By Frances Martel
A report published Wednesday by the Atlantic Council details the liaisons linking Venezuela’s socialist Maduro regime to the Shiite jihadist organization Hezbollah and its Iranian affiliates, helping Venezuela become “the central hub for the convergence of transnational organized crime and international terrorism in the Western Hemisphere.”
Author Joseph Humire of the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS), a national security think tank, details in the report how Iran and Hezbollah have exploited century-old communities of Lebanese-Venezuelans and other Middle Eastern-origin communities in South America to create large and deliberately confusing economic networks.
Through networks that include overtly legal business activity, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Hezbollah, and other nefarious actors like Mexican drug cartels and the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) help each other line their pockets and expand their influence on a global scale, Humire wrote.
The report was published through the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.
Maduro is openly a supporter of the Iranian Islamist regime, just has his predecessor Hugo Chávez was. The socialist regime is increasingly relying on Iran for gasoline — while sitting over the world’s second-largest known oil reserves — after having destroyed its refining facilities, persecuting skilled engineers and handing over the refineries to unqualified socialist cronies. Following a fatal U.S. airstrike against Iranian terror chief Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the Maduro regime staged events to honor his memory. Experts believe Soleimani was in charge of Iran’s big-picture terrorism strategy throughout Latin America.
“In Venezuela, the logistical air bridge between Caracas, Damascus, and Tehran is what Maduro protects and has served profitable for Hezbollah and Iran,” Humire explained, noting that the Syrian regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad, a close ally of Tehran’s, is part of the global network of rogue regimes and criminal syndicates that unite Venezuela and Iran. A 2015 book claimed that Maduro himself met with both Bashar al-Assad and the head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, in Damascus in 2007, while he was serving as late dictator Hugo Chávez’s foreign minister.
Hezbollah, Humire explained, has long had a presence in South America, particularly in the poorly policed “tri-border area” that unites Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil. It has cultivated relationships with groups like FARC, Humire noted, citing U.S. legal investigations, by aiding with shipping illicit material, diplomacy, and money laundering.
Humire’s report broke down the South American Hezbollah network into three “clans” of Lebanese families involved in different aspects of the Maduro-Hezbollah relationship. Some, the report noted, appeared to work somewhat legitimately. Two key Hezbollah operatives, for example, are described as managing a series of businesses in “textiles, beef, charcoal, electronics, tourism, real estate, and construction.” Those businesses aid in laundering money from illicit drug trafficking and terrorism.
Another participant in the transnational scheme identified now simply runs “small import-export businesses in Panama” involved in textiles and charcoal, but his business, the report concluded, funds terrorism: “as much as 80 percent of the proceeds [are] used to support Hezbollah.”
Humire noted in regard to this individual that charcoal is often used to disguise cocaine in shipments. His report also emphasized, however, that evidence suggests Caracas, Tehran, and Damascus deliberately weave together these legitimate-seeming businesses with patently criminal schemes.
The two sides reportedly set up one such scheme in 2009, according to the DEA. One of the socialist regime’s Hezbollah liaisons organized a meeting between Hezbollah operatives and two key Maduro henchmen: current Oil Minister Tareck El Aissami, considered Hezbollah’s closest ally in Caracas, and Hugo Carvajal, a former Chávez intelligence chief who fled to Spain and now claims to be a defector.
“The meeting allegedly prompted a cocaine-for-weapons scheme between the FARC and Hezbollah that materialized in 2014 when a Lebanese cargo plane full of small arms (AK-103s, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, etc.) arrived at the presidential hangar (rampa 4) of the Maiquetia International Airport in Caracas,” the report noted. “The weapons were reportedly a partial payment for the cocaine the FARC provided to the Maduro regime, and was transferred to a military base in Guárico, Venezuela.”
The report also highlighted that, while many working with the two rogue actors are Latin Americans of Middle Eastern heritage, socialist Venezuela has helped Middle Easterners travel to the West to build out a “clandestine network” that benefits both Maduro and Assad.
“Venezuela’s strategic location in South America and at the crossroads of the Caribbean provides Iran and Hezbollah with an ability to diminish their geographic disadvantage against the United States,” Humire explained. “To hide this relationship, Chávez, and then the Maduro regime, provided dual identities to some Middle Easterners, building a clandestine network that provides intelligence, training, funds, weapons, supplies, and know-how to both the Maduro and Assad regimes.”
Whistleblowers that have left the Maduro regime estimate that, under both Maduro and Chávez, Venezuela has granted legitimate passports to as many as 10,000 Syrian, Iranian, and other nationals who had never stepped foot in Venezuela. While the individuals are not Venezuelan, the documents are technically not counterfeit, expanding an ability to travel that would have otherwise been compromised by having a passport belonging to a rogue or failed state.
The report concludes urging the United States and neighboring countries to collaborate more and to treat the Middle Eastern threat of Hezbollah and the South American threat of the Maduro regime as one problem, rather than approaching them in an isolated manner. Part of that cooperation would entail encouraging Latin American states to designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization and to cooperate with Middle Eastern states, particularly Gulf states, that have experience cracking down on Hezbollah activities.
“The Iran and Hezbollah nexus in Venezuela, first under Chávez and now with Maduro, has been underestimated by the international community for far too long,” the report concluded. “The findings in this report demonstrate that these connections exist and are mutually beneficial, allowing Hezbollah a safe space to conduct its global crime-terror operations and providing the Maduro regime with increased illicit support from the Middle East.”