In part one of our new series, “The Geopolitics of Narcotics”, Jonny Elswood examines the surprising influence of Hezbollah on Latin America’s geopolitical and criminal environment. This piece examines how Hezbollah and some of the region’s most active criminal groups have forged convenient and frightening partnerships that profit all parties, and how these partnerships undermine both local and international security.

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‘Narco-terrorism’

One hour’s drive west from the world-famous Iguazú Falls in northern Argentina is Ciudad del Este; Paraguay’s second city. Home to a large Lebanese community that began arriving there in the 1980s, the city accommodates just a fraction of Latin America’s Shi’a population. Overall, Lebanese people in Latin America outnumber Lebanese people in Lebanon by over two to one. Evidenced by the billions of dollars sent back to Beirut by the global diaspora every year, such communities generate significant assets both within their countries of residence and for their country of origin. Inevitably, however, there are also darker sides to this avenue of global remittances. For the authorities in Ciudad del Este, one element in particular is becoming increasingly concerning.

It is a symbiosis that intertwines the worlds of profit and holy war, and therefore one that further complicates two of the most complex transnational projects in modern history: the War on Drugs and the War on Terror.

The phenomenon that has come to be known as narco-terrorism makes complete economic sense; terrorist organisations and trafficking cartels make logical, and in reality, proficient collaborators in spite of their differing objectives and ideologies. At sites like those in the ‘Tri-Border Area’ (TBA) of Ciudad del Este – the most porous and least manageable area of South American trafficking activity – illicit groups that are otherwise ideologically unconcerned with one another exchange goods and services, rapidly increase their productivity overseas, and broaden their respective talent pools. It is a symbiosis that intertwines the worlds of profit and holy war, and therefore one that further complicates two of the most complex transnational projects in modern history: the War on Drugs and the War on Terror.

In essence, narcoterrorism is a transactional phase of operations that occurs after a cartel has generated profit that needs laundering, and before a terrorist organisation conducts an attack. In other words, it is not a new form of terrorism or of trafficking, but rather a business relationship that strengthens both. The most important asset to be exchanged is money laundering services, which can be conducted via the Middle East for a cartel such as Los Zetas, but other goods are swapped too, including weaponry, operational equipment, training and temporary personnel. The geography and governance of the tri-border area leave it at the heart of a booming drug trade, eased by porous borders, fluid populations, and insufficient Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities from Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay.

The Beirut Connection

Political militant groups in South America, such as Colombia’s FARC and Peru’s Shining Path, have profited enormously from trafficking partnerships and in-house narcotics operations in the past. For instance, at its height, the FARC is estimated to have generated half a billion dollars annually from the ‘big three’ narcotics on the continent: powder cocaine, opium poppies, and cannabis. Moreover, along the Ríos Apurímac, Shining Path is making an intriguing resurgence thanks to the cocaine boom. But perhaps surprisingly, it is the militant wing of the Shi’a party Hezbollah that has become the preponderant foreign terrorist organisation in the TBA and throughout the Amazonian region over the last ten years.

Currently, Hezbollah engages most with Brazil’s largest gang Primeiro Comando da Capital (the PCC) and the infamous Zetas of Mexico, both of which profit from the trafficking routes in and out of Manaus. The militants’ global networks and political influence on the other side of the world naturally attract cartels with money to shift, and in fact their sophisticated ability to penetrate air traffic control and oceanic freight make quite obsolete the popular images of tiny 1970s Cesna planes dipping in and out of the jungle.

A decade ago, Hezbollah’s drug-related revenue was evaluated at between $10-20m USD, or roughly 10-20% of total paramilitary expenses. Nowadays, the figures are exponentially higher: a single (foiled) narcotics operation in South America nearly yielded $30m in 2012, and 2018 figures are likely to dwarf even that.

Increasingly, Hezbollah controls the frenetic politics in Lebanon, and by extension, holds favour in Iranian affairs. To cartels such as Los Zetas, however, which have no stake whatsoever in the geopolitics of Islam, Hezbollah is an attractive trading partner for entirely practical reasons. The loyalty and social cohesion that the group fosters make it a rich human resource and an inter-generational collaborator. Its financial facilities, too formerly exemplified by the now-defunct Lebanese Canadian Bank, allow efficient laundering well beyond the jurisdictions of small Latin American governments. Naturally, cleaner money is easier to recycle into domestic operations which, for the Zetas, includes the endemic bribery of state officials, substantial paramilitary defences of drug traffic, and the suppression of opponents by execution, mutilation, and kidnapping.

At the other end of the bargain, Hezbollah benefits from groups such as the Zetas and the PCC in two distinct ways. The first is financially reciprocal. Selling drugs (particularly cocaine and ‘captagon’, or fenethylline; an amphetamine now common in Syria) supplied by the cartels has proven to be a relatively simple means of funding for campaigns in the Levant. It is a financial source quite independent of the regional realpolitik to which they are accustomed, and one which has proven especially useful since Tehran’s sanction-induced austerity. A decade ago, Hezbollah’s drug-related revenue was evaluated at between $10-20m USD, or roughly 10-20% of total paramilitary expenses. Nowadays, the figures are exponentially higher: a single (foiled) narcotics operation in South America nearly yielded $30m in 2012, and 2018 figures are likely to dwarf even that.

The second benefit to Hezbollah is geopolitical. Shi’a influence in South and Central America is already significant at some local and communal levels, but its state-level clout is undergoing a renaissance too. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who has expressed vocal support for Hezbollah, has in the last two years moved to strengthen ties with Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia, Venezuela, and others. At a time when  much of Latin American politics is increasingly hostile to Washington, it is the Shi’a powers in the Middle East that have the most to gain there, in contrast to U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia. With narco-corruption as rife as it is in parts of Brazil and Mexico, for instance, a covert alliance with the cartels may pay dividends in years to come.

Nevertheless, at this point, caution has to be exercised around the swiftly securitised ‘narco-terror nexus’. Shi’a Islam is indeed a growing variable in Latin America, but strategically, it is far from pivotal. Much like a large-scale international infrastructural project, the main geopolitical benefactor between traffickers and terror organisations will always be that which operates locally, and at the larger scale. In that respect, for a long time to come, the gains on the Western side of the Atlantic will be felt much more by the traffickers.

Countermeasures and Wider Ramifications

The  TBA continues to be fruitfully exploited despite trilateral intelligence operations and foreign support from the American DEA’s Special Operations Division. There is no pretending that the task at hand is an easy one. But, much of the difficulty thus far is down to the absence of political will with specific regards to the terror links. A symptom of that is the fact that not a single continental country south of Texas has labelled Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation. New counter-terror legislation in Chile have been described by locals as reminiscent of the Pinochet regime, but they are specifically targeted at indigenous rights groups, and narcoterrorism seems absent from their security agenda. Further north, Guatemala’s new Interior Minister is pushing for MS-13 and Barrio 18 to be branded as terrorists (a precedent that could be progressive for the TBA nations), but, despite all the hype, neither of those gangs possess anything close to the capabilities of Hezbollah, or indeed Los Zetas.

From an American perspective, the rising domestic consumption of drugs and the messy foreign military interventions in Syria and Iraq are highly relevant to the TBA’s security environment. It is increasingly understood in Washington that many pathologies such as narcoterrorism have their roots in flawed U.S. policy, and that aviation and law enforcement at their end should be just as fluid and responsive as those in Ciudad del Este. Finally, Donald Trump’s failure to appoint a permanent DEA chief following Chuck Rosenberg’s resignation in 2017 illuminates the dilemma perfectly. Even armed with a new, proficient DEA head, and a hawkish strategy against Shi’a expansionism, a clumsy policy of force would simply exacerbate South America’s wounds again and again. But,  on the other hand, with every month of continual confusion and lack of action, Hezbollah’s Amazonian footprints grow larger.

An important recent trend in counter-narcotics has been to regard cartels (and, to a lesser extent, their partners in ideologically-driven terrorism) simply as lucrative international firms, operating in a amoral and exploitable global economy. In almost exactly the same way that the likes of Google, Amazon, and Apple have avoided domestic tax laws, cartels can very efficiently avoid punitive or restrictive action in one country by shifting their assets abroad. Arguably, unless Western hemispheric counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism adapt sufficiently to tackle transnational networks cohesively, the predictable quagmire will deteriorate, both in the streets of Aleppo, and in the Iguazú tropics.

Suggested books for additional reading on this topic:

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Jonny Elswood is a Scottish security analyst with expertise in counter-narcotics and non-state groups. Jonny has degrees in Political Science from St Andrews and Glasgow University, and recently completed a NATO Military Security course in Lithuania. He has contributed policy research for a political group in the Central African Republic, and currently focuses on organised crime analytics for Intelligence Fusion.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.


Photo credit: United States Air Force / SSgt Jonathan Lovelady

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