Based in Lebanon but entrenched in Latin America, Hezbollah helps Iran spread global terrorism

The United States is conducting increased investigations and prosecutions against alleged Hezbollah facilitators across the continent; the effort has been welcomed by those who understand the gravity of threats posed there.

The Hezbollah flag. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The Hezbollah flag. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

It has been 25 years since Iran and Hezbollah carried out a horrific attack against a Jewish target in Buenos Aires, in which 85 Jews were murdered and more than 300 injured, yet the terror regime and its proxy continue to operate freely in Latin America. Now, in a renewed effort, some influential American leaders are working to convince area nations to take a stand and expel terrorists stationed in the region.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended a Latin America counter-terrorism conference last week that focused on Iran and Hezbollah, and coincided with the date of the bombing at the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) building on July 18, 1994. At the commemoration, Pompeo blamed Iran for causing the death of so many victims, saying, “they were killed by members of a terrorist group, Hezbollah, and had help that day from Iran.”

The U.S. focus on Iran and Hezbollah has been welcomed by those who understand the gravity of the threat they pose in Latin America.

Emmanuel Navon, a foreign-policy expert at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told JNS that he was pleased the Americans are finally discussing this.

Navon said the Obama administration “kind of looked the other way in order to sign a deal with Iran because one of the conditions to sign the JCPOA in 2015 was not to lift a finger on its presence and the presence of its proxy Hezbollah in South America. According to many reports, [President Barack] Obama agreed to that.”

“Of course, the current administration has a completely different approach having pulled out of the deal, and is much more determined to fight the Iranian and Hezbollah presence in South America,” he noted.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks at a plenary session at the Western Hemisphere Counterterrorism Ministerial in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on July 19, 2019. Credit: State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha.

‘A year of diplomacy working with Argentina’

Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who is focused on Hezbollah’s Latin America illicit threat networks, told JNS that the United States is more significantly involved than it has been in a long time.

Ottolenghi noted that the summit that Pompeo attended “is the result of a long year of patient diplomacy working with Argentina,” which just this month froze Hezbollah’s assets, essentially designating it a terrorist organization. “There is also, of course, hope and work being done to see that other countries in the region will do the same. It’s not a one-off.”

Additionally, Ottolenghi said that the United States is also involved by “investing in training, dialogue and cooperation between law enforcement and judicial branches of government in the region to help those countries understand the problem better, recognize it and take more decisive action.”

He added that the United States is also conducting increased investigations and prosecutions against alleged Hezbollah facilitators in Latin America.

“When you take these three things—the political, the capacity-building and the prosecution, the investigative side—you definitely have a lot more [American] attention than you have ever had before,” said Ottolenghi.

At the same time, the situation in Venezuela surrounding the Nicolás Maduro regime and the challenge that he faces from opposition leader Juan Guaidó, have given hope to some who want to see an ally in place who can help push out Iran and Hezbollah altogether.

Arie Kacowicz, from the Hebrew University’s Department of International Relations, told JNS that Maduro’s regime “is a kind of criminal regime that has networks and relations with Hezbollah.”

He said it makes sense for Israel to align itself with other Western liberal democracies in Europe, and not only with the United States, to support Guaidó and the opposition in their attempt to change the regime in Venezuela by peaceful means. Kacowicz pointed out that “the unseating of the Maduro regime might mean a relative failure for the presence of Hezbollah in Latin America.”

Turning to Israel, Ottolenghi said that the Israeli government has sought to build better relations with regional governments for years and has succeeded so far with some Central American countries.

He pointed out that Israel does not have as many resources to invest in Latin America as the United States does, “so there is a challenge in the ability of Israel to do more on this front.”

He added that there is “more action on the law-enforcement level of cooperation to try and go after the main source of Hezbollah’s finances in Latin America, which is cooperation with the cartels, money-laundering and drug-trafficking.”

Navon said the Jewish nation is in touch with friendly governments, such as Argentina, Brazil and Columbia, to fight Hezbollah especially in the tri-border area of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil, and, of course, coordinates that with the Trump administration.

Nevertheless, a major obstacle to fighting Iran and Hezbollah lies with the unwillingness of the European Union to recognize Hezbollah for the terror organization that it is.

Ottolenghi said that the European Union looks at Hezbollah’s military and political wings as two separate entities, “which, in fact, they are not,” he adamantly said.

He noted, however, that the United Kingdom and the Netherlands have indeed designated Hezbollah as a terror organization in its entirety. “Obviously, if the E.U. could up the ante, that would be good,” he said.

Moving forward, there is still some hope to get the Europeans onboard. Germany has recently discussed blacklisting Hezbollah, and there is a growing recognition that a lot of these drug-trafficking networks that bring cocaine mainly from Latin America rely on Lebanese criminals to launder money and growing recognition that some of these people may be connected to Hezbollah.”

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