A network of Iranian terror proxy groups operating in Latin America, including Hezbollah, are providing the resources necessary for dictator Nicolas Maduro's regime in Venezuela to flourish, according to a new investigation released on Wednesday.
Maduro's oppressive regime has faced down months of U.S. opposition and sanctions by forming "an extensive relationship with several foreign terrorist organizations, including Hezbollah and its terror sponsor the Islamic Republic of Iran," according to a new report published by the Atlantic Council and the Center for a Secure Free Society, a national security think tank.
The relationship is centered on keeping the anti-U.S. Maduro in power and solidifying Iran's terrorist footprint in Latin America, which has long served as an operational hub for Hezbollah forces. Iran has found an ally in Maduro, who has accepted millions of barrels of Iranian crude oil in recent months—a central lifeline for the isolated Venezuelan regime. In return, Maduro has opened Venezuela's borders to Iranian operatives and terror affiliates like Hezbollah, according to the report. Details about this relationship are likely to renew concerns about Iran's operations near the U.S. southern border, which could pose a direct threat to the American homeland.
Hezbollah's operations in Latin America—which include drug trafficking and other illicit activities—have provided the group with significant cash resources and the ability to evade international sanctions. The blossoming relationship with Maduro has fortified the Iranian terror group's operations in the region and paved the way for Hezbollah's External Security Organization to embed itself into Venezuela's economy.
"The Hezbollah support network in Venezuela is embedded to the Maduro regime's illicit economies of drugs, weapons, gold, contraband, etc. moving through a trade-based money-laundering network (TBML) based out of Colombia and Panama," according to the report.
The relationship between Iran and Venezuela has grown in concert with Hezbollah, as evidenced earlier this year by Iran's sanctions-busting voyage into North American waters. Iranian oil tankers arrived in Venezuela in late May, fueling worries about a potential confrontation between the Trump administration and Tehran. Iran, through its national Mahan Air, made 17 trips to Venezuela in the span of two months this year. Maduro's regime reportedly paid Iran nearly half a billion dollars in gold bars as part of a scheme known as "oil for gold."
"For far too long, the mounting presence of Iran and Hezbollah in Venezuela and Latin America has been ignored by the international community," Joseph Humire, the report's author and executive director of the Center for a Secure Free Society, told the Free Beacon. "This presence is now part of the tragedy in Venezuela, in a similar way that Iran and Hezbollah helped turn Syria into the world's worst refugee crisis. Venezuela is not yet there, but unless circumstances change, the Maduro regime will continue to benefit from the illicit network that props up his regime and prolong the Western Hemisphere's worst humanitarian crisis."
Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is also active in Venezuela and Latin America. The regime's paramilitary force is able to operate in Venezuela "due to the heightened capability of Hezbollah’s support network," according to the report. "Hezbollah's influence within, and infiltration of, Lebanese expat communities gives Iran a gateway to grow its footprint in Venezuela."
Much of this operation hinges on Venezuela's petroleum industry, which has welcomed Hezbollah into the fold. Tareck El Aissami Maddah, Venezuela's minister of petroleum, is said to have facilitated this illicit network, according to the report. By integrating itself into Venezuela's rogue economy, Hezbollah and other Iranian affiliates have been able to launder the money needed to fund their operations.
Hezbollah has gained the ability to obtain "countless government ID documents" from the Maduro regime, allowing the terror group's operatives unfettered travel across the region.
Portions of this network were exposed by the Trump administration's Department of Justice in late May when it indicted Adel El Zabayar, a former member of Venezuela's National Assembly, for allegedly working to establish "a crime-terror pipeline that the Maduro regime used to facilitate a ‘cocaine-for-weapons' scheme between Hezbollah and Colombia's FARC."
Over several years, Hezbollah has formed a network of independent cells in Venezuela that use the country as a hub for illegal activities, including drug trafficking. This is done with the Maduro regime's protection, according to the report.