Leaked files expose Hezbollah’s secret dealings in Venezuela
LONDON - Files leaked to the New York Times from Venezuela’s security services apparently confirm Hezbollah’s presence in the country and its ties to one of embattled President Nicolas Maduro’s closest confidantes.
Venezuelan Industry Minister Tareck El Aissami has been investigated for his alleged ties to the country’s criminal underworld and Hezbollah, which is thought to have expanded its presence in the Triple Frontier area of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay to include operations within Venezuela.
The leaked documents say El Aissami and his family helped move Hezbollah operatives into Venezuela, worked with a drug lord and shielded 140 tonnes of chemicals believed to be used for cocaine production from authorities.
Testimony of informants in the files, reportedly provided to the New York Times by one of Venezuela’s most senior intelligence officials, claimed El Aissami and his father recruited Hezbollah members to expand spy and drug trafficking networks in the region.
Hezbollah has also been accused of money laundering in the Triple Frontier and operating one of the largest cigarette smuggling operations in the Western Hemisphere.
Revelations about El Aissami’s suspected ties to Hezbollah came as little surprise to Venezuela’s rival US-backed government of Juan Guaido. “Many of us have known about it for well over a decade. Under his mandate as interior minister, thousands of Venezuelan passports were given away to terrorists,” said Vanessa Neumann, Guaido’s official representative to the United Kingdom.
Hezbollah’s presence extends throughout Venezuela “but especially in the border region with Colombia because of the drug trafficking and the long-standing of FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). They have an enormous presence in the Guajira Peninsula… and they straddle the border,” Neumann said.
The financial opportunities available to Hezbollah in Venezuela are significant. Throughout the 2000s, a Hezbollah-linked cocaine-smuggling ring, said to be headed by Lebanese national Chekry Harb, relied on Panama and Venezuela as hubs for an operation channelling narcotics from Colombia to the United States, West Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
Writing in Foreign Policy in February, Colin Clarke, a political scientist with the RAND Corporation, said revenues from the operation were laundered into either Colombian pesos or Venezuelan bolivars, with Hezbollah netting 8-14% of the profits.
“Hezbollah has long maintained a significant presence in Venezuela,” Clarke later wrote in e-mailed comments to The Arab Weekly, “primarily through criminal operations and terrorism financing networks… The group operates somewhat freely throughout parts of the country and, given its illicit business, is likely armed.”
Quantifying the scale of Hezbollah’s Venezuelan presence is difficult. Diego Moya-Ocampos, an analyst at IHS Markit, said: "We know a lot of the people immediately surrounding Maduro (and late President Hugo Chavez) are connected to corruption, drug trafficking and money laundering on a large scale."
"We believe, as you would expect, that there are many nationalities involved in these schemes, including Lebanese, Syrians, plus Venezuelans of Lebanese and Syrian extraction and others.," he added.
Venezuela is home to around 500,000 citizens of Lebanese origin.
“However, how many are also tied directly to Hezbollah is uncertain. What we do know is that the legal resources available to these individuals’ eclipses any of those involved within the (Triple Frontier) networks, making access to definite information difficult to come by,” he said.
Moya-Ocampos stressed the ideological sympathies many in Maduro’s and Chavez’s inner circles held for the group, allowing Hezbollah to operate relatively freely in the country and “for the group’s supporters to potentially have used Venezuelan territory for fundraising and money-laundering activities, likely involving the local financial system, commercial activities and real estate market transactions.”
Separating Hezbollah from its networks throughout Venezuela may not be as straightforward as Guaido’s efforts to oust Maduro.
"Hezbollah is so entrenched in Venezuela that it will be difficult for the United States to completely eradicate its influence even if Maduro is removed from the picture," said Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House.
“Tackling Hezbollah’s activities in Venezuela and the (Triple Frontier) can only be done as part of a wider strategy to combat transnational organised crime in those areas," Khatib added. "The attention this issue is receiving today is directly linked to the United States’ efforts to pressure Iran economically.”