By Lisa McKinnon Munde
In partisan debates on border security, policymakers often bombastically cite the catastrophic scenario of cooperation between drug traffickers — those with demonstrated capability to circumvent security measures along our southern border —, and terror groups — who unabashedly and publicly commit to the use of violence to inculcate fear among Americans.
What they rarely discuss, however, is the extent to which such cooperation is already taking place.
This week, the DEA announced the arrests of Hezbollah operatives with connections to ‘La Oficina de Envigado,’ a major Colombian Drug Trafficking organization responsible for a large share of the cocaine shipped to US and European markets. The presence in Latin America of Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based and Iran-backed Shi’a Islamic terror group is hardly news.
The group has been active in money laundering and other illicit activities in the region for decades, predominantly in the lawless tri-border region between Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina. Most notably, Hezbollah bombed a Jewish center in Buenos Aires in 1994, killing 85 and wounding hundreds. However, the recent increase in cooperation with drug traffickers, as evidenced by these high-profile arrests, represents an alarming trend and a dangerous prospect for the future of hemispheric security.
Falling oil prices are affecting Iran’s economy, and Hezbollah must diversify and pursue other revenue streams. The lucrative Latin American drug trade is a natural choice.
Extremist Middle Eastern groups have routinely demonstrated an interest in harnessing regional criminal activity to further their political aims. In 2011, the DEA thwarted a plan devised by Mannsor Arbabsiar, a naturalized citizen of Iranian descent with ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador.
He recruited Los Zetas cartel members experienced with explosives to place a bomb in a Washington, DC café frequented by the ambassador in exchange for US$1.5 million. Fortunately, the lead cartel member was in fact a DEA informant, and the assassination attempt was foiled.
Such anecdotes demonstrate the dangerous potential of an alliance between drug traffickers and terrorist organizations. Traffickers have established elaborate and undetectable logistics networks throughout the region and in the United States. International terrorist groups have the intent of carrying out violent attacks against US interests, particularly on US soil.
“Threat equals capability plus intent.” This axiom is taught on day one of US military intelligence training. Nonetheless, the US military and homeland defense communities continue to ignore one of the most disconcerting threats in our hemisphere: the drug-terror nexus.
While some officials, including former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, have been quick to downplay these links as isolated collaborations, two external factors are likely to increase the cooperation between Latin American narcos and terror groups like Hezbollah in the near-term.
First, Hezbollah’s funding from Iran is at risk of stagnation in the coming years. Despite lifting sanctions this month as part of the nuclear deal, Iran’s economy will not receive the windfall it may have anticipated largely due to falling oil prices caused by high supply. This reality, coupled with Iran being overextended in proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, will mean it will need to reassess global financial commitments.
Analysts contend that tight finances have forced Hezbollah to cut their fighters’ salaries. This situation leaves Hezbollah with no option but to diversify and pursue other revenue streams in order to grow.
The lucrative drug trade is a natural choice, and Latin America, home to large Shi’a Lebanese populations, represents an unsuspecting venue of operations. The region is largely overlooked in the overall US National Security Strategy, and the US government at present does not have a strategy for dealing with Islamic terrorism from Latin America.
Second, as the US and its partners in Latin America continue to meet success in targeting the leadership of the hemisphere’s principal drug gangs, such as the recent re-capture of the Sinaloa cartel leader “El Chapo,” the splintering effect on the cartels lends itself to cooperation with new entities such as radical Islamic terror organizations.
According to conventional wisdom, the sophisticated bosses of large cartels would never intentionally align themselves with terror organizations, since they fear that such alliances would bring additional scrutiny and resistance from US counterterrorism and intelligence teams.
The US government does not have a strategy for dealing with Islamic terrorism from Latin America.
However, in the wake of the disruption and decapitation of established cartels, the less disciplined leaders of decentralized cells are prone to have fewer reservations about cooperating with terror groups, particularly if they perceive short-term benefits. Indeed, this tendency accounts for the alarming surge of violence among Mexican cartels after the decapitation of the major Colombian cartels of the 1980s and 1990s.
Today, on the verge of a peace-deal with the FARC in Colombia, the Colombian Attorney General’s office has named micro-trafficking from one of the 2,500 small organizations scattered across Colombia as the country’s new greatest security threat. Dismantling the major drug conglomerates resembles cutting off one of the hydra‘s heads. Immediately, two more will grow in its place.
Now is the time to deal with such threats to ensure they remain isolated incidents. As external factors facilitate collusion between traffickers and terrorists, US policymakers should be diligent in confronting and countering these new relationships with our longstanding regional partners.
We have waged transnational wars on terror and on drugs, but if we continue to ignore this ever-worrisome trend, we may face a new, more formidable challenge that fuses these two perennial threats.
Lisa McKinnon Munde is a graduate of the US Naval Academy at Annapolis and received a Master of Arts in Latin American Studies from Stanford University. She served six years as a Naval Intelligence Officer, primarily in support of elite Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) Teams during global contingency operations.