Terrorists, cocaine, and power: A war within Venezuela

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Hezbollah, which the U.S. has designated as a terrorist organization, is gaining control within Venezuela as the once-great oil state teeters on the brink. The failure of government institutions and security forces within the country has left a power vacuum that criminals are rushing to fill. Cocaine smuggling and gold mining are providing Hezbollah with revenue and providing Iran with regional influence, something Washington should consider.

By Oil PriceMatthew Smith

Oct 13, 2021

For over a decade academics and analysts have warned that Venezuela, which could soon be Latin America’s next failed state, is evolving into a regional hub for transnational crime. President Maduro’s authoritarian regime, under rising pressure from the near-collapse of Venezuela’s oil industry, an economic crisis, and strict U.S. sanctions, has increasingly turned to illicit enterprises as a means of generating urgently-needed income. Caracas has not only turned to Russia and China as lenders of last resort but has allowed a fundamentalist Shia Iran to extend its influence into Venezuela. This includes allowing Teheran’s proxy organization Hezbollah to establish significant illicit operations in the petrostate. It is acknowledged, by security analysts, that Hezbollah, with Teheran’s support, has built a well-oiled and sophisticated criminal network in Venezuela, with tentacles running into neighboring Colombia and other regional countries. The presence of this organization not only fuels regional instability and challenges U.S. hegemony but heightens the risk of further conflict and terrorist attacks. Hezbollah, which the U.S. has designated as a terrorist organization, is an Iran-backed Lebanese Shia political party and militant organization that has become an important proxy for Teheran in its fight for dominance in the Middle East. The militant group followed Iran into Latin America, building effective intelligence and criminal networks in the unstable region. Hezbollah has actively sought to coopt and control local Shia communities in Latin America, including recruiting sympathizers from within 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 a focus on cocaine trafficking, which is an increasingly lucrative source of revenue.

The importance of cocaine trafficking to Hezbollah is highlighted by the group sending a high-ranking operative Nasser Abbas Bahmad to establish (Spanish) a cocaine smuggling ring in Paraguay at what is known as the tri-border area where Brazil and Argentina meet Paraguay. While that operation was eventually dismantled by Paraguayan and U.S. authorities by early 2021, Hezbollah is still heavily engaged in cocaine trafficking as well as money laundering in Latin America. The U.S.-designated terror group obtains the lucrative illegal drug from Colombia, which is the world’s largest producer. According to the latest UN report, Colombia’s 2020 cocaine production soared to a record 1,222 metric tons, 7.5% more than the 1,137 metric tons manufactured a year earlier. While there are no clear figures available, it is estimated that Hezbollah is generating at least $300 million in annual revenue from its network of illicit activities in Latin America, with much of that being earned from cocaine trafficking and money laundering.

Venezuela, partly because of its proximity to Colombia, has become an important operational hub for Hezbollah in Latin America where it, along with its sponsor Iran, has become a key supporter of an increasingly embattled President Maduro. That has occurred over a considerable period starting when Hugo Chavez became president and launched his socialist Bolivarian Revolution. Maduro’s current Minister of Petroleum, Tareck El Aissami who is of Iraqi Lebanese descent, figures prominently in a range of schemes that aided Hezbollah to strengthen its presence in Venezuela. When El Aissami was Venezuela’s Minister of Interior and Justice it is alleged that he used his authority to grant Venezuelan passports to members of Hezbollah arriving in Venezuela from Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. He also figures prominently in money laundering and cocaine trafficking investigations conducted by U.S. authorities. The U.S. Department of State alleges that El Aissami has overseen and financed large shipments of cocaine from Venezuela which, along with other illicit activities, has led to him being charged with various criminal offenses by the U.S. Department of Justice. Other senior Venezuelan figures, including President Maduro, are also charged with a range of offenses including narco-terrorism, corruption, and drug trafficking.

Over the last two decades, Venezuela has become an important transnational shipping hub for cocaine. The breakdown of the Venezuelan state, the collapse of government institutions, and the massive economic and humanitarian crisis engulfing the country have allowed crime and corruption to flourish virtually unchecked. The highly porous nature of the Colombian Venezuelan border facilitates the flow of people, arms, 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 trafficked to the U.S. and Western Europe. The drug trade and the support that the Chavez and Maduro regimes provided to Colombian leftist guerillas have allowed non-state illegal armed groups to thrive in Venezuela. While the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC – Spanish initials) demobilized in 2017, various dissident groups have established strongholds in Venezuela’s border regions. Colombia’s latest organized leftist guerilla group the National Liberation Army (ELN – Spanish initials) has aggressively expanded its operations in Venezuela with it now thought to have a presence in at least 13 of Venezuela’s 23 states and in some communities is even acting as a de-facto government. That is only further facilitating the smuggling, extortion, and illegal gold mining in the country. All of this has created a significant opportunity for Hezbollah to ramp up its lucrative illicit operations in the near-failed state. 

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