By Terence Rosenthal*
When Americans think about the illegal drug trade and black markets in Mexico, it is probable that they do not associate them with terrorism, or Islamic fundamentalism. One would think that drug cartels like Los Zetas, the most sophisticated and second most powerful drug cartel in Mexico would have enough allies and connections not to need the assistance of an organization like Hezbollah based half way across the world in Lebanon. However, there is proof that Hezbollah, as well as elements of the Iranian Quds force are functioning with cartels like Los Zetas, the most sophisticated drug cartel in Mexico. The combination of power hungry cartels like Los Zetas, and terrorist organizations like Hezbollah who want a presence in North America, in or near the United States inhibit U.S. companies from wanting to conduct business in Mexico, and should not remain unnoticed.
The question is, how did this deadly alliance come into existence? For decades, immigrants, legal and illegal, have been arriving in Mexico from Lebanon. This population has been growing steadily, and has a certain level of favorability with Hezbollah. One of the creations of Hezbollah in Mexico is that of well-connected global drug dealers, like Ayman Joumaa. Joumaa, indicted in 2011 is of Lebanese heritage, and has been linked to Hezbollah, and Mexico’s Los Zetas cartel. With the help of the Los Zetas, and companies like The Lebanese Canadian Bank, Ayman Joumaa has laundered between $850 and $900 million.
Joumaa is known among Israeli intelligence as being in contact with Hezbollah elite forces, and was connected to senior operatives handling Hezbollah drug operations. He has received bulk payments of U.S. dollars in Mexico City after coordinating drug shipments from South America to the Los Zetas cartel, receiving a cut for laundering and camouflaging funds. Drug and contraband profits were disguised through the trading and selling of used cars through an exchange in Africa with the help of Beirut exchange houses. Eventually, similar fraud rings connected to Joumaa were discovered throughout North and South America, and the Middle East. Various methods of investment fraud are typically used by drug dealers to cover their tracks. Many fraud rings use creative investment tactics that can pass as legal activity if not scrutinized. One such operation involved the selling of thorough-bred horses to cover up the trade of millions of dollars in fraudulent drug money.
Since 2005, Iran and Hezbollah have developed a presence in Latin America, opening 17 cultural centers, and forming relations with the Mexican drug cartels. 200,000 immigrants from Lebanon and Syria, many of whom are illegal residents, live in Mexico, and have established residence with the help of drug cartels like Los Zetas, the most technically advanced of Mexico’s drug cartels. Those who are sympathetic to Islamic extremist movements make perfect recruits for the drug trade because they understand how illegal activity in the Americas empowers whoever wishes to weaken the power of U.S. sovereignty. As shown by the increase of Islamic missionaries in Mexico, as well as the growing influence of Hezbollah and Iran, it is clear that Islamists are trying to win the hearts and minds of the Mexican people. However, beneath these seemingly peaceful developments lie the fact that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard and Quds forces are partnering with major Mexican drug cartels. They are learning Mexican culture, as well as Spanish, and are starting to blend in with native-born Mexicans.
Hezbollah has training bases and sleeper cells in Mexico and South America. They also assist drug cartels with skills in bomb-making and explosives. Hezbollah has also created tunnels on the American border that are extremely similar to those dividing Gaza and Egypt. These tunnels are perfect for the transport of illegal conventional and biological weapons to contacts in the United States. Weaponry created by Hezbollah is capable of killing hundreds of thousands of people in major U.S. cities.
Former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roger Noriega believes that an attack on U.S. personnel installations by Hezbollah is possible. It is known that they have expanded from their operations in Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina, and are gaining ground in Central America and Mexico. The relationship between Hezbollah and Los Zetas has almost touched down on American soil. Los Zetas was to be paid to bomb the Israeli Embassy in Washington, and the Saudi and Israeli embassy in Argentina. Why is the combination of well-connected drug dealers, terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, and the Zetas such a dangerous combination? It is a money laundering operation that has the power to supersede local government, weaken communities, and make people subject to criminal tyranny. It is highly possible that this threat could become a reality in the United States. In 2011, Iran’s Quds forces attempted an assassination against the Saudi Ambassador to the United States enlisting the use of the Los Zetas cartel. Luckily, this plot was thwarted by agents in the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
The Los Zetas Cartel is a deadly crime machine that diversifies in illegal drugs, human trade, money laundering, and the exchange of illegal weaponry. Many of its members were recruited from police and armed forces in Mexico. Techniques involving ambushes, defensive positions, and intelligence used by the military are now applied by Mexico’s criminal syndicates. Los Zetas is prominent in 6 Mexican states, and actively infringes on government solvency in northeastern Tamaulipas. Many view the Mexican state of Guerrero as one where the power of Los Zetas narco-criminals is equal to that of the local authorities. Los Zetas has even siphoned $1billion dollars in fuels from state-run oil producer, Pemex through their pipelines. In Tamaulipas, five people were killed as Los Zetas sought to take control of a Pemex well. Some of Los Zetas’ allies are among the most powerful cartels in the world, including Beltrán-Leyva, the Juarez and Tijuana cartels, Bolivian drug clans, and ’Ndrangheta.
It is understandable why the Mexican government would be apprehensive about marginalizing the power of Mexican drug cartels. They have seen many of their people die as a result of the war against the cartels. The Mexican economy also benefits greatly from the high profit margins of illicit drugs and other forms of illegal contraband. Latin America is home to one of the largest underground economies in the world. 600,000-800,000 people are smuggled through international borders every year, generating $16 billion each year in human trafficking and sexual exploitation. These staggering financial statistics have won over many law officers in Mexico who initially fought against the cartels.
The lure of criminal activity and the drug trade, coupled with the presence of Hezbollah and Iranian Quds forces in neighboring Mexico present the United States with a major threat at its borders. Dr. Matthew Levitt, senior fellow and director of terrorism studies at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, as reported in CNS News.com in 2010 stated that Hezbollah’s ties to Latin American drug smugglers poses a “significant” threat for U.S. national security and “In the event the nuclear confrontation with Iran gets worse rather than better, having a militant organization like Hezbollah on, and even within our border- it certainly does pose a threat”. The obvious question is whether or not the United States is taking the necessary precautions to counter what is likely to become an even larger problem if left undeterred.
*Terence Rosenthal is a political consultant and writer who is currently interning at The Center for Security Policy in Washington D.C.
THE AMERICAS REPORT
NANCY MENGES and
LUIS FLEISCHMAN, Editors
The Americas Report is the featured product of the Center for Security Policy‘s Menges Hemispheric Security Project. It features in-depth, original articles on subjects not regularly covered by the American press.
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