US military commanders are revisiting old concerns that Iranian-backed terrorist groups are operating in Latin America and profiting from the regional drug trade, a somewhat exaggerated fear that nonetheless offers insights into concerns over evolving dynamics between mafia structures and terrorist groups.
Speaking before the Senate Homeland Security & Government Affairs Committee on March 25, Kenneth Tovo — deputy commander of SOUTHCOM — expressed concerns regarding “the financial and operational overlap between criminal and terrorist networks” in Latin America, reported Vangaurdia.
In his testimony, Tovo worried that regional criminal networks “could unwittingly, or even wittingly, facilitate the movement of terrorist operatives or weapons of mass destruction toward our borders,” although he acknowledged there has been no indication of this yet. Nonetheless, while “the extent of criminal-terrorist cooperation is unclear,” added Tovo, “what is clear is that terrorists and militant organizations easily tap into the international illicit marketplace” to fund and support their activities.
More specifically, Tovo discussed supposed links between Hezbollah and the Lebanese diaspora in Latin America — of whom some are involved in “lucrative illicit activities like money laundering and trafficking in counterfeit goods and drugs.” According to Tovo, Hezbollah could exploit these connections to attack Western targets, adding that the group also makes “a good amount of profit” from illicit trafficking: on the order of tens of millions of dollars (although it was unclear how much of this is linked to Latin America).
Earlier this month, in near identical testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General John Kelley — commander of SOUTHCOM — also warned of the threat of radical Muslim extremists exploiting the region, saying Latin American drug cartels could help smuggle terrorists and weapons of mass destruction across the US southern border, reported Breitbart News.
InSight Crime Analysis
Much of the basis for allegations of Iranian influence and attempts at collaborating with Latin American organized crime stem from the 2011 “Iran-Zetas plot”; when Iranian-backed elements allegedly attempted to collaborate with members of the Zetas to assassinate the Saudi Arabia ambassador in Washington D.C.
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The extent of Hezbollah’s presence in Latin America has traditionally been overestimated — the most recent focus on Iran’s presence in Latin America is perhaps a political move by opponents of ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran.
However, ongoing fears over a growing nexus between criminal and terrorist groups in Latin America are not completely baseless. Indeed, there is no outright reason why mafia structures in Latin America would not be willing to work for terrorist groups; that is, as long as the price was right. Furthermore, given the trend towards the subcontracting of criminal jobs — as criminal groups become more decentralized — these groups may not know exactly who they are working for, or what product they are moving; just that they are making a handsome profit.
This “mercenary” model of organized crime has been seen in Colombia, with criminal networks functioning like a series of loosely affiliated groups — each specializing in certain activities — to conduct business.
At the moment, it appears Mexican criminal groups are evolving towards this same decentralized, nodular structure as Colombia. Ultimately, what US policymakers fear is the ability of groups like Hezbollah to contract elements of these networks, using their expertise to infiltrate and attack the United States.