A series of recent law enforcement actions indicates the depth of Iranian-tied criminal activity in Mexico may be greater than previously known.
In October, a Texas-car salesman was arrested in connection with an Iranian plot to kill Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington. Prosecutors say officials in Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps believed they were dealing with a "large and sophisticated" Mexican drug cartel to carry out the hit. A $100,000 down payment on the hit shows the Iranians were comfortable dealing with the cartel representative, who in fact was a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) informant.
Earlier this month, prosecutors in Virginia unsealed an indictment charging a Lebanese man, Ayman Joumaa, with smuggling more than 100 tons of Colombian cocaine with the Los Zetas Mexican drug cartel. Hizballah, an Iranian proxy in Lebanon, "derived financial support from the criminal activities of Joumaa's network," the U.S. Treasury Department claimed earlier this year.
Hizballah has a long history of violent attacks against U.S. and Israeli targets. In 1983 the Lebanon-based group was accused of bombing the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 240 soldiers. Hizballah, along with its patron Iran, have been considered responsible for the attacks on the Israeli Embassy in Argentina in 1992 and a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires in 1994. Hizballah also has extensive contacts in Latin America and within the United States.
In the plot against the Saudi ambassador, suspect Manssor Arbabsiar allegedly told law enforcement agents following his arrest that "he was recruited, funded and directed by men he understood to be senior officials in Iran's Qods Force." While the complaint does not name the Zetas, it describes the cartel the Iranians thought that they were dealing with as having "engaged in numerous acts of violence, including assassinations and murders."
The law enforcement actions come amid a recent report citing Israeli intelligence saying Hizballah's funding from traditional state sponsors such as Iran and Syria has declined sharply. That financial crunch may be leading the Shiite group to build alliances with Mexican drug syndicates and increasingly fund its terrorist operations through profits from the lucrative South American cocaine trade.
If true, the U.S. law enforcement actions may further erode Hizballah's finances.
A Treasury designation, a criminal indictment and a civil lawsuit allege the Lebanese drug dealer Ayman Joumaa is part of a complex cocaine and automobile smuggling enterprise in the United States and West Africa that handles hundreds of millions of dollars each month. Some of those profits were routed to Hizballah through the Lebanese Canadian Bank (LCB).
More than $300 million was wired into the United States through Lebanese financial institutions, according to the civil suit. The money laundering scheme allegedly involves at least 30 car dealerships throughout the country. As part of the investigation, federal agents raided a dealership in Tulsa.
"They're making big time money and it's going right into weapons acquisition, terrorist training, recruiting, corruption," DEA official Rusty Payne told Fox News. "Things needed to carry out terrorist attacks around the world. Some of the money is flowing back to the United States, back to these used car companies, to purchase more used cars to ship them to West Africa to sell those at a profit and then mix those used car proceeds in with the drug dollars."
The growing nexus between Hizballah and Mexican drug cartels allows the Iran-backed extremist group to make use of drug cartel transit routes to gain entry into the United States through its porous border with Mexico. Hizballah, in turn, offers Mexican syndicates expertise on smuggling and explosives as well as access to its drug trafficking networks in the Middle East and South Asia.
Iran-backed Hizballah and Mexican drug syndicates share "the same criminal weapons smugglers, document traffickers and transportation experts," former DEA operations chief Michael Braun told the Washington Times. "They rely on the same shadow facilitators. One way or another they're all connected."
Braun also alleged that members of Iran's Quds Force are "commanding and controlling" Hizballah's criminal operations in Latin America.
Cases Show Operatives Smuggled In
A leaked September 2010 Tucson Police Department internal memo talks of growing ties between Hizballah operatives and Mexican drug traffickers. It notes an increasing use of improvised explosive devices and car bombs by Mexican DTO's that suggest a growing collusion with the Hizballah militant groups which specialize in such explosive devices.
Border authorities have also discovered a number of "narcotunnels" along the U.S.-Mexican border that are used by cartels to get narcotics into the U.S. from Mexico. "There is growing concern that Hezbollah is providing technology for the increasingly sophisticated narco tunnels now being found along the U.S.-Mexican border, which strongly resemble the types used by Hezbollah in Lebanon." noted national security consultant Douglas Farah during October 2011 testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
In a June 2010 letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., called for "more intelligence gathering" on rising Hizballah criminal activity in Mexico. "Across states in the Southwest, well trained officials are beginning to notice the tattoos of gang members in prisons are being written in Farsi. We have typically seen tattoos in Arabic, but Farsi implies a Persian influence that can likely be traced back to Iran and its proxy army, Hezbollah."
A series of cases in the past decade offers examples of Hizballah activity in Mexico:
In 2006, Salim Boughader-Mucharrafille was sentenced to 14 years in prison by a Mexican judge on charges related to operating a smuggling ring and organized crime. Boughader-Mucharrafille was a Mexican of Lebanese descent and owned a café in Tijuana. According to the 9/11 Commission Staff Report on Terrorist Travel, he smuggled at least 200 "Lebanese nationals sympathetic to Hamas and Hezbollah into the United States" from Mexico. One of the individuals Boughader-Mucharrafille smuggled into the U.S. worked for Hizballah's television channel, al Manar.
Trained Hizballah fighter Mahmoud Youssef Kourani entered the U.S. through the Mexican border in early 2001. According to court documents, "Kourani surreptitiously entered the United States by sneaking across the U.S.-Mexico border in the trunk of a car." Kourani bribed an official at the Mexican consulate in Beirut, Lebanon, to grant him a Mexican visa. In 2005, Kourani pleaded guilty to providing material support to Hizballah and was sentenced to 54 months in prison.
In July 2010, Hizballah leader Jameel Nasr was arrested in Tijuana, Mexico. Nasr was reported to have been charged with establishing a Hizballah network in South America consisting of Mexican nationals with ties to Lebanon to attack Israeli and Western targets. Nasr traveled regularly to Lebanon to receive instructions from the Hizballah leadership based there. Nasr was living in Tijuana during the time of his arrest.
Jamal Yousef, a former member of the Syrian military and Hizballah agent, was arrested in April 2009 in New York. Yousef ran a weapons smuggling operation involving American assault rifles, hand grenades, explosives, and anti-tank munitions. The arms were stolen from U.S. forces stationed in Iraq and sent to Mexico where they were stored for future sale to the Colombian terrorist group, FARC, in exchange for drugs that would be brought into the U.S. through Mexican cartels.
Iran and Hizballah militants are making common cause with Mexican narco-traffickers as part of their broader, more global, asymmetric warfare against the United States. The threat is particularly menacing given Hizballah and Iran's active presence and extensive network in the broader Latin American region and state support from governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.
In testimony before a House Homeland Security subcommittee, former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, Roger F. Noriega, highlighted the danger posed to U.S. homeland security from growing Hizballah presence in Latin America, including Mexico:
"The more broad implication for U.S. homeland security is that Hezbollah—via Iran and Venezuela—has engaged the United States in an offensive strategy of asymmetric warfare on our doorstep. It is aiming to win the mental battle of attrition and the moral battle of legitimacy—particularly with the youth in Latin America. Unless our government recognizes and responds to their efforts, our ability to protect our interests and our homeland will be gradually and dangerously diminished."