Rising Concerns about Hezbollah in Latin America Amid Middle East Conflict
The October 7 attack by Hamas against Israel killed 1,200 people, including 32 U.S. citizens, and renewed the global focus on radical Islamic terrorism. Those fears include the grim possibility that Hezbollah and its patron, Iran, could join the fight against Israel, draw in the United States, and carry out and inspire terrorist attacks in the United States and other regions, including Latin America.
Hezbollah Plot in Brazil
As Israel retaliated against Hamas in Gaza, the FBI warned of the growing risk of terrorism worldwide. A month later, on November 8, we saw evidence of that threat in South America: Brazilian Federal Police uncovered a plot by alleged Hezbollah operatives to attack Jewish targets in the country.
In Operation Trapiche, the Brazilian police executed 11 search warrants and raids in São Paulo, Brasília, and Minas Gerais. The police–with support from Israel’s spy agency, the Mossad–arrested two men with reported ties to Hezbollah for allegedly planning major terror attacks on Jewish targets, such as synagogues and the Israeli Embassy, including an alleged plotter detained at Sao Paulo’s Guarulhos International Airport upon his arrival from Lebanon. The police said the two had recently traveled to Beirut to meet with members of Hezbollah; had a list of possible targets; and were recruiting Brazilian operatives.
Brazil is home to Latin America’s second-largest Jewish community, after Argentina, and the arrests raised alarms about the region’s vulnerability to terrorism.
Hezbollah and the Tri-Border Area
Latin America is no stranger to terrorism, with a long history of terrorist attacks by local groups–including the FARC and ELN guerrillas in Colombia, and the Shining Path in Peru–and a longtime presence of Hezbollah in South America.
For decades, the Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay has been the hub of Iranian and Hezbollah activity in Latin America."
For decades, the Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay has been the hub of Iranian and Hezbollah activity in Latin America, capitalizing on large Lebanese and Shiite diaspora communities. According to the late Argentine special prosecutor Alberto Nisman, Hezbollah established its presence in Latin America in the mid-1980s, beginning in the Tri-Border Area, a relatively lawless region. From its base in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, it set up illicit enterprises to fund its operations in the Middle East and elsewhere, including money laundering, counterfeiting, piracy, and drug trafficking. In addition to trafficking illicit drugs from Paraguay to Europe, the group has reportedly expanded into cryptocurrency mining.
In the 1990s, Iran and Hezbollah carried out two major terrorist attacks in Argentina. In 1992, Hezbollah bombed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 22 individuals and injuring 242. Two years later, Argentina suffered the bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) Jewish cultural center, which killed 85 people and injured nearly 300. Prior to September 11, 2001, the bombings in Argentina were the worst terrorist acts in the Western Hemisphere. In 2019, on the 25th anniversary of the AMIA attack, Argentina became the first Latin American country to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. It was followed by Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, and Paraguay, though not Brazil.
The search for those responsible for these attacks in Argentina continues. In September, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, in coordination with the Drug Enforcement Administration, sanctioned several Hezbollah operatives and financial facilitators in South America and Lebanon, including Amer Mohamed Akil Rada for his role in the AMIA bombing.
Counterterrorism in Latin America
Given Latin America’s history of local and international terrorism and the renewed fighting in the Middle East, there is a clear need for greater hemispheric cooperation to combat terrorism in the region. Without greater US support, it is not clear that Latin America’s law enforcement and intelligence efforts have the capacity to detect, detain, dismantle, and deter terrorist networks like Hezbollah. Yet the U.S. national security focus remains tilted toward great power competition with China and Russia and away from combatting international terrorism, including in this hemisphere.
Without greater US support, it is not clear that Latin America’s law enforcement and intelligence efforts have the capacity to detect, detain, dismantle, and deter terrorist networks like Hezbollah."
Fortunately, there are counterterrorism cooperation mechanisms to build upon. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the United States, Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay established the 3+1 Group on Tri-Border Area Security. Today, the countries still operate the Tripartite Command, which integrates police intelligence agents from Ciudad del Este, Foz de Yguazú in Brazil, and Puerto Yguazú in Argentina. Thanks in part to this cooperation, in recent years regional law enforcement agencies have carried out major arrests and extraditions of Hezbollah facilitators for drug trafficking and money laundering.
When news broke of Operation Trapiche in Brazil, the Global Counterterrorism Forum was meeting in Santiago, Chile. Among other topics, the discussions addressed the need for greater interagency and international cooperation to identify, maintain, and update counterterrorism watchlists for the Western Hemisphere. The month before, the Inter-American Committee against Terrorism had hosted a workshop with the Latin American Jewish Congress and the Universidad de las Américas Puebla to raise awareness of the threat of violent extremism and terrorism.
The 3+1 Group and the efforts by the Global Counterterrorism Forum and the Inter-American Committee against Terrorism are necessary, but not sufficient to meet the threat. Without greater intelligence and law enforcement resources dedicated to countering Hezbollah, and without greater regional cooperation and US attention, Latin America will remain a soft target for the type of international terrorism the region has suffered in the past.
About the Author
Latin America Program
The Wilson Center’s prestigious Latin America Program provides non-partisan expertise to a broad community of decision makers in the United States and Latin America on critical policy issues facing the Hemisphere. The Program provides insightful and actionable research for policymakers, private sector leaders, journalists, and public intellectuals in the United States and Latin America. To bridge the gap between scholarship and policy action, it fosters new inquiry, sponsors high-level public and private meetings among multiple stakeholders, and explores policy options to improve outcomes for citizens throughout the Americas. Drawing on the Wilson Center’s strength as the nation’s key non-partisan policy forum, the Program serves as a trusted source of analysis and a vital point of contact between the worlds of scholarship and action. Read more