For over a decade academics and analysts have warned that Venezuela, which could soon be Latin America’s next failed state, is evolving into a regional hub for transnational crime. President Maduro’s authoritarian regime, under rising pressure from the near-collapse of Venezuela’s oil industry, an economic crisis, and strict U.S. sanctions, has increasingly turned to illicit enterprises as a means of generating urgently-needed income. Caracas has not only turned to Russia and China as lenders of last resort but has allowed a fundamentalist Shia Iran to extend its influence into Venezuela. This includes allowing Teheran’s proxy organization Hezbollah to establish significant illicit operations in the petrostate. It is acknowledged, by security analysts, that Hezbollah, with Teheran’s support, has built a well-oiled and sophisticated criminal network in Venezuela, with tentacles running into neighboring Colombia and other regional countries. The presence of this organization not only fuels regional instability and challenges U.S. hegemony but heightens the risk of further conflict and terrorist attacks. Hezbollah, which the U.S. has designated as a terrorist organization, is an Iran-backed Lebanese Shia political party and militant organization that has become an important proxy for Teheran in its fight for dominance in the Middle East. The militant group followed Iran into Latin America, building effective intelligence and criminal networks in the unstable region. Hezbollah has actively sought to coopt and control local Shia communities in Latin America, including recruiting sympathizers from within the Shia Muslim diaspora in Argentina, Colombia, and Venezuela. In 1992, Hezbollah bombed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and, two years later in the same city, a Jewish community center, killing a total of 114 people. The militant political organization is actively involved in a range of illicit activities across Latin America with a focus on cocaine trafficking, which is an increasingly lucrative source of revenue.
The importance of cocaine trafficking to Hezbollah is highlighted by the group sending a high-ranking operative Nasser Abbas Bahmad to establish (Spanish) a cocaine smuggling ring in Paraguay at what is known as the tri-border area where Brazil and Argentina meet Paraguay. While that operation was eventually dismantled by Paraguayan and U.S. authorities by early 2021, Hezbollah is still heavily engaged in cocaine trafficking as well as money laundering in Latin America. The U.S.-designated terror group obtains the lucrative illegal drug from Colombia, which is the world’s largest producer. According to the latest UN report, Colombia’s 2020 cocaine production soared to a record 1,222 metric tons, 7.5% more than the 1,137 metric tons manufactured a year earlier. While there are no clear figures available, it is estimated that Hezbollah is generating at least $300 million in annual revenue from its network of illicit activities in Latin America, with much of that being earned from cocaine trafficking and money laundering.
Venezuela, partly because of its proximity to Colombia, has become an important operational hub for Hezbollah in Latin America where it, along with its sponsor Iran, has become a key supporter of an increasingly embattled President Maduro. That has occurred over a considerable period starting when Hugo Chavez became president and launched his socialist Bolivarian Revolution. Maduro’s current Minister of Petroleum, Tareck El Aissami who is of Iraqi Lebanese descent, figures prominently in a range of schemes that aided Hezbollah to strengthen its presence in Venezuela. When El Aissami was Venezuela’s Minister of Interior and Justice it is alleged that he used his authority to grant Venezuelan passports to members of Hezbollah arriving in Venezuela from Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. He also figures prominently in money laundering and cocaine trafficking investigations conducted by U.S. authorities. The U.S. Department of State alleges that El Aissami has overseen and financed large shipments of cocaine from Venezuela which, along with other illicit activities, has led to him being charged with various criminal offenses by the U.S. Department of Justice. Other senior Venezuelan figures, including President Maduro, are also charged with a range of offenses including narco-terrorism, corruption, and drug trafficking.
Over the last two decades, Venezuela has become an important transnational shipping hub for cocaine. The breakdown of the Venezuelan state, the collapse of government institutions, and the massive economic and humanitarian crisis engulfing the country have allowed crime and corruption to flourish virtually unchecked. The highly porous nature of the Colombian Venezuelan border facilitates the flow of people, arms, drugs, and other illicit goods between the two countries. U.S. officials estimate that up to 20% of all cocaine hydrochloride produced in Colombia is shipped to Venezuela where it is then trafficked to the U.S. and Western Europe. The drug trade and the support that the Chavez and Maduro regimes provided to Colombian leftist guerillas have allowed non-state illegal armed groups to thrive in Venezuela. While the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC – Spanish initials) demobilized in 2017, various dissident groups have established strongholds in Venezuela’s border regions. Colombia’s latest organized leftist guerilla group the National Liberation Army (ELN – Spanish initials) has aggressively expanded its operations in Venezuela with it now thought to have a presence in at least 13 of Venezuela’s 23 states and in some communities is even acting as a de-facto government. That is only further facilitating the smuggling, extortion, and illegal gold mining in the country. All of this has created a significant opportunity for Hezbollah to ramp up its lucrative illicit operations in the near-failed state.
Teheran-backed Hezbollah is a key supporter of the authoritarian Maduro regime. The militant group provides an ideal regional proxy for engaging in illegal activities including cocaine trafficking and terrorism. Hezbollah is also actively co-opting and recruiting from the large Lebanese and Shia diaspora in Venezuela and Colombia. Hezbollah is an influential voice among the various familial clans that dominate Venezuela’s and Colombia’s Syrian and Lebanese communities which have become important political and business players in both countries. Many of those clans are firmly embedded in Maduro’s regime and Venezuela’s rapidly expanding illicit economy, with some being integral players in cocaine trafficking and other criminal activities. Many also have considerable influence in neighboring Colombia which is the primary source of Hezbollah’s cocaine. This relationship building and recruitment not only bolsters Hezbollah’s and Teheran’s political influence but the militant political organization’s revenue which is then directed to boosting its influence in Lebanon and conducting Middle East operations.
Hezbollah is a powerful proxy weapon that Teheran can wield to challenge U.S. hegemony in Latin America by allowing Iran to engage in criminal and terrorist acts without being directly linked to such activities. The militant organization’s transnational criminal networks allow it to profit from illicit activities and launder the proceeds, generating a crucial source of revenue. Hezbollah’s growing regional power and influence make it an important ally for Venezuela’s failing government. That gives Teheran, which is a crucial supporter of Maduro, greater influence within OPEC as a key buyer of Venezuelan crude oil. As well as magnifying regional insecurity and challenging Washington’s geopolitical supremacy in its own backyard, the growing influence of Hezbollah amplifies the risk of further terrorist attacks in Latin America. All of this underscores why Washington needs to reappraise its use of sanctions against Venezuela, especially after considering its failure to initiate regime change while creating an environment conducive to allowing transnational terrorist and criminal organizations to flourish.
By Matthew Smith for Oilprice.com
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