DEA Arrests Hezbollah Members For Allegedly Laundering Cartel Money
The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced in early Feb. 2016 that it had arrested four members of the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terrorist organization.
According to Media Line, the DEA alleged they were part of a cell that used millions of dollars obtained through the sale of cocaine in the US and Europe to fund its operations in Syria and Lebanon. It declined to state where the arrests took place but said the operation involved France, Belgium, Italy and Germany. In addition, the DEA said the group was laundering money for South American drug cartels.
In a statement, DEA Acting Deputy Administrator Jack Riley described the cell as “a revenue and weapons stream … responsible for devastating terror attacks around the world,” and said that more arrests were expected. CNN reported that Hezbollah is increasing its reliance on criminal activity to fund its operations because the terrorist group is receiving less support from Iran because of plunging oil prices. DEA representative Rusty Payne told CNN the terrorist network was laundering the drug money through the acquisition and sale of high-end used cars, sometimes hiding the cash inside the vehicles themselves as they were shipped internationally.
In the 1980’s, Hezbollah began exporting operatives to different parts of the world, including Latin America. Their ideal destination was the tri-border area (TBA) in South America, where the borders of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet. Part of why this location was so ideal is that for decades the TBA has been home to tens of thousands of Arab immigrants. The majority of Muslims in the TBA emigrated from Lebanon during the 1970’s because of the civil strife there at the time, and the Muslim population now is estimated at around 30,000 people. Despite local Arab leaders’ denials that any terrorist activity or financing is occurring in the TBA, there is ample evidence to the contrary.
Hezbollah in the Western Hemisphere
Hezbollah has been involved in money laundering operations in the Western Hemisphere for at least a decade. Because of the large volume of cash that Mexican cartels need laundered on a regular basis, many people believe it is inevitable that these two organizations would eventually develop a business arrangement for this purpose. In Dec. 2011, U.S. authorities accused a Lebanese drug kingpin of allegedly helping to smuggle large amounts of cocaine into the U.S. and laundering more than $250 million for Los Zetas. Ayman Joumaa worked with at least nine other people and 19 entities to smuggle cocaine out of Colombia, then launder the drug-related proceeds from Mexico, Europe, West Africa and Colombia through a Lebanese bank. Sometimes part of that money was sent to Mexico City in bulk-cash shipments, ostensibly to be delivered to Los Zetas.
This story caused a great deal of alarm, especially after it made the national news cycles. People saw the words “Lebanese” and “Mexican drug cartel” in the same sentence, which led some pundits to make the assumption that this was the smoking gun—valid proof that terrorists and cartels were working together. However, the connection between the man’s Lebanese descent and Hezbollah was premature; Joumaa was never suspected of being a member of Hezbollah or any other terrorist group, and his affiliation with Los Zetas was purely a business relationship.
While Hezbollah may not currently be collaborating with Mexican cartels, it is clear the terrorist group is still leveraging its South America connections. Considering this case involves cocaine, the unidentified cartel in question most likely operates in Colombia, with a much smaller likelihood it is an organization in Peru.
If oil prices continue to stay low or plunge further, terrorist groups like Hezbollah can be expected to rely on drug trafficking and other criminal activity—including the sale of counterfeit purses, shoes, and cigarettes in the U.S.—to fund their terrorist acts overseas.