(CNSNews.com) - Amid growing concern about the illicit drug trade across the U.S.-Mexico border, the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas have been linked to South American drug trafficking organizations–and the money Hezbollah and Hamas make from narco-trafficking is used to finance their organizations, according to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS).
“International terrorist groups, including Hamas and Hezbollah, have also reportedly raised funding for their terrorist activities through linkages formed with DTOs in South America, particularly those operating in the tri-border area (TBA) of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina,” stated CRS in an April 30 report.
As evidence that Hezbollah and Hamas are doing business with South American drug traffickers, CRS referred to comments by Anthony Placido, the assistant administrator for intelligence at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
In testimony before a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on March 3, Placido stated, “Some DTOs based in the tri-border area have ties to radical Islamic terrorist groups such as Hezbollah. It is important to note that this is not an emerging threat per se, but one that has existed since the late 1980s or early 1990s,” he added.
“Investigations into these groups as part of DEA’s Drug Flow Prevention Strategy reveal DTOs are exporting cocaine from South America to Europe and the Middle East,” Placido testified. “There are numerous reports of cocaine proceeds entering the coffers of Islamic Radical Groups (IRG) such as Hezbollah and Hamas in Europe and the Middle East.”
Placido warned of the “danger” resulting from drug trafficking organizations and Islamic radical groups engaging in the lucrative cocaine trade: It “can lead to an unlimited source of cheap and easy revenue to carry out potential terrorist acts,” he said.
Hezbollah is a Lebanese-based terrorist organization with ties to Iran. It was formed in 1982 by Lebanese Shiite Muslim clerics who supported Iran’s Islamic revolution.
Hamas is the Arabic acronym for "Islamic Resistance Movement.” The terrorist group, dedicated to the eradication of Israel, is now based in the Gaza Strip.
Both Hamas and Hezbollah are designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. government.
'Strategic relationships' a concern
The DEA has not yet responded to a request for comment on the CRS report. However, Michael Braun, the DEA’s former administrator and chief of operations, told CNSNews.com, “What concerns me the most is the fact that the cocaine trade brings Hezbollah and Hamas into very close contact with Colombian and Mexican drug trafficking cartels.”
Braun pointed to the potential for terrorist groups to develop “close strategic relationships and partnerships” with drug traffickers. “I believe that there is plenty of open source reporting that clearly reveals Hezbollah has connected with some Mexican drug trafficking cartels,” he added.
Dr. Matthew Levitt, senior fellow and director of terrorism studies at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has testified on Hezbollah’s presence in South America before congressional panels, told CNSNews.com that Hezbollah’s ties to Latin American drug smugglers poses a “significant” threat for U.S. national security.
“In the event that the nuclear confrontation with Iran gets worse rather than better, having a militant organization like Hezbollah on, and even within our border -- it certainly does pose a threat,” said Levitt.
“Hezbollah isn’t targeting the United States right now, but if it chooses to do so it would be very capable of doing so, both in terms of its presence and large financial and logistical presence in South America, particularly in the tri-border area, but [also] in terms of networks they have here in the United States,” he added.
“One of the things that’s of concern is that you see Hezbollah now engaging in trans-Atlantic drug shipments to Africa and failed states there and then north into Europe,” Levitt said.
According to a 2006 report by the House Committee on Homeland Security, "Members of Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based terrorist organization, have already [illegally] entered to the United States across our Southwest border."
The report noted, for example, that in December 2002, “Salim Boughader Mucharrafille, a cafe owner in Tijuana, Mexico, was arrested for illegally smuggling more than 200 Lebanese illegally into the United States, including several believed to have terrorist ties to Hezbollah.”
Furthermore, Robert L. Boatwright, assistant chief patrol agent of the El Paso, Texas sector, has said, “We have apprehended people from countries that support terrorism … they were thoroughly debriefed and there was a tremendous amount of information collected from them.
"These examples highlight the dangerous intersection between traditional transnational criminal activities, such as human and drug smuggling, and more ominous threats to national security.”
Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez was also quoted in the report: “If smugglers can bring in tons of marijuana and cocaine at one time and can smuggle 20 to 30 persons at one time, one can just imagine how easy it would be to bring in 2 to 3 terrorists or their weapons of mass destruction across the river and not be detected. Chances of apprehension are very slim.”
In his March 3 testimony, Placido pointed out that the DEA is working to “identify and track” Islamic radical groups’ networks in Latin America, Europe and the Middle East, “which are reaping the financial benefits from the lucrative European and Middle East cocaine markets.” The key to disrupting those networks will be an attack on the “financial-narcotics nexus,” he said.
In its report, CRS noted that South America is the sole producer of cocaine for the global market. Pointing to Justice Department statistics, CRS said the Mexican and Colombian DTOs combined “generate, remove and launder” between $18 billion and $39 billion in wholesale drug proceeds annually.
A 2004 study by the Naval War College revealed that Hezbollah raises close to $10,000,000 a year in the Tri-border region, although not all of it comes from the drug trade. “U.S. Southern Command estimates that Islamist terrorist groups raise between three hundred million and five hundred million dollars per year in the Triple Frontier and the duty-free zones of Iquique, Colon, Maicao, and Margarita Island [in South America],” the study said.
Dr. Ray Walser, the Heritage Foundation’s senior policy analyst who specializes in Latin America, and Vanda Felbab-Brown, a Brookings Institution expert on national security, agreed that the money Hezbollah and Hamas generate from their links to South American drug trafficking organizations is supplemental – a secondary financial source.
Hezbollah also has been linked to other financial schemes, including taxing the residents in areas where they operate.
Felbab-Brown told CNSNews.com that Hezbollah is more prominent in South America than Hamas is.
Iranian-funded and supported Hezbollah also has a presence outside South America’s tri-border area, in countries such as Venezuela, where socialist President Hugo Chavez, an ally of Iran, spreads anti-American sentiment.
In June 2008, a U.S. Treasury official stated, “It is extremely troubling to see the Government of Venezuela employing and providing safe harbor to Hizballah facilitators and fundraisers.”
Brazil, which is part of the tri-border area, recently has worked to stave off U.S.-backed sanctions against Iran.
The Brookings Institution’s Felbab-Brown told CNSNews.com that Hezbollah’s and Hamas’ “primary connection” is with the Brazilians and the Colombians.