Terrorists, cocaine and power: a war in Venezuela

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For more than a decade, academics and analysts have warned that Venezuela, which may soon be Latin America’s next failed state, is emerging as a regional hub for transnational crime. President Maduro’s authoritarian regime, under increasing pressure from the near collapse of Venezuela’s oil industry, an economic crisis and strict US sanctions, has increasingly turned to illicit businesses as a means of generating revenue. income he urgently needs. Caracas not only turned to Russia and China as lenders of last resort but allowed a Shiite fundamentalist Iran will extend its influence in Venezuela. This includes allowing Tehran’s proxy organization Hezbollah to establish significant illicit operations in the petro-state. It is recognized, by security analysts, that Hezbollah, with the support of Tehran, has built a well-oiled and sophisticated criminal network in Venezuela, with tentacles that head towards neighboring Colombia and other countries of the region. The presence of this organization not only fuels regional instability and challenges US hegemony, but increases the risk of new conflicts and terrorist attacks. Hezbollah, which the United States has designated as a terrorist organization, is an organization backed by Iran. Lebanese Shiite political party and militant organization that has become an important proxy for Tehran in its struggle for domination in the Middle East. The militant group followed Iran to Latin America, creating effective intelligence and criminal networks in the volatile region. Hezbollah has actively sought to co-opt and control local Shia communities in Latin America, including recruiting supporters from the Shia Muslim diaspora in Argentina, Colombia and Venezuela. In 1992, Hezbollah bombed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and, two years later in the same city, a Jewish community center, killing a total of 114 people. The militant political organization is actively involved in a range of illicit activities across Latin America, with an emphasis on cocaine trafficking, which is an increasingly lucrative source of income.

Significance of cocaine trafficking for Hezbollah underlined by group sending high-ranking agent Nasser Abbas Bahmad establish (Spanish) a cocaine smuggling ring in Paraguay in what is called the tri-border zone where Brazil and Argentina meet Paraguay. While this operation was finally dismantled by Paraguayan and American authorities in early 2021, Hezbollah is still heavily involved in cocaine trafficking as well as money laundering in Latin America. The US-nominated terrorist group obtains the lucrative illegal drug from Colombia, which is the world’s largest producer. According to the latest UN report, Colombian cocaine production in 2020 reached a record 1,222 metric tons, 7.5% more than the 1,137 metric tons produced a year earlier. Although there are no clear figures available, it is estimated that Hezbollah generates at least $ 300 million in annual revenue through its network of illicit activities in Latin America, much of which comes from cocaine trafficking. and money laundering.

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Venezuela, in part because of its proximity to Colombia, has become an important operational hub for Hezbollah in Latin America where, along with its sponsor Iran, it has become a key supporter of the increasingly besieged President Maduro. . This happened over a considerable period of time from when Hugo Chavez became president and launched his Bolivarian Socialist Revolution. Maduro’s current petroleum minister, Tareck El Aissami, of Lebanese Iraqi origin, figure prominently in a series of programs that have helped Hezbollah strengthen its presence in Venezuela. When El Aissami was Venezuelan Minister of Interior and Justice, it is alleged that he used his authority to grant Venezuelan passports to Hezbollah operatives arriving in Venezuela from Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. It also figures prominently in US authorities’ money laundering and cocaine trafficking investigations. The US State Department alleges that El Aissami supervised and financed large shipments of cocaine from Venezuela which, along with other illicit activities, led him to be charged with various criminal offenses by the ministry American Justice. Other Venezuelan figures, including President Maduro, are also charged with various offenses, including narco-terrorism, corruption and drug trafficking.

Over the past two decades, Venezuela has become an important dispatch center for cocaine. The breaking of the Venezuelan state, the collapse of government institutions and the massive economic and humanitarian crisis that ravaged the country have allowed crime and corruption to flourish virtually unchecked. The highly porous nature of the Venezuelan Colombian border facilitates the flow of people, weapons, drugs and other illicit goods between the two countries. U.S. officials estimate that up to 20% of all cocaine hydrochloride produced in Colombia is shipped to Venezuela where it is then sent to the United States and Western Europe. Drug trafficking and the support that the Chavez and Maduro regimes have given to Colombian left-wing guerrillas have allowed illegal non-state armed groups to flourish in Venezuela. As the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC – Spanish initials) demobilized in 2017, various dissident groups established strongholds in areas bordering Venezuela. The last left-wing guerrilla group organized in Colombia, the National Liberation Army (ELN – Spanish initials), has aggressively expanded its operations in Venezuela. de facto government. This only further facilitates smuggling, extortion and illegal gold mining in the country. All of this created a significant opportunity for Hezbollah to step up its lucrative illicit operations in the near-failing state.

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Tehran-backed Hezbollah is a key supporter of Maduro’s authoritarian regime. The activist group provides an ideal regional proxy for engaging in illegal activities, including cocaine trafficking and terrorism. Hezbollah is also actively co-opting and recruiting from the large Lebanese and Shiite diaspora in Venezuela and Colombia. Hezbollah is an influential voice among the various family clans that dominate the Syrian and Lebanese communities in Venezuela and Colombia, which have become important political and business players in both countries. Many of these clans are firmly entrenched in Maduro’s regime and in Venezuela’s rapidly expanding illicit economy, with some being full players in cocaine trafficking and other criminal activity. Many also have considerable influence in neighboring Colombia, which is Hezbollah’s main source of cocaine. This relationship building and recruiting not only strengthens the political influence of Hezbollah and Tehran, but the militant political organization’s revenues which are then intended to strengthen its influence in Lebanon and conduct operations in the Middle East.

Hezbollah is a powerful proxy weapon that Tehran can use to challenge American hegemony in Latin America by allowing Iran to engage in criminal and terrorist acts without being directly linked to such activities. The militant organization’s transnational criminal networks allow it to profit from illicit activities and launder proceeds, generating a crucial source of income. Hezbollah’s growing regional power and influence make it an important ally for Venezuela’s failing government. This gives Tehran, which is a crucial supporter of Maduro, greater influence within OPEC as a key buyer of Venezuelan crude oil. In addition to amplifying regional insecurity and challenging Washington’s geopolitical supremacy in its own backyard, Hezbollah’s growing influence amplifies the risk of further terrorist attacks in Latin America. All of this shows why Washington needs to re-evaluate its use of sanctions against Venezuela, especially after reviewing its failure to initiate regime change while creating an environment conducive to the flourishing of terrorist and transnational criminal organizations.

By Matthew Smith for Oil Octobers

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