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Is Hezbollah Opening More Formal Franchises in Latin America?
There is growing concern, both in the U.S. intelligence community and among other groups, that Hezbollah, after years of careful infrastructure building, is now more actively forming franchise operations in Venezuela, Paraguay, Colombia and elsewhere.

Today the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated nine individuals and supporting Hezbollah in the Tri-Border Area, one of a series of designations over the past year aimed at cutting off the expatriate flow of finances to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

According to a recent report Hezbollah now has a website in Venezuela, which claims responsibility for the unsuccessful Oct. 23 attempt to set off explosives near the U.S. embassy in Caracas.

The website, "Hezbollah in Venezuela" said the purpose of the attack was to call attention to the existence of a group by the same name, and to convert Latin America to Islam through Jihad. It promised more violent actions in the near future.

There is no question that Hezbollah has used Latin America for fund raising and a rear-guard area. Reports have circulated for years of training camps in the jungle and other training. Hezbollha has carried out terrorist attacks in the hemisphere. And Chavez has gone out of his way to court Iran as part what he views as a broad-based anti-U.S. coalition.

The international Muslim Brotherhood, which has in the past worked with Hezbollah and Iran's leadership, has an extensive off-shore network in Latin America as well as strong financial interests in Venezuela, Colombia, Guyana and elsewhere.

So the militant presence is not a surprise. The conventional wisdom has been that, while dangerous, Hezbollah is not likely to foul its own nest by becoming militarily operational in Latin America because that would force governments that currently turn a blind eye to take action.

However, if Hezbollah becomes a more action-oriented, it would pose a significant challenge to the United States, especially if it manages to tie into the growing anti-U.S. mood that is sweeping Latin America, from Venezuela to Bolivia and Nicaragua. While Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay also have governments of the left, they act responsibly. Morales, Ortega and Chavez are wild cards, untethered from a sense of need to act responsibly in the international arena.

However, this would also pose a serious challenge to Chavez and others who may be flirting with allowing the operations of radical Islamist groups.

A religious group, if that is really what this is, would not be suseptible to Chavez's tactics of either intimidation or cooptation. If they are preparing to attack the U.S. Embassy without government sponsorship, the government will be forced to react, and will face the necessity of paying an international price for something it may not be prepared to pay for.

Interesting time, and time to start paying attention to Latin America again.
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