Guatemala’s Terrorist Designation of Hizballah Explained

Guatemala highlands scene, January 2020. Photo by Todd Bensman

by Todd Bensman Special to IPT News
December 4, 2020

The small Central American nation of Guatemala does not usually pop first in literature and intelligence about Lebanese Hizballah’s operations deep in the heart of South America. So any surprise would be expected when the government of Guatemala in October, very far from that action, suddenly designated the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim paramilitary group, and all of its branches, as a terrorist organization.

Guatemala’s designation follows one by Honduras in January and three other Latin America nations — Argentina, Paraguay, and Colombia — in 2019. The designations theoretically subject Hizballah and anyone caught supporting it to surveillance, asset seizures, arrest, and prosecution in coordination with the American intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

But the seemingly incongruous designations are more connected with a broader U.S. strategic initiative to pressure Hizballah’s South America revenue lifelines as the group and its primary sponsor, Iran, reportedly reel under harsh U.S. economic sanctions.

Hizballah reportedly was already facing a serious financial crisis because of American sanctions last year, when the United States began collecting terrorist designations. Its leaders implemented harsh austerity measures like fighter salary cuts, welfare payout reductions and putting donation boxes on Beirut street corners.

But Hizballah likely was somewhat buffered from the sanctions thanks to its successful 2006 decision to enter South America’s lucrative cocaine trafficking trade. Estimates vary widely, but Hizballah reportedly might earn anywhere from $200 to $700 million a year from cocaine trafficking. It probably earns more laundering it through byzantine automobile import and export operations that stretch from the United States through Latin America to Benin, Africa and then Europe. The Drug Enforcement Agency’s 2008–16 “Project Cassandra” found that Hizballah’s “External Security Organization Business Affairs” arm collected $1 billion a year from money laundering, criminal activities, and drug and weapons trade.

“While Hezbollah’s arsenal and fighters are concentrated in Lebanon and Syria, Latin America is an indispensable theater of operations for the criminal networks that generate much of Hezbollah’s revenue,” Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, wrote last year in Foreign Policy magazine.

Guatemala’s designation came after close coordination with the U.S. National Security Council as part of that broader effort to crack down on Hizballah money laundering and illicit finance operations, a spokeswoman for President Alejandro Giammattei told the Investigative Project on Terrorism.

In an email exchange, Francis Masek would not discuss the extent to which Hizballah operatives were active in Central America, only that “security reports” show the group as “having a presence in Latin America” with some presumed spillover through Guatemala.

“We know that the terrorist group has a presence in Latin America and that is why coordination has been initiated with neighboring countries, to counteract the presence of members of the group in the Central American Region,” Masek explained. As to the extent that Hizballah is active in her region, she replied, “There has probably been some kind of undeclared presence but only as passage, like drugs, let’s say.”

Though probably unrelated, but with beneficial timing, the U.S. effort to expand the assortment of Latin America countries willing to make life riskier for Hizballah occurs as Iran has repeatedly vowed to retaliate against the United States for the Jan. 3. assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. Iranian leaders have said they could attack anywhere at any time and, even before his death, Soleimani gave a speech during which he called out the American president: “Mr. Gambler, Trump! I’m telling you that we are close to you, exactly where you wouldn’t think that we are.”

A menacing presence

Guatemala and Honduras were late comers to the Hizballah-designation party in the Americas, joining Colombia, Paraguay and Argentina during 2019.

Of the five, Argentina was a key first player and not just because the country suffered the 1992 and 1994 bombings of the Israeli embassy and the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association community center in Buenos Aires. After Argentina branded Hizballah a terrorist organization in July 2019, it froze the assets of 14 Hizballah associates present in the country at the time, some of whom had “worked closely with numerous extremists” in a Tri-Border free trade zone shared with Paraguay and Brazil.

Significant to the Argentine effort was the Paraguay designation, which targeted Hizballah operatives known to be operating in the free trade zone.

In Peru, authorities arrested Muhammad Ghaleb Hamdar, an apparent operative of Hizballah’s clandestine services arm, Unit 910, named for stockpiling explosives and weapons and using false documents. The unit’s operatives have been found in Colombia and Venezuela. In 2017, Bolivia uncovered a Hizballah cache of explosives.

Further north, though, open source reporting about Hizballah activity in Central America and Mexico is spotty at best. The U.S. State Department’s most recent annual Country Report on Terrorism covering 2019 doesn’t address Honduras or Guatemala at all, though it does mention Panama’s cooperation with U.S. law enforcement on “ongoing counterterrorism cases in 2019, including individuals linked to Hizballah.”

Joseph Humire, executive director of the Center for a Secure Free Society and Latin America security expert, praised the recent Latin America terrorism designations because they “put us all in the same language, on the same page,” especially in “countries that always knew Hizballah was there.”

Humire, who spends time with local intelligence officials in Central American countries like Guatemala, said that while intelligence agencies are not certain about Hizballah “density” closer to the U.S. border, he is seeing evidence of increasing presence and activity.

“There is a significant documented presence in Mexico” through Iranian cultural networks, he said, and more recently a center of Hizballah operations became “very active” in a free-trade zone that straddles Belize, Mexico, and Guatemala. This one connects through Venezuela with other illicit Hizballah operations in South America.

“There’s always been a concern about the Belize presence,” said Humire.

Vulnerabilities remain

Humire cautioned, however, that designations from five countries in the Americas is merely a good start and complained that 30 more haven’t acted and are vulnerable to Hizballah operating with relative impunity.

One of those in the neighborhood that is unlikely to issue a designation is Nicaragua, whose leftist Sandinista government has been diplomatically estranged from the United States since Daniel Ortega retook power in 2007.

Iran’s flag seen behind the heavily fortified wall of its Nicaraguan embassy. (photo credit: Todd Bensman)

Then-Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad attended Ortega’s inauguration and struck a new diplomatic relationship that resulted in an Iranian embassy in Managua and continues.

I saw this compound during a 2007 trip to investigate the new Iran-Nicaragua relationship. The new ambassador politely rejected interview requests.

Iranian flag at new consulate in Managua circa 2007. Photo by Todd Bensman

But journalists at the country’s largest-circulation newspaper, La Prensa, provided me leaked government documents showing that Nicaragua’s chief immigration minister had authorized 21 Iranian men to enter the country visa-free, leaving no paper trail. Local media at the time reported and named them as Quds Force operatives who had come in under diplomatic cover and traveled to Honduras and El Salvador.

Iran and Nicaragua remain close, with Iran sending its foreign affairs minister for a visit in July 2019.

Even with the powers of designation at the disposal of Honduras and Guatemala, actual intelligence and justice system capabilities may lag behind Hizballah’s clandestine operatives working in the region, said Renzo Rosal, a political analyst with the Association of Social Investigation and Studies, a Guatemala think tank.

“This is part of a trend at the global level where expressing these kinds of statements, especially in the case of Guatemala, is largely symbolic,” Rosal told the IPT. “Guatemala works well in other things, but for the detection of terrorist operations and groups? They seem to me to be quite weak, and therefore there will be a lot of dependence on what the United States does in the region.”

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Todd Bensman

Todd Bensman

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Todd Bensman is Senior National Security Fellow for the Center for Immigration Studies, a 9-year counterterrorism intelligence manager, and 23-year journalist