The Rise Of Socialists In Latin America Is Giving Terror Groups A Home

Authored by Marcos Schotgues via The Epoch Times (emphasis ours),

The new wave of leftist governments in Latin America, along with an increasingly brazen posture from Tehran has given Iran and its proxy terrorist groups a favorable environment to mingle with organized crime, cross borders with impunity, and engage in more direct state-to-state exchanges, analysts say.

(Illustration by The Epoch Times, Shutterstock)

“There’s always been a certain level of, not only networks, but also influence by both Hezbollah and behind Hezbollah, Iran, in the region,” said Evan Ellis, a former State Department official and research professor of Latin American studies at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.

“That increased with respect to the state-to-state Iranian engagement largely through populist actors in the mid-2000s, with a new crop of leftist populist leaders: Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and certainly Rafael Correa in Ecuador, among others.”

A map depicts the political leanings of governments in Latin America. (The Epoch Times)

This movement includes the recent reported entry of Iran and Hezbollah agents into the region through Venezuela, as evidenced by a 2022 incident in which a plane was grounded and seized in Argentina upon request of the United States. The state-owned aircraft had five Iranian nationals on board. Paraguay officials and others claimed they were linked to the Quds Force, which is designated a terrorist organization by the United States. Argentina denied reports that crew members were linked to Quds.

The seizure coincided with the return to the region of many of the same populist actors. “Essentially, you’re taking Quds Forces operatives and Hezbollah-affiliated personnel around the region,” Mr. Ellis said.

“In recent months what you’ve seen also is a broadening of that Iranian engagement with a trip to Nicaragua to talk about oil deals. And more recently, a three nation trip by President [Ebrahim] Raisi, accompanied by several ministers, including his defense minister, to Venezuela, as well as to Nicaragua and to Cuba, where several deals were signed in each place.”

The Iranian links in the region have become more apparent amid the Israel–Hamas war. On. Nov. 8, two alleged Hezbollah operatives were arrested in Brazil for planning attacks in the country. And warnings of a terror threat to the United States have increased, particularly in relation to its porous southern border.

Chile and Colombia, both with newly-elected leftist administrations, recalled their ambassadors to Israel on Oct. 31 and criticized the Jewish country’s offensive against Iranian-backed Hamas terrorists.

Bolivia severed diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv on the same day—the country had signed an agreement with Iran in July to strengthen “defense and security cooperation.” At the time, Iran’s Defense Minister said Latin American nations occupied a “special place in Iran’s strategic outlook,” and that the cooperation with Bolivia could be modeled by more countries in the region.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi disembarks after landing at Simon Bolivar International Airport in Venezuela, on June 12, 2023. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Carlos Berzaín, Bolivia’s former minister of defense and now head of the Interamerican Institute for Democracy, said every Latin American country being ruled under ‘21st century socialism’ is “publicly converted into an enemy of the United States—adopting the rhetoric Cuba has had for almost 65 years—with very grave political and security consequences.”

The term “21st century socialism” is commonly used by Venezuela’s socialist dictatorship and others to characterize their ideology.

Mr. Berzaín said his homeland is an example of one of the countries reclaimed by socialists (in late 2020) after a brief stint with the opposition in power.

Today, Bolivia, as a dictatorship, is dependent upon the leadership of Cuba’s dictatorship, and its foreign policy shows it,” he told the Epoch Times.

“It is at the service of other dictatorial regimes like Iran, Russia, and China with which there is no traditional or legitimate interest in the type of relations they maintain. Those are founded on corruption … on Bolivia’s condition as a narco-state, and on favoring crimes such as terrorism with an ‘anti-imperialist’ rhetoric.”

Leading Iran analyst Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Foundation for the Defence of Democracy, said terrorist networks have grown.

“In Brazil, the sympathetic government of Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva has allowed Hezbollah and Iranian fronts to quietly expand with little risk of scrutiny from authorities,” Mr. Ottolenghi wrote in an Oct. 28 article.

Supporters of Hezbollah watch a televised speech by its leader Hassan Nasrallah (not pictured) in Beirut, Lebanon, on Nov. 3, 2023. (PAHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images)

“In Chile, with a strong and radicalized Palestinian diaspora, Iranian agents and Hezbollah networks have infiltrated government, media, and academia, in addition to running illicit financial networks.”

Iran and its proxies’ long and widespread activity in Latin America further increases concerns about a welcoming political environment.

Terrorist group Hezbollah has played a prominent role in the region. U.S. officials estimate Iran gives the group hundreds of millions of dollars annually, weapons, and more.

For decades, Hezbollah has patiently built a global web of networks, engaged in illicit financial activities, and supported terrorist plots,“ Mr. Ottolenghi wrote.

He said most countries in the region don’t consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization, making it harder to monitor and curb its activities.

“Because of its decades-long involvement with organized crime—a critical component of Hezbollah’s funding strategy—the group has extensive connections with local crime syndicates,” Mr. Ottolenghi said.

“These connections provide access to weapons, explosives, counterfeiting, and most critically, corrupt public officials in key positions at migrations, customs, and ports of entry.”

In recent years, several Hezbollah-connected arrests have been made in Latin America.

“In 2017, U.S. authorities arrested Samer el Debek, another Hezbollah agent, who, court documents reveal, had scouted potential targets that included the Israeli and U.S. embassies in Panama, as well as the Panama Canal,” Mr. Ottolenghi said.

“In 2021, Hezbollah operatives attempted to assassinate U.S. and Israeli nationals in Colombia.”

Despite the handful of arrests, Iran and proxy Hezbollah’s activity is ongoing in the region and remains largely “undisturbed,” Mr. Ottolenghi said.

Complicity and Close Ties

The enabling of illegal activity by Latin American leftist governments and their direct criminal engagement with Iran have been extensively reported.

Key state actors have facilitated transnational terrorist activity by providing criminals, who are wanted by Interpol, transport on state-run airlines as well as real passports with fake names.

“The speed and ease with which Hezbollah operatives are able to secure false documentation in Latin America should not come as a surprise,” stated Matthew Levitt in a 2013 House Homeland Security hearing. At the time, Mr. Levitt was the counterterrorism and intelligence director at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“According to Israeli intelligence, the use of such passports by Hezbollah operatives is widespread, and the documents are used by the organization’s activists in their travels all over the world.”

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