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Iran and Hezbollah in the Tri-Border Areas of Latin America: A Look at the “Old TBA” and the “New TBA”

Alma Keshavarz

This paper examines two “Tri-Border” areas in Latin America.  The first or “Old TBA” is the border zone encompassing Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, commonly referred to as the triple frontier.  The “New TBA” zone follows Chilean political scientist and expert on international terrorism Iván Witker’s model, encompassing the borders of Chile, Bolivia and Peru.  The criminal demographics and dynamics of the illicit markets and related security concerns are reviewed.

The Tri-Border area (TBA) of Latin America has long lured Middle Easterners, specifically from Lebanon.  The Lebanese diaspora in Latin America goes as far back as the nineteenth century.[1]   During the 1960s and 1970s the booming economy of the TBA zone at the converging borders of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, had “generous tax legislation” that attracted foreign merchants from Syria, Lebanon, and Taiwan.[2]  Paraguay, for instance, has low import tariffs, free trade zones where items are re-exported into Argentina and Brazil, and weak enforcement of customs duties.[3]  However, the TBA benefits from the dark economy of the region, which consists of money laundering, intellectual property crime (IPC), and narcotics trafficking.[4]  Over time, the TBA became a hotbed for extremist organizations like Hezbollah and a safe haven for post-Revolution Iranian operatives.[5]  The Lebanese population in the region grew at the height of the Civil War in Lebanon between 1975 and 1989.  Approximately 40 percent of the Lebanese population was displaced during this period, many permanently emigrating elsewhere in regions like Latin America.

Iranians slowly poured into the area soon after the clerics took over Iran and began the spread of their Islamic ideology.  It is during this period that Hezbollah emerged as not only a dysfunctional guerilla force primarily against Israel, but a more organized group serving as Iran’s proxy.  Since a significant Lebanese population was already present in the TBA, Hezbollah effortlessly established cells in the region, recruiting out of both Lebanese and indigenous communities.  Hence, Iran and Hezbollah have been present together in the TBA since the 1980s.  During this time, Iran covertly supported its proxy in the Middle East and abroad in Latin America while targeting Latin American countries by “establishing mosques and cultural centers to spread the revolution.”[6]  Latin America’s unpredictable environment became a breeding ground for extremism.  Iran and Hezbollah found this volatility to be appealing.  Existing criminal organizations and corrupt governments like that of Venezuela welcomed Hezbollah, and later Iran more openly.  However, with the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, it is widely believed that Iran may not have only lost its leading partner in Latin America, but also its regional influence.  Another contention is that Iran’s influence in the region has generally been overhyped.  It can also be argued that the United States’ gradual allocation of resources elsewhere to alleviate more pressing matters has taken away preferred intelligence capabilities to assess illicit activities executed by Hezbollah.

Nonetheless, Iran has proven to be more malleable than expected.  Iran and Hezbollah have persistently spread across Latin America to prolong their influence and power.  Iran has maneuvered throughout the region to places like Chile and Bolivia, while Hezbollah has also steadily expanded its network. Although the TBA has been a base of operations for both Iran and Hezbollah to smuggle drugs, launder money and recruit sympathetic operatives among other things, a new Tri-Border Area has emerged that is seemingly more favorable.  Bolivia, for instance, can “potentially facilitate an even greater Iranian presence than currently exists, as Iran exploits a new stateless Tri-Border Area” between Chile, Peru, and Bolivia.[7]

Tri-Border Area: Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay

The TBA is centered on the Argentine City of Puerto Iguazú, the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu, and the Paraguayan city of Ciudad del Este, as depicted in Figure 1 below.[8]  The region is a geographical intersection of two major rivers: Rio Parana and Rio Iguaçu, in which Paraguay is to the West of the Rio Parana, Argentina is South of the Igauçu and Brazil is to the North.[9]  Of the Arab population living in Ciudad del Este and Foz do Iguaçu, an estimated 90 percent is of Lebanese origin.[10]

Arabs in the TBA essentially have their own communities and support each other.  A 2003 study on the TBA distinctly describes the geography and the economic prosperity of the area.  Brazil and Paraguay wanted to promote regional trade through tourism from the famous Iguassu Falls (Cataratas do Iguaçu) and abundant energy resources.  As a result, government planners established a free-trade zone in Ciudad del Este in the early 1970s.[11]  This was around the time there was a steady influx of Middle Easterners immigrating to the area.  Due to this new free-trade zone, Argentineans and Brazilians were able to purchase cheap electronics and luxury items from Paraguay.  As the study notes, “the TBA, with already more than half a million inhabitants, soon became a lawless jungle corner of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.”[12]

However, given the chaotic nature of the region, it has been difficult for the United States to fully assess the existing security threat.  United States SOUTHCOM Commander, General John Kelly explained that this is due in part to limited intelligence capabilities.  The U.S. does not entirely know the full amount of terrorist financing generated in Latin America, or “the scope of possible criminal-terrorist collaboration.”[13]  A wave of violent crime continues to cast over Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil, while Argentine and Paraguayan cities remain prone to smuggling and money laundering.  Therefore, Hezbollah’s presence is due in large part to the interests, opportunities and benefits the region provides.  Latin America is home to the largest Lebanese population in the world with over eight million immigrants and descendants in Argentina and Brazil alone, which is not limited to Muslims.[14]  The geography of the region has allowed for Hezbollah to establish a lucrative business headquarters.  General Kelly also noted in 2014, that the “exact amount of profits generated by these illicit activities in the region is unclear, but it is likely-and at least-in the tens of millions of dollars.”[15]  The ports allow easy transportation as well as smuggling routes in surrounding areas.[16]  Weak anti-terrorism laws for money laundering in Argentina and Paraguay have allowed this sort of activity to go unnoticed.  Most strikingly, Brazil does not have any kind of anti-terrorism laws that would help combat the illicit activities in the country related to Hezbollah and Iran, nor does the country recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.  Organized crime groups like cartels in the area assist Hezbollah and Iranian operatives.  Regional expert Douglas Farah explains that this “emerging combination of threats comprises a hybrid of criminal-terrorist, and state-non-state franchises, combining multiple nations acting in concert, and traditional TOC’s [transnational organized crime] and terrorist groups acting as proxies for the nation-states that sponsor them.”[17]  Most simply put by one anti-drug official, this cooperation between terrorist and criminal organizations is not ideological, “it’s business.”[18]

While Hezbollah gradually established cells in the TBA, Iranian operatives soon followed to spread their revolution.  Iran sought to cultivate the youth and inject their brand of Islam into Latin America by way of cultural community centers while clandestinely establishing roots for intelligence networks.  The existing Arab population that was sympathetic to Hezbollah garnered the support of those Iran sought for recruitment.  Since then, the region has been serving as a Hezbollah safe haven, heavily influencing the Arab and Muslim communities with their radical doctrine, as well as many natives.  Above all, Iranian and Hezbollah operatives travel around the region to fundraise, launder money, train and recruit prospective sympathizers, plot against their enemies, and conduct other terrorist-related activities.[19]  With the geographical convenience of the area coupled with soft enforcement policies, the TBA was the first Latin American region that established a considerable Iranian and Hezbollah presence.

Argentina

A recent report indicates that Argentina is a source country for precursor chemicals and a transit country for cocaine produced in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia, and for marijuana produced in Paraguay.[20]  Cartels make use of Hezbollah affiliations in the country to transport narcotics out of the region into other parts of the world.  Narcotics are a major factor in Argentina’s economy.  The country continues to have a rampant drug problem and the government is doing close to nothing to curb drug trafficking, which is another factor that may attract money laundering practices in the country and help criminal organizations in the TBA.

However, Iran and Hezbollah’s presence in Argentina are most notable due to the 1992 attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires as well as the 1994 attack outside the AMIA Jewish community center.  Argentine special prosecutor Alberto Nisman believed that Iran was the architect of the 1994 attack.  After spending the last ten years investigating Argentina’s worst terrorist attack, Nisman was found dead in his home the day before he was set to testify on Iran’s role.  He implicated Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as covering up Iran’s role in the attack to protect an important trade deal.  Some in Argentina continue to believe this to be true.

Further revelations uncovered Iranian infiltrator, Hojjat al-Eslam Mohsen Rabbani, the former cultural attaché in Iran’s embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, as playing a pivotal role in establishing firm roots in the region.  He is the alleged architect of the 1994 AMIA attacks and is wanted by Argentinean authorities as well as Interpol.  He recruited young men he believed would support his cause and trained them to be students of Islam.  Yet, his status in Argentina with an Interpol ‘red notice,’ Rabbani is unable to travel outside of Iran. However, Venezuela provides Rabbani falsified papers to travel to and around the region undetected.

Rabbani effectively recruited Hezbollah sympathizers in Latin America, which included his own students that would continue to spread his message in areas of Latin America that were out of his immediate reach.  Also known as the “Terrorist Professor,”[21] Rabbani trained Suhail Assad and Abdul Karim Paz, two of the most influential Rabbani disciples present in the region.  Abdul Karim Paz, an Argentinean convert to Islam, established the prominent cultural center in Santiago, Chile: The Centro Chileno Islamico de Cultura de Puerto Montt.  He fled Argentina with Rabbani after the AMIA attacks to Qom, Iran, where Rabbani continued his mentorship, only to return to Argeninta several years later to continue proselytizing the youth in the region in Islamic centers, particularly at the At-Tahuid mosque.[22]

Suhail Assad, Paz’s brother-in-law, is the director of the Center for Iranian-Latin American Cultural Exchange in Caracas, Venezuela.[23]  Of Lebanese descent and born in Argentina, Assad moved to Lebanon to study Islam, later receiving a degree in Islamic Culture and Civilization in Qom under the instruction of Rabbani himself.  He is known to frequently travel to Qom to teach Latin American students visiting Iran.

Paraguay

Ciudad del Este is conveniently located on the Pan American Highway, which runs from Asunción, Paraguay, to Curitiba.[24]  This major city in Paraguay is known to be a center for Hezbollah activity, which includes the famous Galeria Page Mall that the U.S. sanctioned in 2006.  The shopping center is filled with stores operated by Hezbollah members, who fundraise for the organization and send remittances directly to Lebanon.  In April 2006, Paraguayan media reported that millions of dollars were being funneled from the TBA to the Middle East, which is due to Paraguay’s soft law enforcement practices.  The U.S. intelligence community estimated that Hezbollah members in the region produce tens of millions of dollars for the organization through both licit and illicit means.[25]   This discovery led the Treasury to designate nine individuals and two entities that have provided financial and logistical support to Hezbollah.[26]  Nonetheless, the Arab population in Paraguay is vital to the economy, even their illicit activities.

Authorities in the country have made attempts to instill order and eliminate extremist fundraising.    In one instance, as detailed in a 2006 essay covering Hezbollah’s global operations, Paraguayan authorities arrested an alleged Hezbollah member, Ali Khalil Mehri in February 2000 for selling millions of dollars of counterfeit software and funneling the proceeds directly to Hezbollah.[27]  He was suspected of being affiliated with the pro-Iranian wing of Hezbollah, Al Mukawama, which is also known to have training camps in the region.  As the report notes, Mehri managed to break out of prison later that year and flee to Syria.  Another Hezbollah figure, Assad Ahmad Barakat, immigrated to Paraguay in 1985 with his father from Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War.  Barakat established an expansive Hezbollah network in the country, ultimately being labeled as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” by the U.S.  His electronics store in the Galeria Page Mall was a fundraising source for Hezbollah.  He has also been linked to the AMIA bombings, having allegedly supplied bombing materials for the attack.

In November 2001 also at the Galeria Page mall, Hezbollah operative Sobhi Mahmoud Fayad was arrested for tax evasion and money laundering.  The Paraguayan National Police’s Anti-Terrorism Department (DAT) reportedly believed that Fayad, with Assad Ahmad Barakat and Ali Hassan Abdallah organized the massive Hezbollah fundraising network in the TBA.  As the previously cited report notes, “Fayad’s influence within the Lebanese community in the TBA was emphasized by reports that he was seen in the company of the new Lebanese ambassador in Paraguay, Hicham Hamdam.”[28]  In 2002, the DAT detected an Al Mukawama operations center in the Tres Lagoas and Foz de Iguaçu areas of the TBA.[29]  The lawless border has allowed various wings of Hezbollah to infiltrate the region and continue recruitment operations.  Overall, Paraguay remains one of the most corrupt and poor states in Latin America, which makes it all the more attractive for continual illicit activity.

Brazil

In Brazil, operational support is sent to other parts of the TBA by Hezbollah members.  Due to this regional importance, Brazilian intelligence believes that Hezbollah uses Brazil as a main port for terrorist activity.  Additionally, an Insight Crime report notes that the Brazilian news outlet, O Globo, discovered a link between Hezbollah and the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital or PCC), which is Brazil’s largest and most violent organized crime syndicate, operating out of the Sao Paulo with footholds across the TBA.  Specifically, as Figure 2[30] shows, the PCC operates out of Sao Paulo and has influences across the TBA, Foz de Iguazu, Curitiba, and Porto Allegre, all of which are areas that benefit Hezbollah activity.  Hezbollah helps the PCC obtain black market weaponry while the gang helps Hezbollah with their needs in the TBA.[31]

Most importantly, Rabbani was known to frequently travel to Brazil, which his brother, Mohammad Baquer Rabbani Razavi, founder of the “Iranian Association, was reportedly known to have resided.  Razavi recruited and converted Brazilians through the “Al Imam Ali Ibn Abi Taleb” mosque in Curitiba with financial assistance from the “Brazilian Institute on Islamic Studies” operated by Rabbani.[32]  Rabbani’s main objective in Brazil is to recruit students for “religious formation” classes taught in Iran.[33]  Brazilian students who have travelled to Qom for training revealed that they had visited Hezbollah’s premises.[34]  Rabbani’s courses in Iran are reportedly “some sort of an entryway for terrorism, [including] radical preaching and training in military camps.”[35]  One student, Rodrigo Jallou, created his own network and leads the “Mesquitado Bras,” which is located “in the urban, primarily immigrant neighborhood of Bras in Sao Paulo.[36]  He also “inaugurated the Centro Cultural Imam Ali,” in the same city, which receives funding from the “Seal of the Prophets Foundation” in Curitiba.[37]  Interestingly, the Foundation is tied to the “Eastern Cultural Foundation” based in Qom, Iran, which is operated by Rabbani.[38]  Though the Rabbani brothers no longer live in Brazil, they are still believed to travel to Latin America.  The Rabbani network is a vast operation that is still present in Latin America, but Nisman’s investigations noted that Iranian intelligence in Brazil began in 1984, including out of the Iranian embassy in Brasilia.[39]  Intelligence operations at the time were headed by Jaffar Saadat Ahmad-Nia, also known as “the fixer” for regional logistical support, who was then “implicated in the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy.”[40]

As noted earlier, Brazil lacks any anti-terrorism enforcement, nor does it consider Hezbollah to be a terrorist organization.  The Brazilian government staunchly contends that there is no terrorism activity in their country.  Foz do Iguaçu has a heavy Islamic presence as well as one of the largest Lebanese enclaves in all of Latin America.[41]  Its proximity to the Parana River near Ciudad del Este continues the flow of illicit activities.  Reportedly, many Arabs in Brazil “maintain commercial outlets in Ciudad del Este,” further demonstrating the usefulness of the uncontrolled borders.[42]  Additionally, Hamzi Assad Barakat, Assad Ahmad Barakat’s brother, was arrested in Brazil in 2013 under the suspicion of operating a “fraudulent scheme in the clothing industry.”[43]  While the U.S. Treasury Department explained Barakat’s links to Hezbollah and his illicit activities, “Brazil’s government responded by saying there were no signs of terrorism financing in the border region, which has long attracted large numbers of immigrants from the Middle East.”[44]  The Barakat’s have had a foothold in Paraguay and have operated in Brazil.  There are others like them with more than one million Muslims having Brazilian citizenship.[45]  Current protests in the country against President Dilma Rousseff’s government is likely to escalate, which poses a security concern.  Non-state actors like Hezbollah may seek to take advantage of areas of unrest and due to the lack of anti-terrorism laws, it is difficult for authorities to monitor potential threatening situations.

New TBA: Chile, Bolivia and Peru

Despite the success Iran and Hezbollah have had in the TBA, there is still far more available ground to exploit.  Witker describes the new Tri-Border Area as consisting of northern Chile (Arica and Iquique), southern Peru (Tacna and Puno), and Bolivia (from El Alto to the Iranian Embassy in La Paz).[46]  Figure 3 shows the extent of the region, which covers more area than the original TBA.  Iran and Hezbollah are capitalizing on this new area to institute another base of operations.  It is indicative of their ability to adapt to changing security patterns and commitment to recruiting individuals for their cause while maintaining relationships with regional organized crime groups.

Chile’s ports, for instance, are an indispensable resource as Iran is regularly taking advantage by docking its vessels.  The number of Muslims in the country is also rapidly growing.  Iranian cultural centers and mosques serve as an apparatus in the country to indoctrinate the youth, convincing them to convert and follow their message.  There is similar activity in Bolivia, with an even stronger Hezbollah and Iranian presence.  The unfavorable relationship between the United States and Bolivia has made enough room for Iran and Hezbollah to squeeze in.  Peru now has an uncontrollable drug problem, especially cocaine production, which can continue to allure not only crime groups, but facilitate criminal-terror collaboration.  Finally, in Peru, Iran can likely exploit the more poor regions, which are involved in cocaine production to maintain a presence in the country.

Chile

Diplomatic relations between Iran and Chile have been tepid at best, but that has not interfered with Iran’s desire to take advantage of the loose Chilean border with Bolivia.  Chile is “a sleeping giant in the broader regional anti-terrorism effort, [and] is increasingly serving as a zone of entry/exit for Iranian agents to move undetected in the region.”[47]  Iran’s presence is still known despite U.S. and international sanctions.  The Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), which has been sanctioned since 2009, sails to Latin America and reportedly docks at Chilean seaports.  The IRISL continues to sail by reflagging its vessels.  The Free Trade Zones of Iquique, Arica, and other seaports in the northern part of Chile have been prone to Hezbollah activity, including drug smuggling and money laundering.[48]  These border areas in the country are not as easy to monitor compared to other parts of Chile, which makes them preferable entry points.  The checkpoints near Iquique are the poorest in comparison with other areas in the country, mainly due to geographical difficulties to fully monitor the area.  Moreover, due to law enforcement monitoring the TBA, Paraguayan citizens of Lebanese descent relocated to Chile, specifically near Iquique, to take advantage of the poorly regulated border.  Iquique is also a primary city for money laundering and smuggling narcotics and personnel.

As of the most recent statistics, there are also roughly 4,000 Muslims living in Chile, many of whom are converts.  This confirms that the recruitment process Iran and Hezbollah employ is effective.  The first mosque in Chile was constructed in 1995.  Since then, other mosques have been established across the country.  People enter these mosques merely out of curiosity.  If they like what they see, they convert and practice.  These mosques serve as prime recruitment centers more than places of worship. The Centro Cultural Islamico de Las Condes in Santiago is the largest Islamic community center in the heart of Chile.  The Centro Cultural Islamico de Las Condes and the mosques in the country help spread the Shia Islam message to the masses.  It is worth mentioning that not all Chilean converts are radical Islamists or Hezbollah sympathizers, yet the greater numbers of Muslims in the country is telling of the functionality of the mosques and cultural centers.

Bolivia

According to a 2013 report, Bolivia ranks as the third largest producer of cocaine in the world, behind Colombia in second and Peru in first.[49]  Drug smuggling in the country has steadily increased, as have Hezbollah and Iranian activity.  Bolivia has proven to be the most important country to Iran and Hezbollah in Latin America since the death of Chávez.  Though Venezuela is still an important partner, Bolivia is strategically more important.  The country has quickly emerged as the premier location by which to expand influence throughout Latin America.  “There are no fewer than 145 accredited Iranian diplomats living in the Andean nation,”[50] as well as a strong Iranian military presence.  When President Evo Morales ousted the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which ceased all narco-trafficking cooperation between the two countries, Iran replaced the United States in a new anti-narco trafficking partnership.  This symbolically significant deal seemingly benefits Iran and its proxy.  The government is generally still quite corrupt, which continues to attract organized crime, but also the difficult terrain contributes to the drug trafficking problem.

However, the development of a facility located in Warnes, near Santa Cruz, Bolivia is concerning.  Warnes is considered one of the most dangerous places in the Western Hemisphere.[51]  The facility, commonly referred to as the regional defense school of the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA), merely poses as a kind of school, but there are no reports of students or people who offer logistical support.  Instead, it is a military academy “for asymmetric warfare.”[52]  More specifically, the military school is designed “to eradicate any vestiges of U.S. military doctrine in the region.”[53]  The structure could not have been established without Iranian support.  Iran has successfully infiltrated Bolivia with a steady military presence as well as its observer nation status in ALBA.  Iranian defense minister, Ahmed Vahidi, a controversial figure due to his involvement with the 1994 Buenos Aires attack, attended the school’s inauguration.[54]  With the number of Iranian diplomats and a sizeable number of military personnel, the country has been rather welcoming not surprisingly due to the more recent anti-capitalist rhetoric.  This kind of support also benefits Hezbollah.  Members of the organization can freely move around in the country with Iranian counterparts, and use Bolivia as a base of operations.

Peru

Iranian endeavors also reach into Peru.  Iranians and Hezbollah have focused their attention in the southern Andes of Peru, a region that is very poor and prone to trafficking weapons, drugs, and people.[55]  Due to the geographical location of this region, it is difficult for authorities to monitor.  Specifically, Iranian and Hezbollah activity was discovered in 2011 in the Apurímac valley region, which is described as a poor, remote, and sparsely populated, deeply involved in cocaine production.  “At this time, a connection was forming between the Islamic Republic and other activist movements in Peru controlled by Havana, Caracas and La Paz.”[56]  These specific activists have been present in Peru since 2005 and “include the Casas de ALBA (House of ALBA) and the Casas de Amistad Peruano-Cubanos (Peruvian-Cuban Friendship House).”  These socio-political organizations sought to weaken the Peruvian “democratic institutions and spreading socialist ideology.”[57]  While there is a rather small Muslim population in Peru, the country’s former minister of the interior, Dardo Lopez-Dolz believes that there is a connection between that of Shia Islam, specifically that of the “return of the Mahdi,” and that of traditional “Inkarri myth, believed by many indigenous in the Andes to represent the return of the Inca (God).”[58]  Additionally, it is believed that Suhail Assad had first visited Peru in 2011 and it is likely that he sought to include Peru in Iranian activities.[59]  Though it can be argued that the small numbers in Muslims in the country are of no concern, especially pertaining to Dardo-Lopez’s statements, it should be noted that Iranians can manage to spread influence in some way due the probability of spillover effects from Bolivia into Peru.

Most recently, there was the arrest of Mohammed Amadar, also known as Mohammed Galeb Hamdar, in October 2014 in Lima, Peru.  Israeli intelligence, Mossad, informed Peruvian authorities of Amadar’s presence in the country and his suspected ties to Hezbollah.  Amadar raised red flags when he traveled to Peru from Brazil and married a woman, Carmen Carrion Vela, who holds dual citizenship for Peru and the United States.  When Peruvian authorities arrested Amadar, he was alone in his home while his wife was in Florida.  They found traces of TNT, detonators, and other bomb making paraphernalia.  Intelligence and other authorities believe that based on what was found in Amadar’s possession, he was a planner and not an operative who would personally carry out attacks.  The prosecutor on the case, Wendy Calero stated that Amadar admitted his affiliation with Hezbollah and Carrion Vela staged the marriage with Amadar, receiving money from Hezbollah in exchange.[60]  Though this was one arrest, it is a small piece of evidence that Hezbollah exists in the country.  Most importantly, however, Peru is the number one cocaine-producing nation.  The most recent reports of “cocaine ferry planes” revealed the corruptness of Peru’s military.  One army lieutenant was arrested for collecting bribes from drug traffickers to allow these planes to fly over the Apurímac region.  The drug problem in the country is rapidly rising and has potential to facilitate drug groups conspiring with terror groups, particularly taking advantage of the poorest regions in Peru.

Evaluation

Taken separately, the original TBA is functioning from a dark economy and continual money laundering practices.  Argentina, for instance, has experienced declines in Hezbollah activity, but it is still peppered with Rabbani followers.  They are continuing to recruit members to be trained as operatives with help from over 40 Islamic organizations that are linked to Rabbani’s network throughout Latin America.[61]  These disciples have the pulse of the Islamic communities in Argentina, and maintain an influence in the country, continuing the ‘legacy’ of their mentor.  The violence and unrest in Brazil is continuing to escalate.  Iran and Hezbollah’s presence in Brazil is attributed to the number of cultural and religious centers that are used for recruiting.  Business fronts continue to exist in Paraguay that serves Hezbollah’s financial schemes.  Overall, as Table 1 shows the development in the TBA, Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay are still an area that should be monitored.

The timeline of Lebanese, Hezbollah and Iranian presence in the TBA details the origins of Arab arrival in the region and how Iran followed.  It is important to note, however, that not all Arabs that immigrated to the region were Muslims or Muslims that sympathized with Hezbollah.  Law enforcement agencies monitor the region given its history and the virulent activity committed by Iranian and Hezbollah operatives.  Even though the three countries that comprise the original TBA established a “Tripartite Command of the Tri-Border” in 1996 to combat terrorism, smuggling and money laundering by extremist organizations, it has been much to the dismay of those who wanted it to succeed.  Government corruption, the lack of proper law enforcement training and resources, and an inadequate justice system have proven the task force to be rather ineffective.  A later attempt in 2002, the triple frontier states joined the U.S. in what was called the “3+1 group,” established to enforce greater security in the region, curtail illicit activity particularly between Hezbollah and narco-traffickers, and to ultimately strengthen Paraguay’s judicial system to uphold the rule of law in the country.   Although the increased monitoring has helped curb some of the illicit activity, Iranian and Hezbollah operatives have extended their network to other parts of the region into the new TBA.

While there is still a dominant presence in the original TBA, there should be some concern over this new expansion.  The difference between the two separate regions is negligible, but the two elements that stand them apart are border security and anti-American sentiment.  Table 2 shows that not only are Iranian and Hezbollah operatives moving out of the original TBA region due to higher levels of security, but the lack of border security enforcement in the new TBA allows a greater influx of operatives into the region.

The aggressive anti-American surge in this new TBA region, particularly among the more poor areas, has embraced the Iranian and Hezbollah presence.  Iranian intelligence officers in embassies across the region can also assist Hezbollah operatives with necessary logistical support.  Their operatives move freely from one country to the next, protected by corrupted governments and unregulated borders.  Iran uses its more than “80 cultural centers and mosques”[62] to recruit candidates while maintaining an established covert intelligence network on the ground.  In 2012, General Douglas Fraser stated that Rabbani even established the Fundación Cultural Oriente in 2003, which promotes Shia Islam and continues to serve as a center for Islamic extremist education.[63]  By 2009, Iran had opened embassies in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Uruguay in addition to those that exist in Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela.[64]

Iranian sponsorship of Hezbollah widens the range of possibilities that the region offers for exploitation.  Separate from monetary aid, Iran translates books and religious material into Spanish to further regional influence, which also aids Hezbollah’s recruitment process.  HispanTV is one such resource Iran established on February 1, 2012, which broadcasts in Spanish at all hours of the day.  Another is Islamoriente.com, which “features links to Iranian television for Spanish speakers, anti-American propaganda, essays on reasons to convert to Shia Islam, chat rooms and a personal message from the Supreme Leader of Iran.”[65]  The Muslim population across both TBA’s has steadily increased over a 50-year period and it is estimated that it will continue to grow.  The result of a 2010 study on the Muslim population is detailed in Table 3: [66]

As noted in the data, Argentina has the largest Muslim population across the TBA’s, followed by Brazil.  Peru, Chile and Bolivia are gradually experiencing greater numbers in the Muslim population, presumably due to Iranian and Hezbollah operatives converting communities.  Though it can be argued, however, that not all Muslim converts in the “New TBA” countries are radicalized or collaborating with Hezbollah and Iranian operatives.  Nonetheless, as the study suggests, by 2020, the new TBA countries of Chile, Bolivia and Peru are expected to see increases in their Muslim populations likely due to continued Iranian and Hezbollah proselytization.

The original TBA served as a lucrative hub for Hezbollah and an intelligence resource for Iranian operatives.  However, this new TBA has more to offer.  Illicit activity like narcotics and human smuggling flows between the two Tri-Border Area’s through the Southern Cone, which consists of Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and parts of Brazil.[67]  Bolivia’s alliance with the mentioned states is to a great advantage to both Iranians and Hezbollah.  With thousands of converts to Islam and counting, Hezbollah can generate cells in Latin America more rapidly with not only continual financial assistance from Iran, but with a social network operation across the region.  As mentioned earlier, they are not working alone.  Iranian and Hezbollah members have enlisted the assistance of cartels in the region.  “Drugs and terrorism co-exist across the globe in a marriage of mutual convenience,” explains a DEA agent, “as state-sponsored terrorism has declined, these dangerous organizations have looked far and wide for sources of revenue to recruit, corrupt, train, and strengthen their regime.  Many drug trafficking groups have stepped in to fill that revenue void.”[68]  The Obama administrations Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime from 2011 also explains that terrorist organizations are increasingly “turning to TCOs to generate funding and acquire logistical support to carry out their violent acts.”[69]  This relationship is now referred to as the “crime-terror nexus,” which is troubling U.S. officials over the potential security threats it poses.[70]

Iranian economic ties with Latin American countries may have slightly dwindled since President Rouhani’s administration, but Iranians and Hezbollah members remain in the region and are extending their influence.  Moreover, the recent Iranian nuclear deal puts the Western Hemisphere at risk.  For instance, regarding Bolivia’s defense school, though it has reportedly not been operational due to Venezuela’s sinking economy, that could change with unfrozen Iranian assets.  Joseph Humire, executive director of the Washington-based Center for a Secure Free Society, reported earlier this year that, “If Iran gets access to the global financial system, they’re going to double down in Latin America.”[71]  The concern is not only with Hezbollah’s financial schemes in Latin America, but also who will fill the void while the United States’ presence is apparently thinning.  With waning United States influence in the region and rising anti-American sentiment, Iran and Hezbollah will not only maintain a strong foothold in the region, but also broaden its network to unforeseen levels.

End Notes

[1] Taber, Paul. “Lebanon: A Country of Emigration and Immigration.” Institute for Migration Studies, Lebanese American University, Beirut, 2010. Page 7.

[2] Folch, Christine. “Trouble on the Triple Frontier: The Lawless Border Where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay Meet.” Foreign Affairs. Published by the Council on Foreign Relations.  September 6, 2012.  https://www.foreignaffairs.com/map-reexport-trade-triple-frontier

[3] Ibid.

[4] For an early look at the Tri-Border region, see Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, “Cartel Evolution: Potentials and Consequences.” Transnational Organized Crime. Vol. 4, No. 2. Summer 1998: 54-74.

[5] For an in depth look at Hezbollah and its Iranian connection, see Matthew Levitt, “Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God.” Georgetown University Press 2013.

[6] O’Grady, Mary Anastasia. “A Richer Iran Will Target the Americas; Last October police in Lima found detonators and TNT in the home of a Hezbollah operative.” Wall Street Journal. New York, NY, July 19, 2015.

[7] Witker, Iván. “The Southern Cone: Iran’s Backdoor.”  Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America. Lexington Books, 2014.  Page 39.

[8] Map of “Political South America,” Regional and World Maps. The Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/docs/refmaps…

[9] Julum Jeffrey, and Daniel Evans. “The Specter of Ungoverned Spaced and How Advances in Network Analysis Can Assist Policymakers.” Small Wars Journal. August 30, 2015.

[10] Hudson, Rex. “Terrorist and Organized Crime Groups in the Tri-Border Area (TBA) of South America.” Library of Congress, Federal Research Division. July 2003 (Revised December 2010). Page 9.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Posture Statement of General John F. Kelly, United States Marine Corps Commander, United States Southern Command.” 114th Cong., Senate Armed Services Committee. March 12, 2015. Page 6.

[14] “A Line in the Sand: Countering Crime, Violence and Terror at the Southwest Border.” A Majority Report, U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Management, 112th Cong., 2nd Sess, November 2012. Page 7.

[15] Posture Statement of General John F. Kelly, United States Marine Corps Commander, United States Southern Command.” 113th Cong., Senate Armed Forces Committee. March 13, 2014. Page 9.

[16] For more information on illicit networks and activities, see Convergence: Illicit Networks and National Security in the Age of Globalization. Michael Miklancic and Jacqueline Brewer (eds). Institute for National Strategic Studies. National Defense University Press, Washington, D.C., 2013.

[17] Farah, Douglas. “A Dangerous Nexus: Terrorism, Crime and Corruption.” Task Force to Investigate Terrorism Financing. House Committee on Financial Services. May 21, 2015. Page 3.  For additional information on TOCs, see Douglas Farah, Transnational Organized Crime, Terrorism, and Criminal States in Latin America: An Emerging Tier-One National Security Priority. Strategic Studies Institute, August 2012.

[18] Rotella, Sebastian. “Government Says Hezbollah Profits From U.S. Cocaine Market Via Link to Mexican Cartel.” ProPublica, December 13, 2011. http://www.propublica.org/article/government-says-hezbollah-profits-from…

[19] Noriega, Roger F. and José R. Cárdenas. “The Mounting Hezbollah Threat in Latin America.” American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. No. 3. October 2011.  https://www.aei.org/publication/the-mounting-hezbollah-threat-in-latin-a…

[20] Money Laundering and Financial Crimes. Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, Vol. 2. March 2015.

[21] An April 2011 Veja Magazine exposé on Rabbani entitled, “Terror Professor” detailed Rabbani’s activities in Brazil. See Noriega (2011)

[22] Witker, Iván, “The Southern Cone: Iran’s Backdoor.” Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America. Edited by Joseph Humire and Ilan Berman. Lexington Books 2014. Page 40, 6n.

[23] Ibid. 8n.

[24] Hudson 2003. Page 6.

[25] Novakoff, Renee, “Latin American Threats and Challenges.” The Journal of International Security Affairs.  No. 24. Spring/Summer 2013. Page 43.

[26] “Treasury Targets Hizballah Fundraising Network in the Triple Frontier of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.” Press Center. December 6, 2006. http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/hp190.aspx

[27] Arena, Michael P. “Hizballah’s Global Criminal Operations.” Global Crime. Vol. 7, No. 3-4. August/November 2006.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Map adapted from www.mapsnworld.com

[31] Gurney, Kyra. “Police Documents Reveal ‘Hezbollah Ties’ to Brazil’s PCC.” Insight Crime. November 10, 2014. http://www.insightcrime.org/news-briefs/police-documents-hezbollah-ties-…

[32] “World Almanac of Islamism.” American Foreign Policy. August 2013. Page 2.

[33] Yapp, Robin.  “Brazil latest base for Islamic extremists.” The Telegraph. April 3, 2011. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/brazil/8424929/Br…

[34] Mahjar-Barducci, Anna. “Iranian Mullah Responsible for Terrorist Attacks in Argentina.” Gatestone Institute, International Policy Council. June 24, 2011. http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/2222/iranian-terrorist-attacks-argentina

[35] Ibid.

[36] “World Almanac of Islamism.” American Foreign Policy Council. August 2013. Page 4.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid. Page 2.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Hudson 2003. Page 10.

[43] Romero, Simon. “Businessman Linked by U.S. to Hezbollah is Arrested in Brazil in a Fraud Scheme.” The New York Times. May 20, 2013.  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/21/world/americas/man-linked-by-us-to-hez…

[44] Ibid.

[45] Hudson 2003. Page 10

[46]Witker, Iván, “The Southern Cone: Iran’s Backdoor.” Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America. Edited by Joseph Humire and Ilan Berman. Lexington Books 2014. Page 39.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid. Page 34.

[49] Prado, Alejandra. “Bolivia’s Uncertain Future.” The Journal of International Security Affairs. No. 24, Spring/Summer 2013.  Page 91.

[50] Humire, Joseph M.  Joint House Subcommittee Hearing: Iran and Hezbollah in the Western Hemisphere. March 18, 2015.

[51] Berman, Ilan. “Iran Woos Bolivia for Influence in Latin America.” The Daily Beast. May 20, 2012. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/05/20/iran-woos-bolivia-for-i…

[52] Humire, Joseph M.  Joint House Subcommittee Hearing: Iran and Hezbollah in the Western Hemisphere. March 18, 2015.

[53] Farah, Douglas. “The Advance of Radical Populist Doctrine in Latin America. How the Bolivarian Alliance is Remaking Militaries, Dismantling Democracy and Combatting the Empire.” PRISM 5, No. 3. Page 98.

[54] Berman, Ilan. “Iran Woos Bolivia for Influence in Latin America.” The Daily Beast. May 20, 2012. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/05/20/iran-woos-bolivia-for-i…

[55] Lopez-Dolz, Dardo. “Iran and Hezbollah in the Western Hemisphere,” Statement before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere and Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa. March 18, 2015.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Ugarte, Rodrigo, “Peru News: Hezbollah Terrorist Group Member May Have Targeted Lima Climate Change Conference, Jorge Chavez Airport.” Latin Post. December 16, 2014. http://www.latinpost.com/articles/27909/20141216/peru-news-hezbollah-ter…

[61] Obiglio, Julian M and Diego C. Naveira. “Rewriting History in Argentina.” Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America. Lexington Books, 2014. Page 88.

[62] Posture statement, General John F. Kelly, 2015.

[63] “Posture Statement of General Douglas M. Fraser, United States Air Force Commander, US Soutern Command.  112th Cong., House Armed Services Committee.  6 March 2012.

[64] U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Armed Services, Oversight: U.S. Command and U.S. Northern Command, Hearing, 112th Cong., 2nd Sess., March 13, 2012.

[65] Schachtel, Jordan and Edwin Mora. “Iran Rising: Tehran Using Hezbollah in Latin American ‘Cultural Centers’ to Infiltrate West.” Statement from Bud McFarlane. Breitbart News. May 27, 2015. http://www.breitbart.com/national-security/2015/05/27/iran-rising-tehran…

[66] Kettani, Houssain. “Muslim Population in the Americas 1950-2020.” International Journal of Environmental Science and Development. Vol. 1, No. 2, June 2010. Page 129.

[67] Witker, Iván. “The Southern Cone: Iran’s Backdoor.” Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America. Lexington Books 2014. Page 34.

[68] Headquarters News. “DEA Investigations Lead to Treasury 311 Patriot Act Designation Against Hizballah-Backed Financial Institutions.” Drug Enforcement Administration. April 2013. http://www.dea.gov/divisions/hq/2013/hq042313.shtml

[69] Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime: Addressing Converging Threats to National Security. July 2011. Page 3.

[70] Farah, Douglas. Transnational Organized Crime, Terrorism, and Criminal States in Latin America: An Emerging Tier-One National Security Priority. Strategic Studies Institute, August 2012.

[71] O’Grady, Mary Anastasia. “A Richer Iran Will Target the Americas; Last October police in Lima found detonators and TNT in the home of a Hezbollah operative.” Wall Street Journal. July 19, 2015.

 

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