Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revealed Wednesday that Iran and its terrorist proxy Hizballah will exploit the political and economic chaos in Venezuela to preserve their reach throughout South America.
"People don't recognize that Hizballah has active cells – the Iranians are impacting the people of Venezuela and throughout South America," Pompeo said in an interview with FOX Business, adding, "we have an obligation to take down that risk for America."
Instability continues to grow in Venezuela as competing factions vie for power in the socialist country. Following President Trump's lead, several major western countries last month recognized Venezuela's national assembly president Juan Guaido as the country's legitimate president.
Under the reign of former President Hugo Chavez, Iran exploited friendly ties with Venezuela to establish terrorist networks throughout region. Iranian and Hizballah operatives have cultivated and consolidated operating bases in South America, especially in the tri-border area (TBA) of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. With a large Muslim population featuring significant numbers of Hizballah sympathizers, the terrorist organization uses this area for recruitment, arms smuggling and drug trafficking, and logistics planning for terrorist operations.
A year ago, the Trump administration levied sanctions against Venezuela's then-vice president Tareck El Aissami after an extensive Treasury Department investigation identified him as a key figure in the global narcotics trade with ties to Iran.
That month, CNN received a 2013 secret intelligence document from several Latin American countries highlighting serious links between El Aissami and 173 Venezuelan identification cards and passports issued to people from the Middle East, including Hizballah-affiliated personnel.
Hizballah also relies on legitimate businesses and front organizations in the region, diversifying its terrorist financing profile to generate a significant portion of its revenues from its Latin American operations. With Venezuelan help, the terrorist group continues to expand its presence and consolidate support in other Latin American countries. Hizballah even registered as a political party in a Peruvian region characterized as having that nation's largest Muslim population.
Yet Hizballah's regional operations are not confined to South America. In 2011, Virginia prosecutors said that a Lebanese man helped the Mexican Los Zetas drug cartel smuggle of more than 100 tons of Colombian cocaine. The U.S. Treasury Department claimed that Hizballah benefitted financially from the criminal network.
The nexus between Iranian-backed operatives – including Hizballah – and Mexican drug cartels allows terrorists to earn big money to fuel their violent operations. These ties also help Hizballah to make inroads into the United States through its porous border with Mexico.