On Saturday July 13th, the President of Argentina Mauricio Macri said his country is “moving forward” to declare the armed Lebanese group Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Macri announced this in an interview with CNN Español.
Hezbollah is based in Lebanon but is an Iranian proxy, and is long suspected of carrying out two deadly terrorist acts in Argentina: the 1992 attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 29; and the 1994 attack on the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires that murdered 85 more Jewish Argentinians.
But no one has ever been brought to trial for these attacks.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Buenos Aires Friday, July 19th to take part in a Western Hemisphere anti-terrorist summit. Pompeo visited the rebuilt AMIA Jewish Center to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the terrorist attack there.
There could be renewed cooperation between the two countries with the announcement by Macri. Meanwhile, the United States continues to put pressure on Hezbollah but sanctions finances, according to the Financial Times.
For Argentina’s actions to be productive, it needs its neighbors—specifically Paraguay and Brazil—to do the same. The three countries share one of the most lawless areas in the world called the “Tri-Border Area” (TBA), also known as the “Triple Frontier.”
Hezbollah has thrived in the TBA. With a strong Lebanese Shia presence in the area since the 1980s, when many Lebanese civilians fled the war at home, the Iranians saw an opening to expand their influence and jumped on it. In an excellent piece published in the Small Wars Journal, author Alma Keshavarz explains how Hezbollah is using the TBA to smuggle drugs, launder money, and recruit sympathetic operatives.
Paraguay, in particular, is a troublesome spot where illicit activities are generating into the billions of dollars annually for Hezbollah. Their presence has spread northward to another region of the Tri-Border area between Bolivia, Peru, and Chile. Since the DEA’s ouster from Bolivia by its leftist president, cocaine production increased. Bolivia is rapidly becoming Iran and Hezbollah’s most important ally in South America since the death of Hugo Chavez.
While both Paraguay and Brazil governments cooperated with the apprehension of individual members of Hezbollah, officials have balked at taking on the terrorist group collectively. Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., wrote a piece for Fox News about Hezbollah’s overt presence in Brazil, which goes unchecked.
The TBA is not the only flashpoint of concern. Hezbollah’s representative to Latin America, Sheikh Bilal Mohsen Wehbe, whom the U.S. Department of Treasury sanctioned in 2010, until recently resided in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he operated freely from Brazil’s largest Shi’a Mosque. Hezbollah’s publication, Al-Akhbar has a dedicated journalist in Brazil who also works as a Russia Today Spanish correspondent. Hezbollah supporters are radicalized – and their activities, designed to proselytize and expand the terror group’s narrative, seek in turn to radicalize people outside the closely-knit circles of the immigrant communities Hezbollah usually relies on.
It is high time that local governments act. Yet to confront a problem governments must first recognize it. Neither Brazil nor Paraguay have done so until now. Since taking office last January, Brazil president, Jair Bolsonaro has not aligned his country’s policy to his tough rhetoric. He has accused Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s dictator, to enjoy the support of Hezbollah. Brazil cooperated with Paraguay when, in September 2018, it arrested Assad Ahmad Barakat, a U.S. sanctioned Hezbollah financier, whom Paraguay wants to prosecute for document fraud. Yet his minister of security, General Augusto Heleno, has downplayed Hezbollah’s presence along Brazil’s border areas and Hezbollah remains legal in Brazil.
Paraguay’s reluctance to recognize the problem is even more painfully obvious. Since President Mario Abdo Benitez took office, he has had many opportunities to address the presence of Hezbollah on his borders. Abdo has named transnational organized crime a threat to Paraguay and has reinvigorated his country’s fight against narcotrafficking. Paraguay’s seizures of cocaine have dramatically increased. Yet, the president has not uttered the word ‘Hezbollah’ once.”
The U.S. State Department ratcheted up the pressure on Tehran’s proxies, having designated Jawad Nasrallah—son of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah—a terrorist back in November. The State Department accused Nasrallah of carrying out attacks against Israel in the occupied West Bank.
“Today’s designations seek to deny Nasrallah and AMB the resources to plan and carry out terrorist attacks,” the State Department released in a 2018 statement. By deeming him a terrorist, this denies Nasrallah and Al-Mujahidin Brigades access to the U.S. financial system.
Earlier in July, the U.S. Treasury added three top Hezbollah figures to its list of sanctioned individuals. This list included two sitting members of the Lebanese Parliament and a security official that handles coordination between Hezbollah and Lebanon’s security forces.
The U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) added Amin Sherri and Muhammad Hasan Ra’ad, both members of Lebanon’s Parliament, for acting on behalf of Hezbollah. This is the first time that OFAC had listed a member of the Lebanese Parliament for sanctions for providing support for terrorist organizations.
While all eyes are looking to the Middle East for the U.S. to check Iran’s influence, the focus should be equally on our neighbors to the south. American influence is waning in South America, and Iran and Hezbollah have instigated a new wave of anti-American feelings by spreading their own brand of propaganda and increase their already sizable influence.