The probe into the Venezuelan Emtrasur plane, seized by Argentina earlier this month for possible ties to Iran, has extended to Paraguay and Chile. But investigations are complicated by shadowy ties between local politicians, Tehran, and its proxy Hizballah.
The plane previously was owned by Iran's Mahan Air, and had a crew that included seven Iranians.
Before arriving in Argentina, the Emtrasur plane landed May 13 in Paraguay with no cargo. There, it was loaded with 80 tons of cigarettes from Tabacalera del Este S.A., a company controlled by former President Horacio Cartes that is linked to Hizballah.
Since Cartes' shipment was sold to his other company registered in the United States, Tabacos USA INC., Paraguay's Anti-Corruption Minister René Fernández suspects the deal could involve terrorism financing.
"Also, we cannot rule out the possibility of money on board, as Iranian sanctioned organizations like Quds Force do not have access to the global banking system," Fernández told Argentine press.
But Cartes was not the only one involved. Local news reports also tie Paraguay's current President Mario Abdo Benítez and Vice President Hugo Velázquez to Hizballah. They allegedly received money for their political careers in exchange for protection.
Last week, senators Enrique Riera and Hugo Richer, asked the Paraguay Laundering Commission to question the president and vice president about these relations and the Emtrsaur flight.
The plane was supposed to stay on the ground for eight hours, but didn't leave for three days. "It is unknown why the 18 crew members stayed in our country or with whom they communicated," said Riera.
According to local media, Hizballah funded Abdo's presidential campaign through Velázquez, who was then a congressman and would eventually become Abdo's vice president. After his election, Abdo received a delegation of Hizballah donors from the Tri-Border region with full honors.
Velázquez reportedly met in 2015 with Hizballah spiritual leader Salid Ali Hijazi, and a Hizballah representative, Nawwaf Moussawi, in Lebanon on a government visit when he was president of the House of Representatives.
Experts on Hizballah suspected that the visit was motivated by personal interests. Years earlier, an investigation into a multimillion-dollar network of Hizballah money laundering and payments was mysteriously shelved when Velázquez served as deputy attorney general in Ciudad del Este.
"Velázquez is the primary money launderer at Tri-Border area and became wealthy by using the 'local mafia,' which includes the Lebanese one," vice presidential candidate Leo Rubin said in 2018.
Tehran replied to the Emtrasur investigation threatening to sever relations with Paraguay if "unfounded and unsubstantiated allegations about the plane's crew" inspired by "the United States and the Zionist regime" continued. It was referring to Gholameza Ghasemi, one of the seven Iranian crew members on board during the trip in Paraguay, who was charged with suspicion of terrorism in Argentina.
"Qeshm Fars Air operates flights between Iran and Syria regularly as part of efforts by Iran and the Quds Force to provide Hizballah with advanced weapons and military components. In addition, Al Quds provides approximately $100 million to $200 million in annual funding to Hizballah" the FBI report said.
Argentine investigators found images in Ghasemi's cell phone showing him wearing a Quds Force uniform as a younger man and with allegedly anti-Israel captions depicting tanks and missiles.
In the middle of the Emtrasur plane crisis, a second Mahan Air aircraft flying from Caracas landed in Santiago, Chile June 22, indicating that Tehran is not intimidated by the current investigations and feels protected by local politicians.
The Chilean press criticized President Gabriel Boric's government for staying silent on the matter.
Iran's Mahan Airlines is on the U.S. blacklist "for providing support" to the Quds Force, which is a military intelligence division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) designated by the United States as a terrorist group.
The flight that landed in Chile was operated by the Venezuela's state-owned Conviasa Airline, which the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned in 2020 for "shuttling corrupt regime officials" to North Korea, Cuba, and Iran in order "to fuel support for Venezuelan anti-democratic efforts."
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro flew to Iran on the same plane earlier this month to sign a 20-year bilateral agreement involving aviation, economic and military deals. This aircraft landed at least five times in Chile after President Boric signed a sweeping economic cooperation deal with Venezuela in early April.
While Conviasa has temporarily suspended the Caracas-Santiago route because of the controversy surrounding the case, Chilean lawmaker Andres Jouannet, chairman of the House Defense Committee, has asked the interior minister to investigate the identities of the crew and inspect the cargo which is still in Chile.
"This aircraft could not land because Conviasa and Mahan Airlines are sanctioned. We will investigate this aviation agreement with Venezuela. We also want to launch a regional probe, because these flights are a regional issue," said Jouannet.
Other Latin American politicians attempted to minimize the case to preserve good relations with Iran. Argentine President Alberto Fernández denied any "irregularity" with the Emtrasur plane. National Intelligence chief Agustín Rossi tried to drop the case claiming, as did the Venezuela crew, that Ghasemi and other Iranians on the plane were flight instructors.
"We need to investigate Gholameza Ghasemi's possible links to international terrorist activities, and we want to know from the FBI if there is any restrictive measure on its circulation," stated Argentine prosecutor Cecilia Incardona.
Before deciding whether to release the aircraft, Argentine federal judge Federico Villena has asked U.S. authorities to verify the true owner of the plane, as it previously flew under the colors of Iran's Mahan Air.
"I also want to know whether the plane was subject to any formal embargo or restriction," Villena wrote in letters to U.S. officials.
By circumventing laws and infiltrating institutions, the Iranian flights threaten security in Latin America. With the support of unscrupulous politicians, Tehran's strategy fuels corruption, and exploits the region to finance its terrorism through money laundering.
Maria Zuppello is an Italian investigative reporter based in Brazil and an expert on the crime-terror nexus. She is the author of the book Tropical Jihad.
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