetric warfare. Thus, Chavez saw groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as a necessary force that could create subversion abroad and expand his so-called “Bolivarian Revolution.” The FARC took part in the rebellion that toppled the government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in Bolivia. Likewise, theystrengthened relationswith the Shining Path guerrilla Maoist movement in Peru and other subversive groups in the region. Theyalso trainedmembers of the Paraguayan Popular Army (EPP) who kidnapped and murdered the daughter of a former Paraguayan president.Chavez followed the same trajectory and established relationships with other militant groups, such as the Basque ETA and most importantly, the Iranian backed paramilitary, Hezbollah.As such, the alliance between Venezuela and Iran has strong foundations. They both are anti-American and seek to reduce U.S. power in their respective regions and, if possible, in the world. Chavez defined the Islamic and the Bolivarian revolutions as “sister revolutions.” Venezuela needed Iran’s subversive capabilities and its “valuable” experience in building a totalitarian-revolutionary regime to complement what Cuba had already been doing.

Hezbollah and Iran’s IslamicRevolutionary GuardsCorps (IRGC) have also established a presence in the region, training “soldiers of the revolution” in Venezuelan camps, and even helping to design and build the ALBA school, a military training camp in Bolivia. The school’s main purpose is to ideologically indoctrinate soldiers and strengthen the bonds between the armed forces and the new Latin American revolutions. The revolution promoted a civic-military alliance, a situation that has enabled the regime to survive. Venezuela’s own Vice President,Tarek Al Aissami, has been a key liaison between Venezuela and Iran.

For its part, Iran needed Venezuela to expand its presence in Latin America. According to the late Argentinean prosecutor Alberto Nisman, Iran has a presence in 12 countries in the region including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guyana, Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname, and Uruguay. Iranhas sought to increase political alliances in the region for which Venezuela and its allies provided a great opportunity. Italso sought a strategic position in the region to increase deterring capabilities against the U.S. Additionally, Iran has aspired to reach out to the Muslim community in Latin America. Indeed, Iran has established a number of networks in the region with mosques and even a TV channel(HispanTV) in Spanish.(HispanTVhas given wide coverage to groups that promote anti-Semitic conspiracy theories). Iran also sought to use Latin American countries, particularly Venezuelan banks, to curbthe effect of international sanctions.

Moreover,Venezuela issued passports to Iranians and Hezbollah members to facilitate their free travel around the region and the world. Likewise, several Caribbean countries thatallied with Chavez established dangerous liaisons with Iran. Guyana signed an agreement with Iran in which Iran would map Guyana’s mineral resources, including uranium. Dominica signed an agreement with Iran that enabled citizens of Iran, parts of the Middle East and Central Asia to obtain a second citizenship and a passport. The islands of St. Kitts and Nevis have also sold passports to Iranians.

These could have potentially harmful consequences. In 2007, a Hezbollah member stationed in Guyana attempted to carry out a terrorist attack at Kennedy Airport.Likewise, in 2011 Iran tried to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington. Furthermore, sophisticated tunnels built along the U.S.-Mexican border have been designed in the image of the tunnels found along the Israeli-Lebanese border. Intelligence officials have raised the possibility that Hezbollah has been enlisted by drug cartels to design and improve the tunnels along America’s southern border.

These actions can place the U.S. at the mercy of terrorist attacks not just by Hezbollah, but by any other terrorist group that establishes an alliance with Iran, including the Islamic State or al Qaeda. There has been evidence of a relationship betweenIran and al Qaeda over the past several years;therefore,similar cooperation should not be ruled out in Latin America.Indeed, in August 2016 the U.S.Southern Command reported the infiltration of 30,000Sunni individuals from the Middle East, which is the equivalent of 10 percent of the total illegal smuggling coming from the southern border.

In 2016, an officer who worked in the Venezuelan embassy in Baghdad charged that the embassy sold passports to whomever would pay. The officer witnessed embassy officials selling Venezuelan passports to individuals from the Middle East, including criminals and terrorists from Iraq and Syria.Given reports of ISIS activity in these countries, it would not be surprising if some of these passports were sold to affiliated individuals.

The drug cartels also play a role in the Venezuelan and Iranian schemes. Venezuela has opened its airports and seaports to drug trafficking. Chavez, like his mentor Fidel Castro, saw drug trafficking as a means to corrupt and destabilize American society—the main consumer of drugs, as well as generating large quantities in profits.Spanish journalist Emilio Blasco has estimated that 95 percent of Colombian drugs bound for Europe and the U.S. depart from Venezuela. Blasco, who authored the book Boomerang Chavez in 2015, also claimed that Diosdado Cabello, a former general, Minister of Interior, and speaker of the Venezuelan National Assembly, directed these drug operations alongsideVice President Al Aissami and Hugo Carvajal, a former director of military intelligence.

For Iran, their involvement in drug trafficking served as a source of revenue and as a means to deepen its logistical penetration in the region. Other actions indicate that there is indeed a link. There were reports that indicated that the assassination attempt against the Saudi Ambassador mentioned above was carried out with the help of Mexico’s Los Zetas, a notoriously violent drug cartel. Furthermore, there have been reports that members of the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel received weapons and explosive training in Iran.

According to Rafael Isea, a former Deputy Minister of Finance and President of the Bank of Economic and Social Development, current Venezuelan President, Nicolas Maduro, then foreign Minister, travelled to Damascus in 2007 to meet with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. The purpose of his trip was to negotiate the installation of Hezbollah cells in Venezuela. This agreement protected Hezbollah’s drug trafficking and money laundering activities as well as its arms supplies and provision of passports. These passports and visas were prepared by Ghazi Nasr El Din, a counselor in the Venezuelan embassy in Syria, who was born in Lebanon and later became a Venezuelan citizen. El Din, who was blacklisted by the FBI, helped Hezbollah raise money and repeatedly facilitated the travel of more than 300 Hezbollah members. Their role, according to Isea, was to participate in drug trafficking and money laundering to secure funding for Hezbollah.

Therefore, what was uncovered by Politico in December was not just a criminal activity aimed at securing financial support for Iran’s wars in the Middle East. This isthe tip of the iceberg. There is an ominous marriageof conveniencebetween Iran, transnational crime, and regional states led by Venezuela that may have severe consequences for the United States and the region.The Trump Administration will have to take a holistic approach by focusing its energies on Iran, Venezuela and transnational crime. In terms of Iran, I outlined a strategy in a recent article. In terms of Venezuela, Trump must extend sanctions to the entire political and military operation. However, the current policy of gradual sanctions on a handful of military officers and politicians is insufficient and ineffective. The entire military and political elite must feel the effect of economic sanctions and restriction of movement.

The Venezuelan military, like many other authoritarian regimes, has been given control of parts of the economy and food distribution. It has been reported that some officers practice “food-trafficking,” taking advantage of the people’s desperate need for food. If the army abandons Maduro, this could be a good first step towards regime change. This is why heavy sanctions must be applied over the entire armed forces, and not just on a few officers. Supporters of the regime continue to desert Mr. Maduro; it is important to make sure that more members of the military do the same.

Finally, the Trump Administration must intensify the war on drugs and cartels that operate across many countries in Latin America.  Venezuela and its ally regimes in Ecuador and Bolivia expelled the DEA years ago. The crackdown on the cartels must be uncompromising.The challenge is significant.This important fight was lost in the last decade as former president Barack Obama attempted to seek normalization with Cuba and reconciliation with Venezuela.  Part of such appeasement was to surrender to several Latin American governments that opposed the U.S war on drugs.Now, we have no choice but to confront all these challenges heads on.

Also see:

WATCH: Tillerson Says U.S. and Argentina Will Cooperate to Fight Hezbollah’s Illicit Activities in Latin America

No Latin American Country Has Branded Hezbollah a Terror Group Despite Ties to Major Attacks

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Breitbart, by Edwin Mora, July 19, 2017:

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Latin American countries have failed to register Iranian proxy Hezbollah as a terrorist organization despite the threat it poses to the region, a Peruvian official revealed during a discussion on Capitol Hill.

The Shiite group is involved in various illicit activities in Latin America to generate money that some experts believe is used to fund terrorist activities in the Middle East.

During a discussion Wednesday on Capitol Hill hosted by the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS), Moises Vega de la Cruz, a public prosecutor for the Peruvian government specializing in terrorism cases, revealed that “in Latin America, Hezbollah is not recognized as a terrorist organization.”

“I think Hezbollah is a threat to Latin America. Hezbollah is a terrorist organization that is advancing not only in Peru but in other Latin American countries as well,” he told Breitbart News.

Joseph Humire, an expert on Iranian activity in the Western Hemisphere and executive director of SFS, noted that no Latin American country has registered Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

The United States and the European Union have deemed Lebanon’s Shiite group Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

In the United States, Hezbollah’s main supporter Iran has been officially labeled a state sponsor of terror.

Peru recently adjudicated a case involving an alleged Hezbollah operative accused of explosives-related crimes in 2014. The individual avoided prosecution, but De La Cruz has appealed the decision.

“Most Latin Americans don’t view Islamist terrorism as a significant threat in their region and little public pressure has been placed on the establishment, reform, or improvement of weak or non-existent anti-terrorism laws across the region,” SFS pointed out in a statement. “Consequently, the Islamic State [ISIS/ISIL], Hezbollah, and other Jihadist networks and sympathizers are spreading throughout South America with impunity.”

The U.S. government has acknowledged the presence of both Shiite Hezbollah and Sunni ISIS in Latin America.

De la Cruz noted that Hezbollah maintains a presence in Peru, where it is reportedly converting people and trying to get involved politically.

The Peruvian Latina news agency reported last year that the Shiite group has registered as an official political party in Peru’s Abancay province, home to the largest concentration the country’s small Muslim community.

Hezbollah has established itself as an official political party in its main base of Lebanon.

Argentinian authorities have linked Hezbollah to fatal attacks against the South American country’s Jewish community, including the 1994 bombing of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA)—the deadliest terrorist attack in the Western Hemisphere before September 11, 2001.

The U.S. military and the Department of State have expressed concern about the group’s presence in Latin America.

According to the U.S. State Department, Venezuela has provided a “permissive environment” that has allowed Hezbollah to thrive in the region.

Last year Michael Braun, a former DEA operations chief, told American lawmakers that Hezbollah is generating hundreds of millions from a “cocaine money laundering scheme” in Latin America that “provides a never-ending source of funding” for its terrorist operations in Syria and elsewhere.

Hezbollah is fighting on behalf of Iran on the side of the Russian-backed Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

In an annual report to Congress issued earlier this year, U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) noted that “Hezbollah members, facilitators, and supporters engage in licit and illicit activities in support of the organization, moving weapons, cash, and other contraband to raise funds and build Hezbollah’s infrastructure in the region.”

SOUTHCOM is charged with overseeing American military activity in most of Latin America.

The group is believed to be operating throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Report: Growing Islamic Extremism In Latin America Poses ‘Major Security Threat’ To US

The ISIS flag is held up by demonstrators. (Getty Images)

Daily Caller, by Peter Hassan, March 30, 2017:

Growing Islamic extremism in Latin America constitutes a “major security threat” to the United States, according to an analysis published this month by the National Center for Policy Analysis.

“The threat from Islamic extremists in Latin America remains an overlooked aspect of U.S. national security strategy,” NCPA senior fellow David Grantham argued.

Grantham noted that “Saudi Arabia has invested millions to construct mosques and cultural centers in South America and Central America that expand the reach of its rigid version of Islam, known as Wahhabism.”

“The international spread of Saudi dogma, which the State Department’s first special representative to Muslim communities worldwide, Farah Pandith, called ‘insidious,’ has laid the foundation for likeminded radicals to thrive in other areas of Latin America,” he explained.

Later in the brief, Grantham noted that the “threats to U.S. security in the Greater Caribbean region are even more alarming in Trinidad and Tobago. The small island nation off the coast of Venezuela, once the target of an overthrow by Islamic militants, has also become a breeding ground for ISIS — 70 of the 100 Latin Americans known to have joined ISIS originated from the small country.”

The ease of mobility Islamic extremists have in Latin America is also cause for concern.

“Islamic extremism thrives where there is illicit finance and relative ease of movement across national and international borders. The mobility of terrorists throughout Latin America poses a serious problem,” Grantham stated.

Perhaps the greatest Islamic extremist threat in Latin America, though, is the Islamic Republic of Iran, which Grantham said could potentially strike the US from Latin America as a retaliatory act.

“The Islamic Republic has the capability and infrastructure to strike the United States from Latin America, but experts disagree over whether it would take that risk,” Grantham writes. “Experts consistently discuss the likelihood of a preemptive or first strike attack on the United States, though, which creates too high a standard. Instead, the argument should focus on the prospect of retaliatory attack.”

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton also warned of Iranian sponsored terrorism through Latin American “proxies” during a 2013 off-the-record speech to Goldman Sachs employees that was made public by WikiLeaks.

“If we had a map up behind us you would be able to see Iranian sponsored terrorism directly delivered by Iranians themselves, mostly through the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the operatives, or through Islah or other proxies from to Latin American to Southeast Asia,” Clinton said.

“The growth of extremist activity in Latin America is a major security threat. The prospects of retaliation from Iran, in particular, should not discourage action against Iran where necessary but should heighten awareness regarding the high probability of revenge attacks,” Grantham concluded. “Iran’s influence in Latin America and extremists, in general, demand new national security strategies in the region. Such an approach could begin with U.S. support to allied governments that improves their intelligence capabilities, and with targeted financial interdiction strategies.”

The brief can be read in its entirety here.