Iran, Hezbollah mine Latin America for revenue, recruits, analysts say

Story highlights

  • Argentine report: Iran and Hezbollah have built networks in Latin American since the 1980s
  • Hezbollah and Iran are blamed for 2 bombings in Buenos Aires in the 1990s
  • Hezbollah raises money with drug cartels, recruits in region, analysts say
  • Group's networks could threaten the United States, some experts believe
An Argentine special prosecutor's accusation that Iran has established terrorist networks throughout Latin America has renewed debate over how big a threat that poses to the region and the United States.
Alberto Nisman, who is investigating the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people, said in a 500-page report released last week that Iran has been building the networks for nearly 30 years.
That assessment coincides with a viewpoint held by many Western analysts.
"As Nisman points out, the Iranians have been actively setting up intelligence and operational structures in Latin America since the 1980s," said Douglas Farah, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
And that infiltration has progressed since, Farah notes.
Nisman's report said Iran's intelligence activities in Latin America are being conducted directly by Iranian officials or through a key surrogate, the Hezbollah Islamic militant group. "Criminal plans" by Iran could be under way in Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago, the report said.
"They are more involved in the cocaine trade than ever before, and have greater access in the region due their allies in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and elsewhere," Farah said. "So they have more freedom of movement and fewer restrictions. This has greatly increased their capacity to carry out intelligence operations, train and position operatives and prepare attacks, particularly if Israel or the U.S. strikes Iran's nuclear facilities."
But analysts and observers disagree over Iran and Hezbollah's ambitions. Hezbollah's actions are mainly seen as financial, as evidenced by greater ties to Latin American drug cartels in recent years. At the same time, Iran may be returning to more violent acts, such as a reported attempt to recruit someone to assassinate a diplomat.
"Hezbollah's presence in Latin America is growing and the organization remains the premiere terrorist organization in the world," Farah testified to a House subcommittee in July 2011. "It is growing both in economic capacity and in its placing of operatives in the region through the rapid expansion of Iran's diplomatic and intelligence missions, businesses and investments."
Iran has denied any connection to the July 18, 1994, bombing at the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association (known as AMIA after its Spanish acronym), which also injured more than 100 people. Likewise, Iran denies any involvement in a bomb blast at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires on March 17, 1992, that killed 29 people and wounded at least 250 more.
Iran and Argentina signed an accord in January to appoint a joint special commission to investigate the 1994 attack.
Roger Noriega, a former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, testified before Congress in March that Iran has more than 80 operatives in at least 12 Latin American nations.
Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite political and paramilitary group labeled a terrorist organization by the United States and several other Western nations, is widely seen by Western governments as Iran's conduit to Latin America.
"It is said that wherever Iran goes, Hezbollah is not far behind," Noriega told Congress.
Analysts agree that Hezbollah started its infiltration of Latin America in the mid-1980s, establishing its first major stronghold in the Tri-Border Area, a relatively lawless region along the frontiers of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. From this base deep in the heart of South America, Hezbollah set up illicit enterprises to fund its operations in the Middle East and elsewhere, analysts say. Among the organization's reported major undertakings are money-laundering, counterfeiting, piracy and drug trafficking.
By all accounts, those illegal activities are quite lucrative. A 2004 study for the Naval War College determined that Hezbollah's operations in the Tri-Border Area generated about $10 million annually. A 2009 Rand Corporation report said Hezbollah netted around $20 million a year in the area. As a result, says Rachel Ehrenfeld, author of the book "Funding Evil," the Tri-Border Area constitutes Hezbollah's most significant source of independent funding.
Hezbollah started to become more involved in Latin America and western Africa in 2006, when the group had "significant fallout" with Iran over funding, Farah said.
"They didn't like Iran telling them what to do with their money," he said.
So Hezbollah looked for other ways to raise revenue. U.S. officials have estimated that Iran had been giving Hezbollah anywhere from $60 million to $100 million a year, and maybe even up to $200 million.
But it's not all about money. Hezbollah also uses its new stronghold as a base for recruiting among Latin America's diaspora of Lebanese expatriates, known throughout the region as 'turcos," and other Muslim populations.
Much of that recruitment takes place in mosques or "Islamic centers" that Hezbollah operatives infiltrate or establish to serve the region's burgeoning Muslim communities.
Although exact figures are difficult to come by, estimates by the Pew Research Center and the Islamic Population websites say Brazil and Argentina have the largest Muslim populations in South America, with more than 1 million members each. Those populations include converts to Islam, Arab immigrants and their descendants. Venezuela has more than 100,000 Muslims concentrated among persons of Lebanese and Syrian descent, according to the U.S. State Department's 2008 International Religious Freedom Report.
It wasn't long after Hezbollah established its firm foothold in the Tri-Border Area that it became linked to the two terrorist attacks in Argentina, which has the largest Jewish community in South America and one of the biggest outside of Israel.
By September 1995, Philip Wilcox Jr., the State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, was testifying to a U.S. House committee that Hezbollah had become "the major international terrorist threat" in the region.
Although widely blamed for the attacks, Hezbollah denied any involvement, and there has been a strongly held belief through the years that high-level Iranian officials were more directly involved.
Despite the deadly attacks in Argentina, many analysts believe Hezbollah's main intent in Latin America centers more on fundraising and recruitment than acts of violence.
The organization has become more involved in the drug trade with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a Marxist rebel group commonly known as the FARC. The rebels use the profits from narcotrafficking to buy weapons and other necessities to fund their 47-year-old insurrection.
"There's no question they have become