When federal prosecutors in New York unsealed an indictment against a former Venezuelan lawmaker in May 2020, it included the stunning charge that the accused, Adel El Zabayar, was part of conspiracy by the Nicolás Maduro regime to assist Middle Eastern terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas to commit attacks against the United States.
According to the indictment, El Zabayar is an active member of the Cártel de los Soles, a drug-trafficking syndicate tied directly to regime officials, including Maduro and Diosdado Cabello. (Both, incidentally, indicted by the U.S. in March 2020 on charges of drug trafficking, narcoterrorism, corruption, and money laundering.)Cabello said that the purpose was “to create a large terrorist cell capable of attacking United States interests on behalf of the Cártel de los Soles,” according to the indictment.
It is about time that governments around the world recognize that the crisis in Venezuela is not just regional. It has dangerous global implications as well. To its credit, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has been sounding the alarm on the presence of international terrorist groups such as Hezbollah attempting to exploit the Venezuela crisis to expand its reach and influence.
Speaking on the issue in February 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed, “People don’t recognize that Hezbollah has active cells. The Iranians are impacting the people of Venezuela and throughout South America […]. We have an obligation to take down that risk for America,” he said. In another statement in June 2019, Pompeo said, “It is mostly a money-making enterprise. That is, it is designed to generate revenues for Hezbollah and its activities, which are largely conducted in the Middle East — to help them make payroll throughout the Middle East.”
U.S. Navy Admiral Craig S. Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command, testified in 2019 before a U.S. Senate panel, that Iran’s “proxy Lebanese Hezbollah maintains facilitation networks throughout the [Americas] that cache weapons and raise funds, often via drug trafficking and money laundering.”
A presence over decades
Hezbollah has maintained a presence in Latin America dating back to the 1980s. Hezbollah’s criminal networks in Latin America allowed the group to finance itself, spread propaganda, recruit, and plan the horrific terrorist attacks against two Jewish targets in Argentina in the 1990s.
When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rose to power in Iran in 2005 he immediately recognized the benefit in aligning with Venezuela’s firebrand, anti-American populist Hugo Chávez for the purpose of sanctions evasion, terrorist financing, and ideological subversion. Caracas became an Iranian hub to launder money, acquire technology, and carry on a joint effort to undermine U.S. influence regionally and in the Middle East.
Where Iran goes, Hezbollah is sure to follow. It, in turn, exponentially expanded its criminal activities in the Americas, including drug trafficking, money laundering, and illicit smuggling. Margarita Island, for example, located off the coast of Venezuela, has established itself as a safe haven for Hezbollah operatives.
The extent of Hezbollah’s expanding criminality in the Americas was revealed in 2008, when U.S. and Colombian forces took down an international cocaine smuggling and money laundering ring run by a Lebanese kingpin in Bogotá. “The profits from the sales of drugs went to finance Hezbollah,” said Gladys Sánchez, Colombia’s lead investigator, to the Los Angeles Times.
When Chávez succumbed to cancer in 2013, Ahmadinejad hailed him as a “martyr” and declared a day of national mourning in Iran. But with Chávez gone and Ahmadinejad no longer in power, the Venezuela-Iran-Hezbollah nexus has hardly withered; it has only grown and consolidated.
Tehran to Maduro’s rescue
With U.S. sanctions now targeting the regime of Chávez’s handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, it is now Tehran that is coming to the Venezuelan regime’s rescue, with diplomatic and financial support.
In January 2019, Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami led a delegation to attend Maduro’s tainted inauguration ceremony following his disputed re-election in May 2018 (it was this fraudulent event that allowed Guaidó, president of the National Assembly, to assume the interim presidency).
During the visit, Hatami reportedly discussed expanding cooperation and “security issues.” In April 2019, Maduro’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza toured the Middle East, seeking to break Venezuela’s regional isolation by visiting Iranian allies in Syria and Lebanon. Local media reports stated he was also meeting with Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah. In recent months, however, a fuller — and more troubling picture — has revealed itself through U.S. media reports.
In May 2019, The New York Times obtained a cache of internal Venezuelan intelligence documents cataloguing the deep connections between one of Maduro’s closest confidents, Tareck El Aissami, and transnational organized crime networks, including Hezbollah.
El Aissami, the former vice president and now Maduro’s oil minister — he was indicted in March 2019 in a U.S. federal court and sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2017 for narcotics trafficking — has long-standing ties to Hezbollah.
The documents obtained by The New York Times include testimony accusing El Aissami and his father, a Syrian immigrant who worked with Hezbollah on return visits to his country, of recruiting Hezbollah members to help expand spying and drug trafficking networks in the region.
Informants told intelligence agents that El Aissami’s father was involved in a plan to train Hezbollah members in Venezuela, “with the aim of expanding intelligence networks throughout Latin America and at the same time working in drug trafficking.” El Aissami aided the effort by using his authority over residency permits to issue official documents to Hezbollah militants, enabling them to stay in the country.
In June 2019, in an exclusive interview with The Washington Post, Maduro’s former director of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN, in Spanish), Venezuelan Army Major General Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera said he saw intelligence reports indicating that Hezbollah had operations in the Venezuelan cities of Maracay, Nueva Esparta, and Caracas, apparently aimed at illicit business activities to help finance operations in the Middle East. Figuera learned those issues, like official involvement in narcotrafficking and the presence of Colombian armed groups in Venezuela, “were not to be touched.”
Slowly, but surely, the United States is uncovering the layers of Hezbollah’s illicit activities in Venezuela. When the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned individuals in the Maduro regime’s notoriously corrupt food-subsidy program, the Local Supply and Production Committees, better known as CLAP, it named Colombian Alex Nain Saab Moran as the ringleader of a sophisticated network of shell companies, business partners, and family members that laundered hundreds of millions of dollars in illicit profits around the world.
According to an October 2018 report in Colombia’s El Tiempo, investigators suspect there is a Hezbollah connection to this corrupt web. Sayari, a U.S.-based company that scours the web to identify corruption and bad actors in emerging markets, discovered six companies registered in Lebanon with names similar to known CLAP intermediaries. Sayari believes the companies are likely linked to several Hong Kong and Panama-based entities that are known intermediaries for the CLAP program.
Another sector where Hezbollah is reportedly extending its reach is in Venezuela’s illicit mining sector. Due to its chronic shortage of foreign exchange, the Maduro regime has begun plundering the country’s vast stores of gold reserves, resulting in devastating consequences for the environment. In early 2019, opposition lawmaker Américo De Grazia charged that Hezbollah had set up shop in the Orinoco Mining Arc, exploiting gold mines.
In early December, Vanessa Neumann, ambassador to the United Kingdom for Guaidó, repeated the charge, stating that Hezbollah is profiting from illegal gold mining, and then transferring the gold to Turkey and Iran.
According to the U.S. Treasury Department, Saab, in cahoots with the sanctioned El Aissami, is a key figure in liquidating gold and converting it into foreign currency. Turkish entities would purchase gold, after it was flown to the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, from the Maduro regime, depositing the money into accounts in Turkey, which in turn would transfer funds to an account the Central Bank of Venezuela held in Turkey.
A global problem
The fact that a transnational terrorist group like Hezbollah is using Venezuela’s desperate straits to strengthen its operational capabilities means that the problem is not only regional, but global as well. Governments that believe in a secure and stable rules-based international order — such as the European Union and other large democracies such as India — need to join the Lima Group of Latin America governments (plus Canada) and the United States in implementing more robust action against the Maduro regime. They also need to pressure Maduro’s enablers in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana to withdraw their support from that criminal regime.
The stakes are high. Venezuela is no longer just a regional migration problem. It is a consolidating hub for transnational organized crime and the potential source for terrorist activities against the United States-Colombia and in the Middle East. The time for diplomatic admonitions is over; it’s time for concerted action in the way of increased global sanctions and even more aggressive law enforcement activities to mitigate this threat.
*Jose Cardenas served in several senior foreign policy positions during the George W. Bush administration, with a focus on Latin America and the Caribbean.