In 2007, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) wiretap of the notorious Medellín cartel picked up a conversation in Arabic. With further investigation, the DEA discovered that the Iran-backed terrorist group Hizballah was arranging shipments of cocaine from Colombia to the Middle East. This operation turned out to be only a small part of a sprawling network of criminal enterprises in South America, writes Emanuele Ottolenghi:
Hizballah [in part] depends financially on Iranian largesse. But its growing budget—in itself a consequence of Hizballah’s expanding role in the region as an Iranian terror proxy—means that outside sources of income have become more important in the past two decades. Hizballah has financed itself not only by leveraging expatriate communities through charitable donations, but also by recruiting members of the Lebanese diaspora to build an elaborate global money-laundering operation . . . for the benefit of organized crime. Profits from such schemes help finance Hezbollah’s operations to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
Nearly a decade later, the U.S. and its European allies had managed to arrest a number of perpetrators, but Hizballah’s criminal enterprises continue:
[A few years ago], Castro-Chavista anti-American regimes that aligned themselves with Tehran were on the rise, with their influence reaching even Paraguay, a traditionally center-right conservative country. . . . Worse: some of these governments increasingly merged with organized-crime cartels to take a cut from the booming cocaine trade. Washington could go after Hizballah in Colombia all it wanted, but in many other regional capitals, its agents got the cold shoulder—Venezuela and Bolivia both DEA agents in 2005 and 2009, respectively. When the Obama White House turned its sights on a grand bargain with Iran, what was already arduous under the prevailing regional politics of the time became even more difficult.
Tellingly, some of the fraudulent transactions [conducted by Hizballah money-launderers] went through cut-outs in the United States, mimicking a pattern already seen in past investigations against Hizballah’s narcoterrorism illicit-finance networks. Given that the United States is both a profitable market for cocaine and Hizballah’s mortal enemy, it comes as no surprise that Hizballah financiers would wish to make a buck here, in the process helping cartels flood U.S. markets and pollute the financial system through laundering operations.
These vulnerabilities make it clear that . . . hundreds of companies implicated in suspicious transactions both in the U.S. and in [Latin America] continue to operate, carrying on with their trade.