Reevaluating the Threat: Terrorism in Latin America

Attacking drug cartel infrastructure indirectly, creating judicial frameworks on terrorism, and raising terrorism as national security concerns—irrespective of U.S.-Israel-EU pressures—should be top of mind for Latin American governments. Terror, whether ideologically or financially motivated, only undermines democracy.


Source: World Jewish Congress.

The Israel-Hamas war has undoubtedly been a reason for contention across international discourse. In the Western Hemisphere, it has highlighted the intricate ties of influence, trade, and criminal activity between threat actors like transnational criminal organizations, financiers, and Iranian proxies working on both sides of the Atlantic. From money laundering, to drug-trafficking, to Iran-sponsored propaganda, Latin American governments should beware the presence of financial and military supporters of political extremism and terrorism in their own territories more now than ever.

On November 12, the Brazilian police reported having arrested a third individual suspected of ties to Iran-proxy, Lebanon-based militant group and Hamas-ally Hezbollah. The other two, arrested on November 8 with cooperation from Israeli intelligence, allegedly planned to carry out an attack on Israeli and Jewish targets in Brazil. Facing charges of formation or incorporation to a terrorist organization and preparation of terrorist acts, the incident proved that Latin America’s connections to terrorism do not exist in a vacuum.

Hezbollah, particularly, has a menacing history in the continent. In 2019, Argentina was the first Latin American country to designate the group a terrorist organization, 25 years after a suicide attack and bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires left 85 victims. To this day, none of the from Lebanon or Iran. Nonetheless, the operatives and networks that orchestrated the event were, in a rather belated aligning move,

More remarkably, the attack triggered a series of investigations. Before a timely assassination, the main prosecutor of the attack, Alberto Nisman, was able to publish a 500-page report accusing the Iranian regime of infiltrating several South American countries by “building local clandestine intelligence stations designed to sponsor, foster, and execute terrorist attacks.” As pressure to arrest the mastermind of this campaign proved impossible, policymakers raised questions about the extent of Iran and Hezbollah’s radical ideologies and terrorist schemes spread to the Americas.

While Argentina (alongside Paraguay, Colombia, Honduras, and Guatemala) has been clear in designating Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, the region remains far from a unanimous response to terrorist threats of this order. It was thus unsurprising that, in 2014, the government of Peru had trouble pressing charges against a Hezbollah member who tried to scheme a terrorist attack in Lima despite detailed evidence. Two trials later, the individual served six years in prison only for fraud and was absolved this year of any terrorism charges. Peru, like Brazil, must consider following up on the terrorism designations of their neighbors, delineating limits to these criminal organizations.

Beyond designations, the role of Latin American states in sheltering extremists has been nonetheless manifest. On the one hand, the center of Hezbollah’s operations since at least the 1990s has been well-known to be in the Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil. There, a large number of Arab and Muslim immigrants are more likely to be recruited, and a free trade zone still provides a lawless environment for financial crime and drug trafficking opportunities. In addition to Hezbollah, U.S. government reports say Al-Qaeda and Hamas have also had a presence in the region and that halted attacks on the Mexican Senate and President Vicente Fox in 2001 were plotted there.

Hezbollah still stands as a legitimate military and political actor under Lebanese law, and while they are part of Iran’s network of proxies, they also have their own distinct worldview and goals. This makes the Latin American response to Hezbollah and Iran—another state with trading partners in the region—variable. In addition, connections between governments in the region and terrorist groups further complicate diplomatic collaborations and the development of solutions to the problem. For example, the Paraguayan government and banks prefer to ignore and downplay their role as a tax and money laundering haven for Hezbollah; earlier this year, Brazil allowed Iranian warships to dock in Rio; and, in 2007, Argentinian officials allegedly enabled Iran to fund their political campaigns in exchange for cover-ups of terrorism.

More widely acknowledged, the roles of Venezuela and drug cartels in terrorism development cannot be overlooked. In 2010, reports surged that Chavez and Maduro not only had hosted Hezbollah in Margarita Island, but diplomatic and National Assembly members directly managed the organization’s finances and influence in the region. In a more recent case in 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Syrian-Venezuelan and former politician Adel El Zebayar for allegedly working with Maduro and several top leaders on a narcoterrorism conspiracy that involved cartels in Mexico, Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah.

As illustrated, Hezbollah’s interests often overlap with those of the cartels. Though not yet designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations but sporadically arrested on terrorism charges and lacking ideological motivations, drug cartels similarly wreak havoc, committing targeted murders and kidnappings. A segment from a Univision documentary in 2011 showed that Iranian extremists had been ordered to travel to Mexico to recruit members of the infamous drug cartel Los Zetas to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington. Other reports from U.S. and European law enforcement in 2016 pointed to collaborations between South American cartels and Hezbollah in supplying large quantities of cocaine to the European and American drug markets, hence funding terrorist efforts.

While Iran exercises a significant amount of influence over Hezbollah’s operations in the Middle East, there isn’t any conclusive evidence that it has provided direct support or backing to Hezbollah’s activities in Latin America. Latin American governments must be nonetheless reminded of Iran’s record and interests in the region and act cautiously. Creating a legal framework that prosecutes terrorists head-on and investigating any extremist associations across government bodies and cabinets should be a priority. Furthermore, governments expose their systems to further corruption by ignoring reports of criminal associations with cartels.

Unequivocally, Israel and the United States also pose their own challenges in Latin America in promoting their interests. In responding to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, it is reasonable for Latin American governments to act in support of the Palestinian people and scrutinize Israel’s military campaign. However, the tremendous and catastrophic impact that a terrorist attack would have anywhere in the hemisphere should not come without warning. Correspondingly, condemning Hamas’ military branch as an ally of both Hezbollah and Iran could be a natural prevention measure in repelling future bad actors.

Latin American countries should take terrorism seriously. Sanctions, law enforcement investigations, and fighting disinformation campaigns could result in several positive outcomes, such as a benefit in their relationship with the European Union, the U.S., and other democratic partners. Attacking drug cartel infrastructure indirectly, creating judicial frameworks on terrorism, and raising terrorism as national security concerns—irrespective of U.S.-Israel-EU pressures—should be top of mind for Latin American governments. Terror, whether ideologically or financially motivated, only undermines democracy.


Benjamin Jaimes is an intern at Global Americans and a journalist for MLex Market Insight’s regulatory newsroom. He holds a degree in Political Science with a specialization in Political Theory and International Relations from Columbia University.

Global Americans takes pride in serving as a platform that offers in-depth analyses on various political, economic, environmental, and foreign affairs issues in the Western Hemisphere. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Americans or anyone associated with it, and publication by Global Americans does not constitute an endorsement of all or any part of the views expressed.

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