The United States is stepping up scrutiny of Iranian security and military personnel in the Lebanese communities of Latin America, even as its proxy, Hezbollah, gains new momentum and strength there, U.S. officials said.
Part of Hezbollah's alarming expansion is being fueled by narco-dollars coming from Latin American drug cartels, and American concern stems from the possibility that al-Qaida and Hezbollah, both of which have contacts with wealthy and powerful Latin American drug organizations, could use the area to stage attacks on U.S. interests in the region or at home, these officials said.
U.S. officials said that in addition to boosting rates of recruitment, Hezbollah agents, supported by Iran, are using very effective routes to smuggle drug profits to the Middle East to aid anti-U.S. counterparts, thanks to cooperation with Cuban intelligence which has effective operations in southern Florida.
Last fall, Charles Allen, undersecretary of Intelligence and Analysis in the Department of Homeland Security said, "The threat of ties between criminal and drug smuggling networks and Islamic terrorism may be less pressing than the Middle East, but the threats in this hemisphere are genuine, insidious and not always limited to recruiting and finance."
Only last October, U.S. and Colombian law enforcement agencies broke up a Hezbollah drug trafficking ring that was funneling profits to markets in Europe, the United States and militias in Lebanon, according to Department of Justice reports. The ring's director was Shukri Mahmoud Harb, a money launderer, who was arrested with 130 Hezbollah colleagues.
In December 2006, nine Hezbollah operatives were captured running a rogue financial network in the tri-border area of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, according to U.S. Treasury Department officials. The tri-border area is considered a haven to arms traffickers, smugglers, and is home to thousands of Lebanese.
Hezbollah, founded in 1982, is backed by Iran. The group, which runs a formidable military structure within Lebanon, also attracts popular support from its broad network of political and economic activities that includes schools, clinics and social services along with news outlets, newspapers, television stations, and a telecommunications network. It has members in El Salvador, Argentina, Brazil, and as far north as Chapas, Mexico, a country which is known to have al-Qaida cells, several U.S. sources said.
"There is no doubt that Hezbollah is a formidable conduit for Iran's interests in Latin America," said a U.S. intelligence official. The arrest of Hezbollah operatives in Colombia was proof of that, he said.
Of particular concern is Iran's recent diplomatic initiative to tighten its ties with Venezuela led by virulently anti-American Hugo Chavez. Direct flights from Caracas and Tehran began in early 2007 and relations have grown, U.S. officials said.
While far-left states such as Cuba or Venezuela aren't natural allies with the jihadists, the religious philosophy of the former Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini "contains a good deal of Marxism in it," said Patrick Clawson, Middle East expert at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
He said that countries like Cuba and Venezuela share implacable anti-American goals that have brought them into an alliance "of convenience and common interest."
Although Hezbollah has sympathizers in almost all the Arab and Lebanese communities in Latin America, Clawson said that the main U.S. fear is a sharp Hezbollah increase in the northern Lebanese communities of the region,
"That will be a real breakout," Clawson said.
But U.S. intelligence officials told the Middle East Times that there was no evidence that such a thing had yet occurred. "We are keeping a close eye on it, you can bet on that," one serving U.S. official said.
But some are harshly skeptical. "The whole issue of Hezbollah expansion down there is overblown," said former CIA official Larry Johnson. "It's total bull - just another way for neocons to beat the Iranian fear drum so that we'll join Israel in a nice little war with Tehran."