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Politics

Foiled Terror Plot in Brazil: A Reminder of Iran’s Expanding Presence in Latin America

November 23, 2023
Florencia Montaruli
8 min read
Brazilian officers standing at Federal Police headquarters
Brazilian officers standing at Federal Police headquarters

The recent arrest in Brazil of two people suspected of being linked to a scheme involving the recruitment of Brazilian citizens by Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy, to orchestrate attacks against members of the country’s Jewish community once again raised the alarms over the Lebanese terrorist group’s presence in Latin America.

On November 8, the Federal Police of Brazil said they had launched a counterterrorism operation that led to the apprehension of two individuals in the state of Sao Paulo, which is home to the biggest local Jewish community. 

The two detained suspects are Brazilians. One of them was apprehended at Guarulhos Airport upon landing from Lebanon.

Arrest warrants were issued for two additional suspects believed to be in Lebanon. 

Police also carried out 11 search and seizure warrants in Minas Gerais, São Paulo, and the Federal District.

According to investigative sources and the newspaper O Globo, the suspects were financed and recruited by Hezbollah and planned to carry out attacks against buildings of Brazil’s Jewish community, including synagogues.

Hezbollah’s Presence in Brazil

The antiterrorist operation occurred a month after Laura Richardson, the commander of the US Southern Command, whose area of responsibility encompasses Central and South America and the Caribbean, warned about  the "evil intentions" of Hezbollah and Iran in Brazil. 

Hezbollah is not considered a terrorist organization by Brazil. Experts believe that Hezbollah cells could be active in the country thanks to the Iranian network, as it already happened in the attacks on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA), which claimed more than 100 lives.

Mohsen Rabbani, a man who had multiple covers in Argentina, ranging from a Shia cleric to the cultural attaché at the Iranian embassy in Buenos Aires, is considered the main suspect in the AMIA attack.

According to Emanuele Ottolenghi of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy (FDD), a US neoconservative advocacy organization, Hezbollah's partner in Brazil is none other than the First Capital Command (PCC), the largest and most powerful criminal gang in the South American country. Hezbollah and the PCC run the largest tobacco smuggling organization in Latin America.

Brazilian authorities believe that Hezbollah and the CCP started their relations in 2006, initially in the field of drug trafficking and then expanding their cooperation to tobacco. Brazil's Federal Police have claimed that Hezbollah helps the CCP obtain weapons and access smuggling networks outside Latin America and, in return, receives CCP protection for inmates of Lebanese origin imprisoned in Brazil.

Links With Venezuela

Venezuela is Hezbollah's bastion in Latin America. During President Nicolás Maduro’s visit to Iran in June 2022, the sides signed a 20-year "strategic cooperation" treaty covering the energy and finance sectors, as well as some “defense projects.”

This year, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Caracas, where he and Maduro signed cooperation agreements on trade, energy and defence.

The alliance between Iran and Venezuela was built in the 2000s, during the presidencies of Hugo Chávez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This alliance was significant because, after Interpol issued red notices for those accused of involvement in the AMIA attack, Rabbani abandoned his position as “cultural attaché” in Buenos Aires and took refuge in Caracas.

And in 2007, Ghazi Nasr al-Din, a Lebanese naturalized Venezuelan, was appointed to the second-highest position at the Venezuelan Embassy in Syria. The following year, the embassy issued 10,000 passports.

Nasr al-Din not only managed the Venezuelan diplomatic mission in Damascus but also activated the purchase of properties on Venezuela’s Margarita Island, known today for being the bastion of Hezbollah operations.

Nasr al-Din’s brother, Abdallah Nasr al-Din, was president of the Federation of Arab Entities of Latin America. During his tenure, Iranian influence in the region dramatically expanded. The permanent interlocutor between Tehran and Nasr al-Din was Iran’s Quds Force, which provides funds and  weapons to the Lebanese group.

Quds Force in Latin America

The Quds Force, an elite wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), managed Mahan Air, the airline that has for years sent weapons to Hezbollah through Syria. This company sold one of its planes to the Venezuelan state to create the cargo company Emtrasur.

In June 2022, a Boeing 747 from Emtrasur landed in Argentina. Several international intelligence centres warned about the presence of this plane, but the Argentine government ignored all the alerts until it reached the media.

The plane flew through Argentine airspace with its transponder off, the crew never stated the reason for its presence over Argentina or what it was transporting. Argentina's government tried to justify the presence of 19 people in the cargo plane, including Iranians and Venezuelans, and two pilots linked to Hezbollah, assuring that they were “Iranian instructors teaching crew members how to fly.” The Iranians managed to leave the country, and the issue was never discussed again.

Hezbollah’s Presence in Mexico

Hezbollah's presence in Mexico was revealed in 2002, when a citizen of Lebanese origin, Salim Boughader Mucharrafille, was arrested as part of an investigation into a network dedicated to bringing suspected terrorists from Mexico to the United States. 

According to a report published by Terence Rosenthal of the Center for Security Policy, a US think tank, Hezbollah has training bases and cells in Mexico that cooperate with drug cartels, especially Los Zetas, whom they assist in manufacturing bombs and explosives. Hezbollah has also created tunnels on the US border that are used to transport weapons and drugs.

In 2021, the former mayor of Aguililla City, Adalberto Fructuoso Comparán Rodríguez, was arrested in Guatemala on charges of drug trafficking and was extradited to the United States. While in custody, he confessed that the 550 kilos of methamphetamines he was transporting came from Mexican laboratories run by Hezbollah.

The drugs seized by police included Captagon, a methamphetamine produced in the Bekaa Valley in Syria that became one of Hezbollah's primary sources of income. Israeli and US officials have claimed that militants of Palestinian terrorist group Hamas were high on this counterfeit stimulant when they carried out the October 7 attack on southern Israel.

Comparán Rodríguez started establishing contacts with Hezbollah in Colombia’s city of Cali, where the Colombian family of Lebanese origin Helbawi headed a money laundering network for the terrorist group. The dismantling of this network revealed it had laundered hundreds of millions of dollars and transferred drug shipments from Colombia and Venezuela to Mexico before entering the United States.

The Tri-Border Area

Paraguay has been a key country for Hezbollah operations in the Tri-Border Area encompassing this country, Brazil and Argentina.

In 2013, US security agencies began investigating then-president Horacio Cartés’s links with the terrorist network. Vice President Hugo Velázquez was also investigated for his connection with Hezbollah cleric Ali Hijzi and for deliberately burying a laundering case against Hezbollah when he was a prosecutor in Ciudad del Este.

In January 2021, security agencies from the United States, Brazil, and Paraguay dismantled in Ciudad del Este one of the largest cocaine trafficking centres ever detected in Latin America. According to US authorities, the criminal network was headed by Nasser Abbas Bahmad, a Lebanese national who has long-standing ties to Hezbollah. The drugs shipped by the network were transported from Colombia and Peru to "kitchens" located in Bolivia for purification. The shipments then crossed the border to reach Ciudad del Este in Paraguay.

Bolivia: Iran’s “ Most Successful Project” in Latin America

This is how Joseph Humire, executive director of the Center for a Secure Free Society, defined the Andean country after the breakdown of relations between the Bolivian government of Luis Arce and Israel. Bolivia is not only a strategic country for Hezbollah's narcoterrorism activities, but its government is also one of those which has benefited the most from political ties with Iran.

In the midst of the war between Hamas and Israel, the government of Bolivia announced on October 31 the severing of diplomatic relations with Israel.

The move by Luis Arce's government highlighted the growing cooperation between Iran and Bolivia and the influence of the Islamic Republic in Latin America.

Humire said in an interview with an Argentine online newspaper that Latin American society as a whole "should observe with greater concern the presence and influence of the Iranian regime, considered one of the main promoters of terrorism globally."

Humire defined Bolivia as "Iran's most successful project in the region" and had an explanation for this: "The MAS (Movimiento Al Socialismo), which is the political party of the current government in Bolivia, has been aligned with Iran since the time of President Evo Morales. The MAS receives much support from Iran regarding how to use the system to stay in power." 

"Iran is important but not for Bolivia, but for the MAS, which has revolutionary aspects," he said, adding: "Iran is the reason why the MAS has been able to remain in power in Bolivia for more than 17 years."

A few months ago, Iran and Bolivia signed a memorandum of understanding on defense. This agreement, signed by Bolivian Defense Minister Edmundo Novillo Aguilar and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Reza Ashtiani, envisions the transfer of technology so that Bolivia canb develop “cybersecurity” and receive military drones from Iran.

For Humire, this agreement represents “the formalization of a process that began approximately 2010,” when Iran began to establish training bases for Hezbollah in Bolivia.

The Bolivian ambassador to Iran, Romina Pérez, has claimed that the anti-establishment protests that rocked Iran last year were “orchestrated by British and American Zionists.”

People in South America “see Iran as a distant actor, which is a fatal mistake,” Humire said. 

“Iran has been developing this project for 40 years and has already penetrated deeply into Latin America,” he continued, adding: “Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Bolivia are the governments that do their dirty work in the region.”

The Islamic Republic and its proxy Hezbollah have been present in Latin America for more than four decades and are consolidating their presence day by day by penetrating the socialist governments across the region. Hezbollah-affiliated groups are also linked to all kinds of local organizations, including guerrillas, revolutionary groups and drug cartels.

Iran’s clerical leadership uses Latin America as a battlefield in its offensive against Israel and the United States. The recent arrest of two people linked to a Hezbollah terrorist plot against Jewish targets in Brazil is a sign that Tehranis far from having abandoned its objective in the region.

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