Iran and its terrorist proxy groups’ influence in Latin America remains a troubling security threat to the region and world, experts said at a congressional hearing on Tuesday.
Hezbollah, a Shiite terrorist group based in Lebanon and sponsored by Iran, has established illicit networks in Latin America in the last few decades to provide millions annually for its global operations, experts on the region told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade.
Those networks involve money laundering, counterfeiting, piracy, and drug trafficking in cooperation with local criminal groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Celina Realuyo, assistant professor of national security affairs at the National Defense University, said the "convergence" of terror and crime networks in Latin America presents a significant threat to regional and global security.
"These types of illicit actors, terror providers, and criminals, a lot of them are offering and brokering services but may not espouse the ideological fervor that other groups have," she said. "But they’re offering a lot of special services—a terror pipeline—where you see this very unholy alliance between terror groups and criminal groups who have a win-win."
The witnesses’ testimony on Tuesday appeared to contradict a State Department report issued last year that downplayed the threat of Iran and Hezbollah in the Western Hemisphere and was sharply criticized by some lawmakers and terrorism experts.
Realuyo said a lot of fundraising for Hezbollah in the region cannot be "separated out" from the illicit operations of local criminal groups.
Douglas Farah, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Americas Program, added that just because ties between Hezbollah and groups like FARC seem opaque does not mean they are nonexistent.
"It’s hard to get through the policy perception that [they’re] not there," he said.
Realuyo pointed to three recent cases as evidence of the links between Hezbollah and criminal groups in Latin America.
The first was Operation Titan, a two-year joint U.S.-Colombian investigation in 2008 that revealed a multi-million dollar cocaine trafficking operation stretching from Panama to Hong Kong. Chekry Harb, a Lebanese kingpin in Colombia contributed about 12 percent of the drug trafficking ring’s profits to Hezbollah.
Ayman Joumaa, another Lebanese drug kingpin, allegedly shipped tens of thousands of kilograms of cocaine into the United States from Colombia. The drugs were distributed through Central America to the Zetas cartel in Mexico, operations that enabled Joumaa and his associates to launder more than $850 million through front companies like the Lebanese Canadian Bank (LCB)
Joumaa was indicted in 2011 but remains at large.
The Beirut–based LCB served as a conduit for money laundering and fundraising for Hezbollah and had more than $5 billion in total assets in 2009. It was disbanded after reaching a $102 million settlement with U.S. prosecutors last year.
Fatah noted that Hezbollah operatives have also been indicted for attempting to sell weapons from the terrorist group to FARC.
Latin American countries ultimately act as "safe havens" that help Iran evade international sanctions, Fatah added.
The experts said U.S. officials and lawmakers must remain vigilant in monitoring the terror-crime nexus in Latin America.
While joint U.S. intelligence operations with countries in South America have had some success in combating drug trafficking and violent crime, they said many operations have now moved to Central American countries such as Honduras and El Salvador.
"As Colombia and Peru become much more effective in terms of having real assets and growing economies, Central America has become the new ungoverned territory for these cartels," Realuyo said.