What would the ultimate border security nightmare look like? Might it involve drug cartels, rogue special forces soldiers, or transnational terrorists? How about all three? This scenario sounds like something out of a Hollywood movie. The problem is that for the United States this nightmare may have come true.
On December 15 it was revealed in an indictment that Hezbollah has a substantial drug connection to the Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas. The Lebanese druglord Ayman Joumaa was indicted in absentia for, “conspiring to smuggle over 90,000 tons of cocaine into America and laundering over $250 million for the cartels.” The druglord has close ties to Hezbollah and functioned as a middle man between the terrorist organization and the cartels. In terms of raw numbers, the amount of cocaine that he tried to smuggle was equivalent to a cargo of 2,250 eighteen wheelers. The sheer volume of this transaction is cause for concern, but the fact that Hezbollah and Los Zetas are working together is far worse.
So why is this new development so significant to US border security? We must first consider the history and background of these groups. Hezbollah is one of the world’s largest terrorist groups and is based in southern Lebanon. The Shiite organization receives funding from Iran and engaged in a proxy war with Israel in 2005. It is responsible for some of the worst terrorist attacks of the last two decades, including the 1983 Beirut bombing that killed 241 Americans. Hezbollah may be the most influential organization preventing stability in the Middle East.
Los Zetas are the cartel equivalent of Hezbollah in Latin America. The Zetas are described as, “highly trained, highly motivated commandos formerly with the Mexican military…[that] represent law enforcement’s worst nightmare come true”. The Zetas began as a group of paramilitary soldiers that were turned by the Gulf cartel. After falling out with the cartel, the Zetas formed their own. They are considered to be the “most dangerous drug cartel” and the second most powerful in Mexico. The organization has participated in a number of hideous acts including the 2011 Tamaulipas massacrethat killed some 200 civilians. Los Zetas is considered to be one of the best trained and violent groups in Latin America.
What is the regional significance of Hezbollah working with the drug cartels? Let’s consider Hezbollah’s cell activity in Latin America and examine its relationship with the cartels.
Hezbollah’s influence in the region dates back several years. Click here to see the interactive timeline.
Hezbollah has been involved in the drug trade in Latin America since the mid-1980s. The group is primarily located in the tri-border area Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. Its primary functions are to launder money and receive profits from the drug trade. Hezbollah had an, “estimated 460 operatives in the TBA by mid-2000” and this number has probably increased dramatically. Profits from criminal activity in the region are estimated to be in the millions of dollars. Over the past 25 years, Hezbollah has carefully trained its top operatives to form cells and set up shop in North and South America.
If Hezbollah were a drug cartel or a separatist movement, it would not be as much of a threat to the United States. However, Hezbollah is a very connected organization that has killed hundreds of Americans and fought a war with Israel. The most important fact about Hezbollah is that it is a state sponsored terrorist organization, “Hezbollah clearly acts as a proxy for Iran—specifically, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Qods Force—globally and in Latin America. Thus, Hezbollah’s escalating presence in the Western Hemisphere can be understood only in the context of its patron Iran’s pursuit of its strategic objectives.” The fact Iran is a state sponsor of Hezbollah means that the organization has the finances and the expertise to commit substantial acts of terrorism.
In July, members of Congress were briefed on the growing influence of Hezbollah in the region. One report indicated that the threat to the US border is already here, “operatives were already infiltrating the southern border with Mexico as well as Canada. In July 2010, the first improvised explosive device exploded in the US-Mexico border town of Ciudad Juarez”. This problem seems to have been severely overlooked by the mainstream media. It is quite surprising because Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega even made a statement saying that, “I believe there will be an attack on US personnel, installations or interests in the Americas as soon as Hizbullah operatives believe that they are capable of such an operation without implicating their Iranian sponsors in the crime.” It is highly significant that a former top US official has come out and said that an attack by Hezbollah is likely.
However, it appears that the salience of the issue has grown over the past few months:
US websites dedicated to border issues and even one of the Republican presidential candidates mentioned the “significant and imminent threat of the Iran-Latin America nexus”. Others have indicated that Hezbollah functions as a sort of insurance policy for Iran in those regions. The state can fund the terrorist group and still exercise plausible deniability in the event of a major attack. Iran perceives its support of Hezbollah as a way to pressure the United States within its strategic sphere of influence in the Americas.
Some sources have said that the strengthening relationship between Iran and Venezuela has increased Hezbollah’s influence in the region. Both leaders are staunchly anti-American, and it is reasonable to think that they would pursue activities that would undermine US interests. Roger Noreiga, the same official that warned of an attack by Hezbollah, indicates that Venezuela, “has allowed Iran to mine uranium” and that Venezuela’s Margarita Island has eclipsed the infamous TBA as the principal safe haven and center of Hezbollah operations in the Americas”. This is particularly disturbing as Iran is suspected of pursuing a nuclear weapon while simultaneously funding Hezbollah close to the US border. Therefore, there major concerns that if Iran obtains a nuclear weapon it might share the weapon with Hezbollah.
There are two major Hezbollah networks operating in the Americas under the direction of the Iranian Quds Force. The first is the Nassereddine network, operated by a former Lebanese citizen that became a Venezuelan and is now the second-ranking diplomatic official to Syria. He currently resides on Margarita Island and runs money laundering operations for the group. The other network is purportedly run by Hojjat al-Eslam Mohsen Rabbani, a culutral attaché from Iran who is involved in various recruitment activities and frequently travels under false papers in Latin America. The two networks together make up the majority of Hezbollah’s activity in the Americas.
Now back to the cartels. Why is the link between Hezbollah and Los Zetas so important? The main concern is that if Hezbollah and Los Zetas are cooperating on drugs (which they are to the tune of hundreds of millions), then why would they not cooperate on weapons? Hezbollah and other extremists may be willing to export their knowledge of IEDs to the cartels. The relationship between Hezbollah and Los Zetas appears to have already expanded beyond drugs. In October 2011, the US authorities revealed that there was an attempt made by Iran to assassinate the Saudi ambassador on US soil.
It looks like Los Zetas was intricately involved with Iran in this and other related plots, “The alleged plot also included plans to pay the cartel, Los Zetas, to bomb the Israeli Embassy in Washington and the Saudi and Israeli Embassies in Argentina, according to a law enforcement official…The plotters also discussed a side deal between the Quds Force, part of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and Los Zetas to funnel tons of opium from the Middle East to Mexico.” Other information that we have found would corroborate the existence of a relationship between Hezbollah and Los Zetas.
There are also some analysts that think that the entire relationship should be played down and that Hezbollah’s influence is overplayed. James Bowsworth of the Christian Science Monitor downplays the relationship saying,
“The case is notable for having all the key words that people get excited about: Hezbollah! Terrorist-financing! Cocaine! Zetas! Venezuela! And all of that appears to be true. At the same time, in spite of all the red flag key words, the details within these articles and the indictment show how the US government can deal with the issue of Hezbollah in the hemisphere without panic and over-reaction.”
He also quotes one US official that stated the exact opposite of what other sources said, “It’s not like there’s a sit-down between the leaders of Hezbollah and the Zetas. Nor is this about Presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran plotting together. It should not be portrayed as such.” This is interesting in light of the fact that there are extensive Hezbollah networks in the Americas and that Los Zetas may have been complicit with Iran in plotting to bomb the United States. A blog post called “Debunking the Iran Terror Plot” may provide a counterpoint to the theory that Hezbollah and Los Zetas are coordinating. The report takes an in-depth look at the FBI report and finds that there are many holes within the indictment. The author in that piece concluded that the plot did not match Iranian interests and that Los Zetas was likely not involved.
Are Hezbollah and Los Zetas actively coordinating to undermine US interests in the Americas? There is good reason to believe that the groups are coordinating on narcotics activities. Both stand to gain substantially from money laundering and drug trafficking. The December 15th indictment appears to clearly establish these links and the report has not been questioned as much as the FBI report on the Iranian plot.The data on drug activity between Hezbollah and Los Zetas is more convincing than the plotting charges.
The Iranian plot may have been true and if so it is particularly disturbing for US security. If these two groups are indeed plotting together then an attack at the border may be an imminent threat. Despite this there are no conclusive links to show an iron triangle between Iran, Hezbollah, and Los Zetas. The three may be casually linked to one another in plotting terrorist attacks, but at present this coordination does not seem to be widespread.