Brazilian security forces are shining the light on the relationship some Shiite communities that inhabit the Triple-Border shared by Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay with Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah, through illegal financial operations and smuggling.
“Given the presence of these groups, cooperation measures to monitor terrorism, for example in the area of the Triple-Border, are in force,” Juan Battaleme, professor of International Relations at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) in Argentina, told Diálogo about the security protocols of South American countries.
Christian Vianna, special agent of the Brazilian Federal Police and undersecretary of Intelligence and Integration of the State Secretariat of Justice and Public Security of Minas Gerais, highlighted this link during the special post-graduate course “Terrorism and the Radicalization of Violence in the Southern Cone,” organized by the UBA’s Center for Studies on Hemispheric Security, Terrorism, and Financial Crime that ended in early December.
Specialists in terrorism and security spoke at the seminar, which was supported by Buenos Aires’ Financial Intelligence Research Foundation (FININT), Argentine news site Infobae reported.
“Around 1 million Lebanese Shiites in Foz do Iguaçu, São Paulo, and Curitiba, maintain close ties with Hezbollah,” Vianna said, according to Infobae. “Operation Mendaz, in 2015, discovered that a network of Islamic State sympathizers illegally moved for five years more than $10 million, which were bound for Lebanon.”
The criminals had companies that they used to launder money from activities such as smuggling, which then sent the assets to Lebanon and from there to Syria, Vianna explained.
In addition, Infobae reported, during Operation Hashtag, authorities uncovered the plans of 10 Brazilians who were not of Arab descent, but who were radicalized. In early 2015 they formed a network using Facebook and Telegram and began planning a scheme they would tentatively carry out during the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016.
The extremists were arrested 15 days before the start of that event to be tried and convicted for promoting a terrorist organization, preparatory act, criminal association, recruitment for terrorist act, and corruption of minors. The group intended to add chemicals to the water tanks in the Olympic Village to poison the athletes.
On November 9, 2023, during Operation Trapiche, the Brazilian Federal Police arrested two alleged terrorists linked to Hezbollah, amid the climate of alert following the October 7 Hamas attack against Israel, Argentine newspaper La Nación reported.
“Two Brazilians who had been recruited by Hezbollah and were financed by the terrorist group were arrested in São Paulo,” La Nación reported. “In addition, 11 search and seizure warrants were executed in São Paulo, Minas Gerais, and Brasilia; and there are arrests orders for two individuals who are in Lebanon.”
According to the investigation, the group planned to carry out attacks against Jewish buildings in Brazil, including synagogues.
The FBI had alerted Brazilian authorities on November 1 that people suspected of having ties to Hezbollah were planning to carry out terrorist attacks in Brazil, which led to the arrests, Agencia Brasil reported.
Juan Félix Marteau, president of FININT, told Infobae that there is a risk map on the financing of terrorism and transnational organized crime that “warns us of the need for our countries to have adequate preventive and repressive mechanisms and to act cooperatively.”
In the Triple-Border, several investigations have found links between organized crime and terrorist networks. Illicit trade in the region includes drug trafficking, smuggling, arms trafficking, human trafficking, wildlife smuggling, counterfeit tobacco and alcohol products, and gold trafficking, among others.
Hezbollah’s presence in Latin America has been documented since the 1990s. The organization, which controls much of southern Lebanon with the support of Iran, expanded throughout the world, sheltered by the Lebanese communities resulting from the exodus caused by the civil war between 1975 and 1990.
“It’s important to emphasize that not all members of these communities participate in the activities of support and financing of Hezbollah, but whenever there is the presence of networks linked to that organization, they are mixed and mimicked in those Shiite communities,” said Emanuele Ottolenghi, of the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), German news network Deutsche Welle (DW) reported.
Juan Martens, a researcher at Paraguay’s National University of Pilar, said that the porous nature of the Tri-Border region makes it “a paradise” for criminal organizations, DW reported.
For this reason, the keys to guaranteeing security are to control the borders, increase investment in intelligence, expand cooperation between the three countries involved, and have more resources to fight the criminal activities that finance terrorism.
“The important thing is that there is joint monitoring of the combination of these factors, which are organized crime and terrorism,” said Battaleme, who recommends improving communication between all parties and working on this common problem despite the existing political differences. “The failure is not in the lack of cooperation, but in the mechanisms of each country to know what is happening within their own borders,” he concluded.