Complex web links Chávez, Iran, Hezbollah, drugs

Flag of HezbollahThe international drug trade in which Costa Rica plays a key transit role is part of a complex relationship between hostile nations and Muslim extremists with the goal of destroying the United States.

That is the scenario outlined before a U.S. House subcommittee last week. Witnesses described a lengthy partnership of Venezuela, its Bolivarian supporters, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, Colombian drug producers and smugglers, Mexican cartels, the governments of Iran and Syria and the terrorist group Hezbollah.

The facts of these relationships are not new, but the House hearing put the cocaine trade in a different perspective, that of a coordinated terrorist threat to the United States, Mexico and Central America.

Those testifying to this threat were Roger F. Noriega, the former diplomat now with the American Enterprise Institute, and Douglas Farah, an author and journalist now with the International Assessment and Strategy Center. Rep. Patrick Meehan, a Republican of Pennsylvania, said the testimony was mainly to educate members of Congress. He chairs the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.

The presence of Hezbollah in Venezuela and Latin America is not new. The U.S. Office of Foreign Asset Control in 2008 designated two Venezuelans, including a diplomat, as facilitators for the Hezbollah terrorist network. Plus the group has been linked to bombings in Argentina in the 1990s.

But last week both Noriega and Farah outlined in detail the connections between Venezuela President Hugo Chávez and Hezbollah and Iranian operatives. Noriega said that Venezuela’s Margarita Island “has eclipsed the infamous Tri-Border Area – the region where Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay come together in South America – as a principal safe haven and center of Hezbollah operations in the Americas.”

He said Hezbollah was proxy for Iran, which has expanded its military links and political relationships.

“As it stands today, I believe the Hezbollah/ Iranian presence in Latin America constitutes a clear threat to the security of the U.S. homeland. They have the motivation, and they have been steadily increasing their capacity to act,” he said. “In addition to operational terrorist activity, Hezbollah also is immersed in criminal activity throughout the region – from trafficking in weapons, drugs, and persons — all of which threaten our security.”

And he said:

“These determined and deadly enemies of the United States have made substantial progress in the last six years to expand their influence and operations in Latin America. Their expanding activities are the result of a conscious, offensive strategy to carry their fight to our doorstep, which receives indispensable support from the regime of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez.”

Noriega is a former assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs.

Farah, in his testimony, added the government of Syria to the mix. That country and Iran have spent more than a decade developing close ties to what he called criminal states in Latin America and also support violent criminal and terrorist groups, he said. Farah added that sophisticated narco tunnels being found along the U.S.-Mexican border strongly resemble those used by Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Farah cited Drug Enforcement Administration sources for the claim that radical Islamic groups like Hezbollah and Hamas are profiting from the cocaine trade to finance terrorist acts. He urged as a U.S. response integrated analytical, intelligence, diplomatic and security approaches driven by a strategic assessment of the threat.

The radicals also are using their Latin connections to launder money, to obtain weapons for use in the Middle East and to recruit, both men said.

Farah noted that Iranian leader Mahmoud Admadinejad has built close relationships with some Latin American governments, including Venezuela where he has visited multiple times. Admadinejad also has visited President Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.

Farah, who was born in Latin America of missionary parents, said that these authoritarian influences are accelerating the weakening of first generation democracies that the United States seeks to support.

All this comes at the expense of U.S. influence, security and trade, including energy security, he said, noting that Venezuela is the fourth largest supplier of U.S. petroleum imports. Despite what appears to be incompatible and irreconcilable world views, the Muslim fundamentalists and Latin socialists are bound by a common aim of the defeat of the United States and a shared view in favor of an authoritarian state that tolerates little dissent and encroaches on all aspects of a citizen’s life, he said, adding:

“The nature of the threat to the United States, then, is not merely the drugs in the criminal pipelines and multiple transnational criminal activities that directly affect us every day, It is the establishment of political and financial influence and military presence by Hezbollah, a terrorist organization that enjoys the state sponsorship of Iran and, to a lesser degree, Syria, in concert with states that are hospitable to its movements and that are replicating its model, particularly south of our border.”

Noriega, in his conclusion, was more direct:

“If our government and responsible partners in Latin America fail to act, I believe there will be an attack on U.S. personnel, installations or interests in the Americas as soon as Hezbollah operatives believe that they are capable of such an operation without implicating their Iranian sponsors in the crime.

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