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Iran and its Proxies–A Growing Security Threat in Latin America

Does the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism pose a threat to the region’s security?

One year ago this month, the Committee on Homeland Security of the U.S. House of Representatives issued a report on countering crime, violence, and terror at the Southwest border. While the report focused heavily on the Central American gangs, particularly troubling is the section devoted to the growing influence of Iran and its radical Muslim cronies (especially Hezbollah) in the Western Hemisphere. It has been nearly two decades since the deadly bombings of the Israeli Embassy and Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, orchestrated by Hezbollah and Iran; and since that time the forces of radical Islam have ramped up their activity. Only two years ago, a Muslim radical who made his way from his home in Tunisia to Mexico, via Central America, and was in the process of being smuggled in a trunk across the border from Tijuana to San Diego. And only two months ago the media broke a story on Iran’s recruiting of an “invisible army” of revolutionary sympathizers in Latin America to infiltrate the U.S. through the porous southern border.

Iran is expanding its diplomatic push into South America. The groundwork was laid by former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who visited the region six times during his presidency, and current President Rouhani has expressed strong support for Latin America and welcomes increased interaction. Iran and its proxies are expanding their recruitment in mosques and Islamic community centers. Its activities are aimed not just at the Lebanese Shi’ite diaspora but at a broader audience. Iran makes wide use of the Internet. For example, Islamoriente.com is a main recruitment and conversion website. Focusing on religion and politics, it also features links to Iranian TV for Spanish speakers, presenting anti-American news stories and Islamic conversion propaganda. Tehran's clandestine intelligence stations and operative agents are widespread, and Iran has expanded its network of embassies and cultural centers to recruit young students, particularly in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua.

Most pernicious, however, is Hezbollah's activity in the Tri-Border Area (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay), the largest Hemisphere underground economy at $12 billion per year. Financial crimes are a specialty here and one of the most active sources of revenue for Hezbollah outside of Iranian state financing. In fact, the Tri-Border Area has become a nexus of al-Qaida activities, including arms smuggling and training of Latin American youth and serves Hamas and Hezbollah in expanding their foothold in the region. But this is not new. To illustrate, in 2011 the Brazilian magazine Veja broke a story that police and security forces uncovered activities of at least 20 high ranking operations of Hezbollah, Hamas, and al-Qaida. The magnitude of Hezbollah's activities, in particular is well-documented in an extensive report authored by Roger Noriega and José Cárdenas.

Finally, there is the narco connection. Iran's ties to drug trafficking are widespread. Venezuelan drug trafficker Walid Makled on his 2010 arrest in Colombia acknowledged the Venezuela-Hezbollah-FARC-narco connection, including Hezbollah’s cocaine labs in Venezuela and links between the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and senior members of the Venezuelan government in the illicit narcotics trade. Western intelligence services have verified clear, strong, and growing connections between Hezbollah and Mexican drug cartels; and Iran Special Forces were identified as the group that hired a Zeta drug cartel in the foiled plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S.  For the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, in particular--but other countries in the Americas, including Brazil and Colombia--Iran and its proxies are a security threat. Collaboration with authoritarian left-wing regimes, such as Venezuela; involvement in drug trafficking, money laundering, arms smuggling, and criminal gangs; and propagandizing and recruitment via conversion to Islam among young people and the disenfranchised elevate Iran to a clear and present danger in the Americas.

Is the world's biggest state sponsor of terrorism capable in Latin America of supporting its  proxies to sabotage oil pipelines, kidnap foreign executives, attack and kill at a shopping mall frequented by large numbers of foreigners (such as occurred in Nairobi in October), and recruit followers among Latin America's Muslim population (6 million) to commit criminal acts (e.g., money laundering, arms smuggling) to support an anti-American and anti-Western jihad?

It behooves governments and their security services in the region to be vigilant and proactive. If it happened in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994, it can happen in Bogotá, Monterrey, or São Paulo in 2014.


Jerry Haar is a professor of management and international business at Florida International University.


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