While most American attention to Hezbollah has focused on the Middle East, the militant Islamic group with ties to Iran has been gaining a strong foothold in Latin America, experts said at a House hearing.
“I believe the Hezbollah and Iranian presence in Latin America constitutes a clear threat to the security of the U.S. homeland,” Roger Noriega, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said Thursday in front of the House Homeland Security Committee. “They have the motivation, and they have been steadily increasing their capacity to act.”
Formed in 1982 to oppose Israel’s presence in Lebanon during that country’s civil war, Hezbollah seeks to oust the Israeli state. The U.S. and three other countries – Israel, the Netherlands and Canada – label Hezbollah a terrorist group. The European Union does not. Members, who adhere to a radical interpretation of Islam, have been accused of masterminding several bombings in the early 1990s in Argentina that killed more than 100 people, as well as a string of bombings in the 1980s that killed hundreds, including Americans. The group denies plotting the attacks.
“We must remember that before September 11, Hezbollah, not al-Qaeda, was responsible for more American deaths than any other terrorist organization,” Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Patrick Meehan said.
Hezbollah is not just in Lebanon – members have been in Latin America for decades and some function near the U.S. border with Mexico, training drug cartels in military tactics, according to Janice Kephart of the Center for Immigration Studies, who was not at the House committee discussion. (Iran said to have cut Hezbollah aid by 40%)
Investigative journalist and Senior Fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center Douglas Farah said Hezbollah is establishing roots in parts of Latin America and blurring lines between terrorism and criminal activity. He noted the group’s alliance with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at a congressional meeting Thursday.
Both Chavez and Hezbollah are “bound by a common aim of the asymmetric defeat of the U.S., and a shared view in favor of an authoritarian state that tolerates little dissent,” Farah said.
In April, the U.S. commander in charge of overseeing efforts in Latin America, Gen. Douglas Fraser, testified at another congressional hearing that he was concerned about Iran’s growing presence in the region. Hezbollah receives funding from Iran, and Iran works closely with Venezuela.
Iran built four more embassies in South and North America in the last five years – the country now has 10 in the Americas. It also has bilateral agreements with a number of American countries other than Venezuela.
But California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier said there’s no evidence to assume a triangular relationship between the three.
“We do not know the true impact of Iranian influence on Hezbollah’s activities in the region, particularly in Venezuela where President Chavez continues to strengthen ties with Iran,” Speier said in a statement.
Foreign policy consultant and writer James Bosworth, who blogs at bloggingsbyboz.com and lives in Managua, Nicaragua, says Hezbollah lacks a large enough presence in Latin America for Congress to divert its attention from other Latin American concerns.
“There’s a real security emergency in Latin America – it is the region with the highest level of violent crime in the world,” Bosworth said in a phone interview. “And none of that has to do with Hezbollah.”
However, Florida Republican Rep. Connie Mack is spearheading an effort to get Venezuela on the U.S. list of countries that sponsor terrorist activity. There’s a House resolution pending.
“The State Department said they would name Venezuela a state sponsor of terrorism as well as enforce consequential sanctions on their state run oil company,” Mack said in a statement. “Further delay by the Obama Administration is unacceptable and will only continue to coddle [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chavez.”