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The Dangers of Hezbollah in Latin America
The Los Angeles Timestoday carries an interesting story on the growing ties of Hezbollah in Venezuela.

As the article points out, such ties are not new, but what is more worrisome is the vast amount of cocaine being moved through Venezuela that passes through areas where the Hezbollah presence is most pronounced.

The issue is, of course, Iran's growing presence in the region, something the administration has paid surprising little attention to as the Iranian diplomatic and intelligence presence has mushroomed, not only in Venezuela, but in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.

Even Colombia, one of the few countries that is a strong U.S. ally in the region, has felt the need to allow the Iranians to open an embassy in Bogotá, in large part to have some idea of what that country is up to in the region.

It is passing strange that a socialist revolutionary (Hugo Chavez) and a radical Shite leader (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) have become such fast strategic allies.

It is more strange that Iran is investing billions of dollars and expanding its diplomatic presence throughout Latin America, a region where it has almost no economic ties, no national interest and no historic presence.

This growth, not just in Iranian presence but in the availability of the diplomatic infrastructure to give immunity to activities of Hezbollah and Iran's Revolutionary Guard, will be a destabilizing factor in the region for years to come.

As the story noted:

In June, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas A. Shannon said Iran "has a history of terror in this hemisphere, and its linkages to the bombings in Buenos Aires are pretty well established."

"One of our broader concerns is what Iran is doing elsewhere in this hemisphere and what it could do if we were to find ourselves in some kind of confrontation with Iran," Shannon said.

Hezbollah has a long history of two things that thrive in Venezuela, often in conjunction with the FARC in neighboring Colombia: kidnapping and drug trafficking. The FARC is on the ropes and looking for allies, and, according to senior Colombian officials. Chavez, while publicly distancing himself from the FARC, still allows their leadership movement and access in Venezuela.

Ecuador, on the other side of Colombia, remains an important military rearguard area for the rebels. It is not hard to see how these groups, with a common set of enemies (Colombia and the United States) can form tactical alliances that are useful to all.

There are other causes for concern, on all these fronts, as the story pointed out:

In March 2007, the intensified ties between Venezuela and Iran led to the start of weekly IranAir flights from Tehran to Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, that stop in Damascus.

The flights were highlighted in the State Department's annual assessment of global terrorism, which noted in April of this year that Venezuelan border officials at the Caracas airport often neglected to enter the arriving passengers into their immigration database and did not stamp passports. The Venezuelans have since tightened up on their procedures, informed sources say.

Despite those improvements, the IranAir flights also feature in recent intelligence gathered by Western anti-terrorism officials. Agents of Iran's Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah have allegedly set up a special force to attempt to kidnap Jewish businesspeople in Latin America and spirit them away to Lebanon, according to the Western anti-terrorism official. Iranian and Hezbollah operatives traveling in and out of Venezuela have recruited Venezuelan informants working at the Caracas airport to gather intelligence on Jewish travelers as potential targets for abduction, the Western anti-terrorism official said.

The region is volatile, and yet receives almost no attention from policy makers in either party. I believe in a short time we will be forced to pay attention, whether we want to or not.
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