Iran has expanded its influence in Latin America with a double threat: extremist ideology and alliance with criminal groups. According to analysts, Tehran conducts illicit business with Venezuela, supports the expansion of the terrorist group Hezbollah into the region, and benefits from illegal mining.
“Organized crime is a fundamental piece in exporting jihadism, especially when the Islamic Republic itself is under heavy sanctions,” Luis Fleischman, professor of sociology at Palm Beach State College, Florida, and International Relations expert, told Diálogo.
Fleischman explained that Iran’s activities have three main components: criminal, strategic, and propaganda. “Iran uses its own ships, aircraft, and transport companies to traffic drugs and alcohol, smuggle oil, carry out money laundering, and traffic weapons.”
In the same way that Iran receives money from opium production in Afghanistan in exchange for weapons to the Taliban, in Latin America the country has sent weapons and cash to Venezuela, Fleischman noted. “Venezuela is a mega narco-state that has partnered with Iran to promote its own criminal activities.”
Tehran also benefited from the Nicolás Maduro regime’s illicit gold sales. According to security expert Douglas Farah, Iran received $500 million in gold bars from Maduro in exchange for more than 1.5 million barrels of oil and repairs at state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA, in Spanish) facilities. “Given tightening international sanctions [on Caracas and Tehran], Iran has now become Maduro’s partner of choice in the sale of illicit gold,” Farah said in an August 13, 2020 report from the Atlantic Council.
The criminal component of Iran’s activities in the region includes supporting the Hezbollah terrorist group. “Over the past decades, Hezbollah has built a well-oiled, multibillion-dollar money-laundering and drug-trafficking machine in Latin America,” Emanuele Ottolenghi, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said in a July 14, 2021 report.
Ottolenghi said that one of the key figures in the criminal network is the Lebanese national Nasser Abbas Bahmad, who founded an organization to traffic cocaine from Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, in 2016. The group hid the drug in carbon containers that were exported to countries such as Argentina, Spain, and Malaysia.
Bahmad left Paraguay without a trace in December 2017, and Brazilian, Paraguayan, and U.S. security agencies dismantled his organization in January 2021.
Bahmad’s story “illustrates how Hezbollah established its largest financial laundromat in Latin America,” said Ottolenghi, who estimates that Hezbollah generates at least $300 million annually through its extensive network of illegal businesses in Latin America. The terrorist group receives another $700 million per year from Iran, according to a U.S. Department of the Treasury report from 2018. “The true figure is likely to be several times higher,” the report added.
Hezbollah also raises funds in Latin America using an informal network of Lebanese families. “Hezbollah’s takeover of the local Shiite community is not unique. With Iran’s help, what happened in the TBA (Tri-border area) has occurred across the Shiite Lebanese diaspora,” Ottolenghi said. “But the TBA, with its multibillion-dollar illicit economy, offers a unique opportunity for money-laundering.”
Strategy and propaganda
The strategic component of Iran’s activities in the region poses a direct threat to U.S. security, Fleischman warns.
The Islamic Republic also uses propaganda to convince and co-opt local communities. “Iran has tried to gain influence in the region among the masses, transmitting the message that the struggle of Islam and the struggle of social and political movements for social justice in Latin America are identical,” Fleischman said.
The analyst explains that Iran uses clerics and mosques to spread a concept called “national and popular Islam” to build a bridge between Islam and revolutionary populist movements in Latin America. The goal is to create a Latin American version of Islam, adapted to each country’s circumstances.
Islam might be “red” or communist in Venezuela and Cuba, and it may be “plurinational” (pro-indigenous) in Bolivia and Ecuador, the expert explained. “Some indigenous groups have identified with Hezbollah and even adopted the name. An example are members of the Wayuu Guajira tribe, who created a branch of Hezbollah,” Fleischman said.