Sunday marked the 27th anniversary of Hizballah’s bloody bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which demonstrated to the world the long reach of the Lebanon-based terrorist group. But its presence in Latin America goes far beyond plotting attacks: located on the continent is the heart of its global criminal empire, which Hizballah uses to supplement the income it receives from its masters in Tehran. Emanuele Ottolenghi, drawing on detailed and extensive research, explains the inner workings of the group’s illicit operations, and its recent attempt to relocate networks disrupted by the U.S. and Europe to the tri-border area (TBA), where Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil meet.
Over the past decades, Hizballah has built a well-oiled, multibillion-dollar money-laundering and drug-trafficking machine in Latin America that cleans organized crime’s ill-gotten gains through multiple waypoints in the Western hemisphere, West Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Traditionally, Hizballah used the TBA’s illicit economy as a hub for money-laundering—less so for cocaine trafficking. For years, Hizballah-linked drug traffickers in the TBA moved only relatively small quantities of cocaine. Multi-ton shipments are another story.
That, Ottolenghi argues, has started to change, as the Shiite militant group has expanded its operations into shipping large amounts of cocaine across the globe.
Why would drug cartels embrace the business arm of a Shiite radical millenarian terror group? The short answer is that purveyors of dirty money are ecumenical, and Hizballah itself has never been picky about the bona fides of its financial partners. In fact, U.S. court cases reveal that Hezbollah has assiduously cultivated relations with organized crime across the world for some time. These relations are crucial to its operations.
Hizballah established its largest financial laundromat in Latin America, and now, despite efforts by U.S. and South American law-enforcement agencies, it is running at full speed and bankrolling the arming of enemies of America and Israel.
By constructing a financial laundromat run through local supporters [in Paraguay], Hizballah has become a permanent staple of the landscape, providing logistical and financial services to organized crime—for a fee, of course. And given Paraguay’s widespread corruption—the country ranks among the most corrupt in the world—it was easy to buy friends in key positions in law enforcement, the judiciary, government, and the media to keep the wheels greased and turning.