In the midst of the Israel-Hamas war, the presence of Iran-backed networks in Latin America raises concerns. The conflict not only threatens stability in the Middle East, but also poses risks for the Western Hemisphere, where these groups could plot and launch attacks.
To carry out these operations, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps relies on the Quds Force, which operates autonomously and is in charge of financing terrorist groups, as well as carrying out assassinations to eliminate those who might hinder Tehran’s objectives, Italian magazine Osservatorio – Focus per la Cultura della Sicurezza reported.
The Quds Force assumes responsibility for operations abroad, supporting militias, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in Gaza, the Houthi movement in Yemen, and various militias in Syria, Bahrain, and Iraq, among other places, the magazine reported.
Expansion in Latin America
According to Jorge Serrano, a security expert and member of the team of advisors to Peru’s Congressional Intelligence Commission, the Quds Force established operations in Latin America with Venezuela’s support during the Hugo Chávez regime. “Since then, it expanded its clandestine operations in several countries,” Serrano told Diálogo on November 13.
One prominent offshoot is Unit 840, an elite corps with a flexible operational structure and worldwide presence, Argentine platform Infobae reported. This division relies on local criminal groups to carry out actions such as assassinations and kidnappings.
In 2021, in Colombia, for instance, Unit 840 led by Iranian terrorist Rahmat Asadi, coordinated an attack against two Israeli businessmen with the collaboration of local actors. The assassination attempt failed yet highlighted the group’s ability to use regional resources in its international operations, Chilean newspaper Noticias de Bariloche reported.
“It’s crucial to recognize that these groups are dedicated to hybrid warfare, cyber-intelligence, and terrorist attacks,” Alejandro Cassaglia, an expert in terrorism and organized crime and professor at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, told Diálogo.
Serrano stressed that these groups have not only demonstrated their attack capabilities, but also forge strategic alliances with Russia, China, and North Korea. According to Serrano, this collaboration significantly raises the level of threat that Iran and its militias pose to the Americas.
“The presence of Iran and the Quds Force [in Latin America] is not just a potential risk, but a palpable reality,” Cassaglia said. “These criminals have total freedom of movement in the region, they have Venezuelan passports and are usually of Lebanese or Persian origin.”
Venezuelan criminal group Tren de Aragua, which according to Serrano has Iran’s support, extended its influence from Venezuela to Chile, controlling the Pacific corridor and consolidating its presence in countries such as Peru, evidencing the complexity of Iran’s operations in collaboration with local groups in the region.
Following the recent Hamas attack against Israel, several countries, including Argentina, beefed up security measures for Jewish communities and buildings for fear of possible attacks, as anti-Semitic threats and attacks have increased worldwide, Argentine daily La Nación reported on November 8.
On November 4 the Brazilian Federal Police (PF) arrested two Brazilians allegedly tied to Hezbollah, who were planning to attack Jewish community buildings, including synagogues. On November 12, the PF arrested another man also suspected of having ties to Hezbollah, Reuters reported. According to Brazil’s O Globo newspaper, there are two other individuals wanted in Lebanon with arrest requests pending in connection with these cases.
Cassaglia highlighted the group’s significant presence in the Triple-Border between Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil, where it uses front businesses to conceal various activities, extending beyond terrorist operations. In September 2018, for instance, businessman Assad Ahmad Barakat, from the Barakat Clan, and a top Hezbollah financier in South America, was arrested in a Brazilian city on the Triple-Border. Hezbollah also plays a crucial role in organized crime in the region, especially drug trafficking through Iran and its allies, consolidating skills in money laundering and financing.
“The threat posed by Iran’s allied militias reached its most critical point. They are prepared to carry out attacks as determined, targeting countries with more fragile security levels such as Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Panama, or Costa Rica. Their objective is to impact through these countries the real enemies: the interests of the United States, Israel, and the United Kingdom,” Serrano said.
“Since the world became globalized, terrorism and crime have also become globalized, which means that nothing is really far off,” Cassaglia said.
“Neutralizing this threat requires a joint and realistic approach between states,” Serrano concluded.