May 8, 2018
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (left) meets with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on August 27, 2016 in Caracas, Venezuela. (Image source: Euronews video screenshot)
Iran and Hezbollah have been operating in Latin America since the 1980s, effectively undisturbed. During this time, Iran and its proxy, the terrorist organization Hezbollah, have been Islamizing Latin America, seemingly to create a forward base of operations for the Islamic Republic in the backyard of the United States.
No Latin American country has designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization: Hezbollah can operate with relative impunity there. In April 2017, a Hezbollah operative, Mohamad Hamdar, arrested in Peru, was acquitted of all terrorism-related charges. The Peruvian court found that Hamdar's role within Hezbollah was in itself insufficient to consider him a terrorist. This legal vacuum regarding Hezbollah might also be why Islamic terrorism, drug-trafficking and organized crime in the region is frequently underestimated.
According to testimony at a United States House of Representatives panel hearing on Iran's global terrorism network on April 17, 2018, Iran and Hezbollah have converted and radicalized thousands of Latin Americans to Shia Islam. In some Latin American countries, such as Venezuela, Iran's and Hezbollah's efforts have even been promoted by local political elites. Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami -- of Lebanese and Syrian origins and with ties to both cocaine trafficking and Hezbollah -- oversaw the illicit sale and distribution of at least 10,000 Venezuelan passports and other documents to persons from Syria, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries. These reportedly included Hezbollah terrorists and members of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. More than a decade ago, a US congressional report warned that Venezuela was providing support to radical Islamic groups, including the supply of identity documents. El Aissami could, in the foreseeable future, become president of Venezuela.
Not only has Latin America's passive acceptance of Iranian infiltration also allowed the Islamic Republic to create large networks of mosques and cultural centers across the region; in addition, Iran and Hezbollah operate in multiple areas and across multiple sectors, both licit and illicit, apparently to strengthen and expand their influence in Latin America and to enrich Hezbollah as a way to finance its growing terrorist and paramilitary activities.
These areas of operation encompass diplomacy, commercial enterprise, religious dominance, and perhaps most significantly, substantial criminal activity. Iran has employed diplomacy to evade sanctions imposed on it before the Iran "nuclear deal." Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then president of Iran, visited Latin America six times during 2005-2012, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif went on a tour of six Latin American nations in 2016. These diplomatic efforts resulted in, among other things, access to the use of Venezuelan territory to advance Iran's solid rocket-fuel production.
Culturally, Iran has helped Hezbollah establish itself as the dominant force among Shia Muslim communities throughout the region, and has taken control of their mosques, schools and cultural institutions. In 2012, there were 32 Iranian cultural centers across Latin America the purpose of which is to facilitate the spread of the Iranian Islamic revolution; today, less than a decade later, the number of centers has grown to more than 100. Among other ways of presumably spreading its influence, Iran also runs a Spanish-language 24-hour news broadcast, HispanTV -- operated by IRIB, Iran's state-owned public broadcasting corporation -- which broadcasts across Latin America.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (R) and Vice-President Tarek El Aissami. (Juan Barreto/AFP via Getty Images)
Hezbollah has become a substantial international crime syndicate, which utilizes its position in Latin America to deal in drug trafficking, weapons trafficking, human trafficking, trade in counterfeit goods and money laundering, the proceeds of which it uses to finance its activities.
Drugs, such as cocaine, are funneled into the United States to be sold there. Some investigators believe that Hezbollah amasses $ 1 billion a year from its criminal activities, which involve close cooperation with Latin American drug cartels and criminal syndicates. Together, these create havoc in Latin America and contribute to driving immigration into the United States. One expert recently described Hezbollah as "the gold standard" of the crime-terror convergence.
In 2008, the US began a secret law enforcement project, Operation Cassandra, to stop Hezbollah's activities in Latin America. According to an exposé in Politico, however, the Obama administration obstructed that operation:
"In practice, the administration's willingness to envision a new role for Hezbollah in the Middle East, combined with its desire for a negotiated settlement to Iran's nuclear program, translated into a reluctance to move aggressively against the top Hezbollah operatives, according to Project Cassandra members and others."
After Israel's revelations on April 30, 2018, that the Iran deal was based on Iranian lies, it is probably safe to conclude that the Obama administration empowered Iran and its proxy in Latin America to ensure the Iran deal, which has apparently turned out to be nothing but a smokescreen for Iran's nuclear plans.
Having a seasoned and generously state-funded terrorist organization such as Hezbollah in the US's backyard unsurprisingly poses a genuine threat to the US homeland. According to Emmanuel Ottolenghi, speaking at the April hearing on Iran's global terrorism networks:
"A survey of cases prosecuted against Hezbollah operatives in the past two decades shows that the terror group remains a threat to the security of the U.S. homeland and the integrity of its financial system. Iran and Hezbollah sought to carry out high casualty attacks against U.S. targets multiple times. Additionally, they built networks they used to procure weapons, sell drugs, and conduct illicit financial activities inside the United States.
"operatives blend in; they nestle within existing expatriate communities; they find spouses; and set up seemingly legitimate businesses, acquiring permanent residency and citizenship in the process – all attributes that are part of their cover story".
One recent example of Hezbollah operatives in action in the United States was the arrest of Samer El Debek and Ali Mohammad in New York. Both held US citizenship and had been trained by Hezbollah -- including in the use of weapons such as rocket-propelled grenade launchers and machine guns -- and acted on its behalf in the US. The two were charged with serious terrorism charges, such as conducting surveillance of potential targets in America.
The question is, whether the US government will adopt a comprehensive strategy to counter the ongoing efforts of Iran and Hezbollah to solidify their base of operations in Latin America against the United States and US interests. Such a strategy, as pointed out by several experts at the April 17 hearing, does not currently appear to be in place.
Judith Bergman is a columnist, lawyer and political analyst.
 The prosecution appealed and Hamdar will be tried again this year on the same terrorism charges in the Peruvian Supreme Court. If convicted he will be the first Hezbollah operative to be sentenced in Latin America, amounting to a de facto designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist group in Peru.
 These included military and law enforcement facilities in New York City, as well as conducting missions in Panama to locate the U.S. and Israeli Embassies and to assess the vulnerabilities of the Panama Canal and ships in the Canal.