The Tri-Border Area (TBA) between Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina is an important area for Hezbollah’s global activities. It is a highly profitable international criminal hub – with illicit activities ranging from drug and tobacco smuggling to weapons trading – and host to a large expatriate Lebanese Shiite community.
Many of these expats are involved in the region’s illicit trade and might be giving Hezbollah a cut of their profits. Those not involved in crime are a potential pool of supporters, donors, and recruits for the organisation, and also provide it with a critical foothold in the Western Hemisphere. To ensure its continued access to this source of funds and supporters, Hezbollah has built up a social infrastructure amidst the TBA’s Lebanese Shiites to make its regional presence permanent.
The TBA possesses many of the characteristics which allowed Hezbollah to flourish in Lebanon. Like Beirut, the TBA’s authorities are either corrupt or weak, diminishing their control over the region, and creating a parallel situation to south Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley. As a result, the TBA’s borders are porous and poorly policed – like the Syrian-Lebanese border – allowing the free bidirectional flow of materiel, money, and personnel.
The TBA’s criminal networks also mirror the Bekaa’s drug-trading clans, with whom Hezbollah has established a lucrative modus vivendi. There, the group is heavily invested in the production and sale of Captagon, moving the drug into Syria, and then selling it abroad, primarily in the Gulf States. Hezbollah’s also uses its criminal connections for a military purpose against Israel, using drug smugglers to recruit and fund cells of Palestinians and Arab Israelis to plan or carry out attacks and reconnaissance. However, the most important similarity is the TBA’s large Lebanese Shiite community which creates a host environment for Hezbollah.
Lebanese Shiites began emigrating to South America in the late 1970s and early 1980s, both to escape Lebanon’s civil war and Israel’s military invasions, and to replicate the financial success of the earlier Lebanese Shiite migration to West Africa. Hailing largely from the village of Qabrikha and the Western Bekaa – two Hezbollah strongholds – they moved to Brazil’s Foz do Iguacu. Their community expanded across the porous border into Paraguay, particularly in Alto Parana and its main city of Ciudad del Este.
Hezbollah followed on their heels, building a presence in the TBA shortly after its rise in Lebanon. By that time, many Lebanese Shiite expats had entered the narcotics trade, though their involvement in the illicit activity would only take off in the subsequent decade. The United States almost immediately took note of this nexus, arresting several Lebanese in Latin America as part of Operation Green Ice, only to subsequently discover their potential link to Hezbollah.
Around the same time, the FBI also discovered that Hezbollah cells in Latin America had linked up with their US-based counterparts. Despite this, it was not until after the 11 September 2001 attacks that Washington began considering the group’s TBA presence and activities a national security threat. By that time, Hezbollah had embedded itself among the TBA’s Lebanese Shiites via a vast social infrastructure paralleling its sprawling apparatus in Lebanon, albeit with more emphasis on promulgating its ideology via religious, social, and educational institutions than social services. Hezbollah-controlled mosques, schools, and scouts are the focal points of this ideological dissemination, focusing particularly on the younger generation.
On the surface, these institutions appear benign, carrying out Shiite religious and Lebanese cultural activities. Unlike Hezbollah in Lebanon, most of these institutions bear neutral names emphasising their Lebanese – rather than sectarian – affiliation, like the Escola Libanesa-Brasileira or the Grupo Escoteiro Libano Brasileiro. The notable exception is the Imam Khomeini Husseiniyah [Shiite religious centre], which also hosts many youth activities. However, subtle hints give away their Hezbollah affiliation, including the ubiquitous presence of Sheikh Bilal Mohsen Wehbe – Hassan Nasrallah’s appointee as the group’s chief representative in South America.
In a first, Argentina has frozen the assets of a suspected Hezbollah fundraising network in the area known as the Triple Frontier with Brazil and Paraguay. https://t.co/OQxtEBmiAN
— Valentina Pasquali (@VPasquali) July 17, 2018
Like Hezbollah’s institutions at home, these institutions aim to reframe both Shiite Islam and Lebanese identity through the group’s “resistance” narrative, making them synonymous. As such, both the schools and scouts heavily emphasise commemorating the May 25 anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon and place “resistance” at the centre of Lebanese Independence Day celebrations, or even in activities teaching students about their Lebanese hometown
The community’s institutions also celebrate International Quds Day, and their Ashoura commemorations also bear symbols of direct Hezbollah sponsorship. Through these institutions, Hezbollah binds the TBA’s expat Lebanese Shiite community to the organisation back in Lebanon while also creating a reservoir of potential agents and supporters. In fact, some scout leaders have become agents for Hezbollah–affiliated organisations in Lebanon and some have even fought among its cadres in Syria.
Like Hezbollah’s parallel structure in Lebanon, this broad TBA social network also protects the group from law enforcement. Criminal or terrorist organisations can ultimately be dismantled. Social movements, however, are harder to counteract, and have a perpetual pool of recruits, supporters, and funds. Any effort to stymie Hezbollah in South America must tackle this difficult reality.
Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia. Published under a Creative Commons license.