There are many positive things that tie together South American countries and Lebanon but one damaging link is Hezbollah. The two might be continents apart and separated by oceans, culture, religion and language but, as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reminded the world during his South American tour last month, the Iranian proxy's influence extends far beyond Lebanese borders – 12,000 kilometres further, in fact. Mr Pompeo urged Latin American countries to take action against the group and they have rightly heeded his call. Argentina became the first Latin American country to label Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation and now Paraguay has followed suit, with Brazil considering doing so as well.
It might surprise some but Hezbollah’s roots run deep in South America, where it finances its illegal activity through drug-smuggling and money laundering networks. Waves of Lebanese migrants, displaced by conflict or seeking economic opportunity, have been settling on the continent since the 1800s, primarily in Brazil, Paraguay and Colombia. In Brazil alone, the Lebanese diaspora outnumbers the total population of Lebanon.
That meant ripe pickings for Hezbollah when it began recruiting in the 1980s, followed by Iranian operatives after the 1979 revolution. Preying on its own compatriots, Hezbollah has exploited a weak legal framework in Paraguay, a lack of terrorism laws in Brazil and widespread corruption to make Latin America a major source of funds and fertile soil for its poisonous ideology to take hold. In the porous Tri-Border Area (TBA) between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, the militia saw an opportunity to manipulate legal loopholes and establish a headquarters generating tens of millions of dollars through criminal activity and organised cartels – so much so that Paraguay was described by security experts as ”a fiscal paradise for terrorists”.
Exasperated South American authorities have been trying to crack down on the group's flagrant abuse of their laws. Last year Brazilian police arrested Assad Barakat, accused of financing Hezbollah through money laundering in Argentinian casinos. Nader Farhat, another Hezbollah financier, was arrested in Paraguay this year and extradited to Miami after allegedly laundering money from drug trafficking, funnelling cash to Hezbollah through one of the biggest currency exchange businesses in the TBA. Meanwhile Lebanese businessman Ali Kassir was jailed in April for selling counterfeit phones to fund Hezbollah. Cigarette smuggling in Paraguay is also rife.
Drug trafficking, smuggling, gambling and violent crime: this is the true face of Hezbollah, whose spider's web of crime criss-crosses the globe in every direction. Its members hide their devious activities from their supporters at home but in truth, they will stop at nothing to raise money, especially at a time when Iran's economy is starting to feel the full force of increased sanctions from the US. Tehran is Hezbollah's main source of financing and experts believe sanctions have pushed the Iranian regime to cut the $700 million it pays to the group each year.
To make up for these losses, Hezbollah is stepping up its illicit operations in Africa and Latin America. Its proscription as a terrorist organisation by two South American countries, who will now freeze its assets and pursue the group relentlessly, shows the ring is closing on its activity. It will take a mammoth worldwide effort to cut off its oxygen supply completely and expose its members for the criminals they truly are.