Iran, Hezbollah Tentacles Reaching Latin America

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Prior to 9/11, no terrorist group had killed more Americans than Hezbollah. Like its patron, Iran, Hezbollah is committed to America's destruction.

Now the two jihadist forces are spreading their tentacles throughout Latin America and, according to experts, could go operational at a moment's notice.

New Bullies on the Block

For more than two centuries, the United States has served as guardian of the Western hemisphere.

That role only expanded with the Cuban missile crisis and the spread of Soviet communism into Latin America.

Iran and Hezbollah represent a new threat in America's backyard.

"Over the last 10 years, we have seen a very concerted effort to expand," former Bush administration official Jose Cardenas said.

"They are using mosques in Argentina and all the way up through the continent to proselytize, to identify disaffected Latin youth, to recruit, to convert," he said.

Cardenas, an associate for Vision Americas, told CBN News that Iran and Hezbollah have established a vast network throughout Latin America.

"The whole objective of this strategy is not only to expand their reach but also to undermine the United States' interests in the region, developing assets, developing intelligence, so that when an order comes to go operational, it is almost instantaneous that they can," he explained.

Iran's Latin Hub

Venezuela is Iran's main hub in Latin America.

Prior to 2005, Iran's investment in the South American country was zero.

Yet in the past six years alone, Iran and Venezuela have conducted over $40 billion in trade, as Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez has embraced the Iranians with open arms.

"They have identified each other as mutually useful, beneficial partners," Cardenas said.

"And so, as Iran has attempted to evade international sanctions, Hugo Chavez has invited them in to basically establish a platform that allows Iran to use the Venezuelan banking system - from which they're prohibited from using elsewhere - in the international economic system," he explained.

Cardenas said the Iranians are using Venezuela not only to evade sanctions but to mine for uranium that will be used to build nuclear weapons.

There have also been reports that Iran plans to build a missile base in Venezuela.

"These missiles would obviously be able to hit urban centers in Florida," Cardenas warned. "They would also be able to debilitate the Panama Canal."

"And if they debilitate the Panama Canal, that would have profound economic consequences for the United States," he added.

Cardenas believes that in the event of a U.S. or Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, Iran is well-positioned to strike back.

"If the U.S. cold war with Iran turns hot, they're going to use their platform in Venezuela to strike at U.S. interests" he said.

Hezbollah Targets 'Tri-Border'

Wherever Iran goes, its terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, is never far behind. That includes Latin America.

"Iran has traditionally used Hezbollah as a unit to conduct their dirty work," Cardenas said.

Hezbollah has maintained a presence in the notorious "tri-border" region of South America for three decades.

The group used this lawless area -- located where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay meet - as a launching pad to attack a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires and the Israeli embassy in Argentina during the early 1990s. 

Hundreds of people were killed in those attacks.

Hezbollah set up shop in the tri-border region because of its large population of Arab expatriates.

It's used the same strategy on Margarita Island, off the coast of Venezuela.

"We know that in April of this year, there were a couple of Iranian Hezbollah trainers that did training on Margarita Island for operatives who were brought to that place from throughout Latin America," said Roger Noriega, a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute.

More than Basic Training

Noriega, a former State Department official, told CBN News that Hezbollah uses Latin America for training, fundraising, and much more.

A recent Italian media report said the group has even established a cell in Cuba.

"There's a network of mosques and Islamic centers throughout Latin America that are part of this network," Noriega said. "They recruit through them, they process people through them."

The most promising recruits, including Latin American converts to Islam, are sent back to the Iranian holy city of Qom for training.

"Conventional wisdom is 'It's all religious training.' But no: they learn terrorist techniques, explosives, bomb-making and arms training," Noriega said.

Mexican Drug Cartels

U.S. law enforcement officials fear Hezbollah is sharing some of those same techniques with Mexican drug cartels along America's southern border.

Mexican authorities arrested a Hezbollah operative last year for attempting to establish a large network in Mexico.

"You've got narco-drug cartel tunnels underneath the southern border that resemble what you find in southern Lebanon that are built by Hezbollah," Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., told CBN News.

Duncan said those tunnels, combined with the recent use of sophisticated improvised explosive devices by the cartels, point to a possible Hezbollah influence.

"There is a strong connection between Iran, Hezbollah, and the Mexican drug cartel, basically wanting to maximize the fact that we've got a porous southern border," he said.

Those connections nearly became deadly in October, when U.S. authorities uncovered an Iranian plot to use Mexican cartels to target the Israeli and Saudi embassies in Washington, D.C.

On the heels of that plot, Duncan proposed legislation that would make the Western hemisphere a U.S. counterterrorism focus -- specifically the activities of Iran and Hezbollah, whose influence in the region continues to grow.

In the past five years alone, Iran has opened new embassies in six different Latin American countries.

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Erick Stakelbeck

Erick Stakelbeck

CBN News Correspondent

Erick Stakelbeck is a sought after authority on terrorism and national security issues with extensive experience in television, radio, and print media. Stakelbeck is a correspondent and terrorism analyst for CBN News.  Follow Erick on Twitter @Staks33.