HomeNewsAnalysisHezbollah in Latin America: An Over-Hyped Threat?

Hezbollah in Latin America: An Over-Hyped Threat?


The indictment of a Lebanese man accused of running a money laundering and drug trafficking ring for Hezbollah in Colombia has sparked fresh concerns about the Islamic militia group's connections to organized crime in Latin America, but this may be an overreaction.

On December 13, a United States federal court in Alexandria indicted Ayman Joumaa for allegedly running a drug trafficking and money laundering ring linked to the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah. Among other things, Joumaa was charged with selling almost 100 tons of Colombian cocaine to the Zetas, the notoriously violent Mexican drug gang, from 2005 to 2007.

Joumaa is at least the second Lebanese national in three years to be accused of using drug money in South America to fund the Shia militia. In 2008 Colombian officials arrested Chekri Harb, alias “Taliban,” who was accused of laundering millions of dollars annually, much of which allegedly went to Hezbollah.

These incidents have added fuel to the debate in the US over the Lebanese group’s level of support in the region, which some believe poses a major security threat. Concern over this issue has been growing in recent months, likely in response to a House subcommittee hearing held in July, which saw testimony from several witnesses who claimed the group represents an immediate risk to hemispheric security.

Since then, politicians in Washington have continued to hold up Hezbollah influence as one of the biggest dangers in Latin America. In September, Michelle Bachman raised eyebrows when she spoke out against normalizing relations with Cuba due to Hezbollah “missile sites” on the island. The subject even briefly became part of the presidential campaign in the country, when three leading Republican candidates voiced concern over Hezbollah support networks in the region in the November 22 CNN GOP foreign policy debate. Texas Governor Rick Perry even called for a “21st-century Monroe Doctrine” to be applied to the region, as a means of preventing the group from spreading their influence.

This is not just a concern among politicians. In October the influential American Enterprise Institute (AEI) released a report which argues that the Lebanese group is “using the Western Hemisphere as a staging ground, fundraising center, and operational base to wage asymmetric warfare against the United States.” The report, entitled “The Mounting Hezbollah Threat in Latin America,” is coauthored by former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega and Foreign Policy’s Jose R. Cardena. In addition to deepening their ties to organized crime, the two claim that Hezbollah has developed friendly relationships with President Hugo Chavez and “other anti-American governments in the region.”

It may be true that Hezbollah has a significant degree of support in the region, primarily among Lebanese immigrants who fled the country in response to the bloody Lebanese Civil War in the 1980s. Latin America was a popular destination for these refugees, and sizable Lebanese immigrant communities exist in Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela. But Hezbollah’s most notorious support base lies in the tri-border region of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, where it is believed that the group has connections with local gangs who engage in drug trafficking, arms trafficking, counterfeiting, and money laundering.

However, this support is largely financial, and Hezbollah is not believed to actively direct criminal enterprises in the region. Instead, the group likely obtains donations from individuals who are sympathetic to the cause of spreading Islamic revolution. Despite the amount of attention they received in the press, the charges against Joumaa and Harb reflect this. Neither is accused of being a member of Hezbollah, only of cooperating with it on some level. Aside from seeking financing, there appears to be very little reason for Hezbollah to involve itself heavily in organized crime in Latin America, much less to direct criminal activities.

However, there is scarce evidence for allegations that the group is developing its political connections in the region. The AEI paper cites the improved relationship between Chavez’s Venezuela and Iran, which provides covert support for Hezbollah. Because Chavez is deepening ties to Iran, Noriega and Cardena argue, he is opening up his country to the Islamic militia by proxy.

However, the Venezuela-Iran connection is likely not so nefarious. Both nations are founding members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) with similar economic interests, a point which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stressed in his recent visit to the country.

It should be noted that Hezbollah’s presence in the region is a definite concern, as the organization has been linked to several terrorist attacks on Jewish communities in Argentina in the early 1990s. But the security threat that Hezbollah poses is often grossly exaggerated. Security analyst James Bosworth has stated this quite well, arguing:

If we're going to hold hearings on individual non-state groups that are threats in the hemisphere, lets start with Sinaloa, the FARC and the Zetas; work our way through the second tier of Los Rastrojos, PCC, Betran Leyva, etc.; and then maybe after a few days or weeks of hearings we could get to the third tier that includes Hezbollah, the Russian mafia and the Triads.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


Related Content

ELN / 6 APR 2022

It was 2019 when the Colombian guerrillas first arrived to the Cataniapo river basin, known as Ähuiyäru De’iyu Ręję to…

BOLIVIA / 13 AUG 2021

The US Coast Guard unloaded 27 tons of cocaine after a three-month operation in the Pacific and Caribbean, a massive…


New details have emerged about the assassination of Paraguayan prosecutor Marcelo Pecci, including that the hit was methodically planned in…

About InSight Crime


Escaping Barrio 18

27 JAN 2023

Last week, InSight Crime published an investigation charting the story of Desafío, a 28-year-old Barrio 18 gang member who is desperate to escape gang life. But there’s one problem: he’s…


Europe Coverage Makes a Splash

20 JAN 2023

Last week, InSight Crime published an analysis of the role of Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport as an arrival hub for cocaine and methamphetamine from Mexico.  The article was picked up by…


World Looks to InSight Crime for Mexico Expertise

13 JAN 2023

Our coverage of the arrest of Chapitos’ co-founder Ovidio Guzmán López in Mexico has received worldwide attention.In the UK, outlets including The Independent and BBC…


InSight Crime Shares Expertise with US State Department

16 DEC 2022

Last week, InSight Crime Co-founder Steven Dudley took part in the International Anti-Corruption Conference organized by the US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, & Labor and…


Immediate Response to US-Mexico Marijuana Investigation

9 DEC 2022

InSight Crime’s investigation into how the legalization of marijuana in many US states has changed Mexico’s criminal dynamics made a splash this week appearing on the front page of…