The counterterrorism conversation in Latin America is changing. On July 16, the Macri government of Argentina made history by becoming the first country in Latin America to officially designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
Less than one month later, on August 9, the Paraguayan government followed suit and also officially recognized Hezbollah as a terror organization. Now, at least two other countries in the region are seriously considering issuing the same counterterrorism designation in the near future.
Regardless of how long it takes, the proverbial train has left the station in Latin America and regional governments are waking up to the fact that Hezbollah is a terror threat in the Western hemisphere.
Latin America is waking up to the fact that Hezbollah is a terror threat in the Western hemisphere.
It is important to note that these policy shifts do not happen in a vacuum. Regional counterterrorism cooperation is catalyzed by conversations that take place behind the scenes about Iran and Hezbollah's malign influence in the region. I have been fortunate enough to take part in some of these conversations, and here are the top five takeaways:
1. Financial intelligence and oversight are paramount.
During the recent Hezbollah terror designation in Argentina, the role of its financial intelligence unit was imperative in shaping internal government perspectives on Hezbollah and establishing the legal mechanisms for making the formal designation.
One year prior to the formal designation, the Financial Intelligence Unit of Argentina (Unidad de Inteligencia Financiera or UIF-AR by its Spanish acronym), led by Mariano Federici, froze the assets of 14 individuals belonging to the Barakat Clan, a powerful Lebanese crime family with ties to Hezbollah. One of the conduits for these Hezbollah money launderers was a casino in the city of Iguazú on the Argentine side of the Tri-Border Area (TBA). The UIF press release stated that "clan members allegedly collected money at the casino in Iguazú for fake prizes totaling more than $10 million, without declaring the funds when crossing the border." This Argentine action on July 11, 2018 was more than symbolic: it was a legal precedent to prove that Hezbollah's financiers and facilitators are still active in Argentina.
This successful financial intelligence operation, coordinated with the U.S. Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), was the first government action taken by President Mauricio Macri against Hezbollah. One year later, on July 16, 2019, President Macri signed Executive Decree 489, officially creating the "Public Registry of Persons and Entities linked to Terrorism and its Financing" or RePET, by its Spanish acronym. The registry has been filled with more than 1,000 entries, many of them members, facilitators, or financiers of Hezbollah.
In the U.S. the Treasury Department, through its Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, led by Assistant Secretary Marshall Billingslea, has made historic advances, sanctioning more than 50 Hezbollah-related persons or entities since 2017 as part of a larger effort at dismantling Hezbollah's global financial network. The synchronization of these efforts by the U.S. and Argentina is a model for understanding how FIUs are a valuable tool to help regional governments build cases against Hezbollah in Latin America.
2. Countering the convergence of crime and terror is critical.
While Latin America may be relatively new to the intricacies involved in combatting Islamist terrorism, the region is certainly not new to countering transnational organized crime (CTOC). In most countries in Latin America, in fact, CTOC is among their top national security priorities. That is why, when the Department of Justice (DOJ), on October 15, 2018, designated Hezbollah as one of the world's top five transnational criminal organizations, many Latin American governments turned their attention to Hezbollah's illicit networks.
The relatively new Hezbollah Financing Narcoterrorism Team (HFNT) at the U.S. Department of Justice, led by Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Cronan, is doing critical work coordinating Hezbollah-related prosecutions across the country, and assisting foreign prosecutors in Latin America through training opportunities and workshops.
One of these training opportunities took place a month before Argentina designated Hezbollah as a terror organization, on June 12, 2019, when the U.S. and Argentina teamed up for a two-day workshop on Hezbollah. Law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and financial practitioners from six countries in South America traveled to Buenos Aires to discuss various techniques to constrain and counter Hezbollah's illicit activities. These efforts are led in Argentina by Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, who has also partnered with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in examining the convergence of crime and terror.
The National Defense University (NDU) has provided the intellectual horsepower on the topic and has already published two books on it. On July 15-16, 2019, the week of the 25th commemoration of Iran's bombing of the Jewish community center, AMIA, in Argentina, NDU's regional center, the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, partnered with Minister Bullrich and her team at the Argentine Ministry of Security for a workshop on the convergence of crime and terror, in which Hezbollah's role in Latin America was discussed at length. The approach of discussing Hezbollah as equal parts of crime and terror, allows the U.S. and Latin America to gain a full picture of the organization's transnational threat.
3. Regional forums on counterterrorism cooperation are key.
For the past two years in Latin America, the Trump administration has been spearheading counterterrorism conferences, workshops, and events that allow the governments of the region to interact with one another and share their best practices on countering Hezbollah's crime and terror networks.
A series of ministerial counterterrorism conferences have proven to be among the most prominent in the Western Hemisphere.
The first ministerial conference on counterterrorism in many years took place on December 11, 2018, when senior officials from 13 countries in Latin America came to Washington D.C. to work together to address regional gaps to counter terrorist threats. As U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan said at the time:
[T]ransnational terrorism poses an immediate threat to us here in the Western Hemisphere. Although the perceived center of gravity seems far away, groups like ISIS, al-Qa'ida, and Lebanese Hizballah operate where they can find recruits, raise support, operate unchecked, and pursue their terrorist agendas.
Later in his speech, Deputy Secretary Sullivan called on our regional partners to do more as "our safety depends on working with all of you [in Latin America] on security as we continue to improve our own."
His call was answered at the Second Hemispheric Counterterrorism Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires, on July 19, 2019, when an additional five countries joined the event, and Brazil moved from being an observer to a member. At the Second Ministerial Conference, 18 regional governments signed a joint communiqué on counterterrorism cooperation, acknowledging, and expressing concern for, Hezbollah's regional presence. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended to show solidarity with Argentina's terror designation of Hezbollah and encourage other regional governments also to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Colombia will host the third ministerial counterterrorism conference, scheduled to take place in Bogota in mid-January 2020.
It did not take long for the impact of these summits to prompt Argentina's neighbors. Just a few weeks after it, on August 9, 2019, Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benitez signed Executive Decree 2307, officially recognizing Hezbollah as a terrorist organization in Paraguay, and accentuating the Lebanese terror group's presence in the Tri-Border Area (TBA). Later that month, on August 22, 2019, regional officials traveled to the TBA for the inaugural inter-agency Trinational Security Conference in Foz do Iguaço, Brazil. All of the senior actors involved in designating Hezbollah a terror group in Argentina and Paraguay took part in it, as did important security officials from Brazil's Ministry of Justice and Federal Police, thereby placing additional impetus on Brazil also to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
4. Congressman and Parliamentarians shape the narrative.
Many regional forums helped shape the narrative and increased cooperation in countering terrorism in Latin America, prior to the official ministerial conferences. Among the most significant was the Parliamentary Intelligence Security Forum (PISF), organized by Robert Pittenger, a former Congressman from North Carolina. Congressman Pittenger has been organizing the PISF for several years; he held the first regional forum in Buenos Aires on November 21, 2016, with the UIF and the National Congress of Argentina. It was at this 2016 forum, almost three years ago, that initial conversations took place about the need to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization in Argentina.
Fast forward a few years, and a more recent regional PISF was in Asuncion, Paraguay, on January 14, 2019; it was this event that prompted Paraguay's recent terror designation of Hezbollah. Above all, the parliamentarians who attended these forums worked diligently to help fellow legislators in their countries understand the legal vacuum in Latin America regarding international terrorism.
This was certainly true for Argentine Congressman Luis Petri, the head of the National Security Commission in the Argentine Congress, who worked closely with Macri's government to find the political and legal path toward designating Hezbollah a terror organization. Prior to the designation, Congressman Petri carefully communicated the Macri government's efforts with regional and extra-regional allies, and after the designation, amplified the news in Brazil, Paraguay, and the United States.
Congressman Petri also took part in the initial PISF in 2016, the ministerial in Buenos Aires in 2019, and recently presented at the Trinational Security Conference in Foz do Iguaço, Brazil, as well as an event organized by the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS) at the U.S. Senate. His efforts have been vital in shaping the narrative as to why the terror designation of Hezbollah is important for Latin America.
5. Public awareness and education are needed to ensure that the designations are sustainable.
Argentine President Macri's leadership and political will have succeeded in establishing tremendous momentum for other Latin American governments to think critically about Hezbollah, as evidenced in President Abdo's recognition of the Lebanese terror group in Paraguay last month.
At this moment, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, and President Ivan Duque of Colombia, are working potentially to designate Hezbollah in their own countries for what it is -- a foreign terrorist organization.
What happens, however, when political winds shift, and new politicians come to power in Latin America who may have less political will to tackle this problem?
That is why it is incredibly important to raise the public's awareness and educate Latin Americans on the nature of Hezbollah's crime and terror networks. Several efforts have been made for several years by like-minded non-governmental organizations and think tanks, such as the Gatestone Institute, Middle East Forum, Fuente Latina, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, American Foreign Policy Council, and many more, that have been at the forefront of catalyzing a region-wide conversation on the issue. I also have worked diligently alongside these organizations and with my own, the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS), to educate Latin American leaders and the public on the transnational terror threat that Hezbollah poses to their countries, but far more needs to be done.
Malcolm Hoenlein, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, emphasized this point in a moving speech at a recent SFS event on Capitol Hill when he reminded us that "while Jews are often the first victims [of Hezbollah attacks] we are never the last..." The AMIA attack may have taken place 25 years ago, it may be perceived as simply an attack on Jewish-Argentines, not the country of Argentina. But this is wrong. The AMIA attack serves to remind us that the threat is close to home, and recent Hezbollah-related cases in Peru and Paraguay show that their terror actions in Latin America are far from over.
The time is long overdue for Latin America to catch up to the world in counterterrorism cooperation against Hezbollah.
The recent designations in Argentina and Paraguay of Hezbollah as a terrorist group are just the beginning. A window is open for other Latin American countries to follow in their footsteps and now, thanks to Argentina, we have a roadmap for how to do it. 2019 is critical because as political winds often shift in Latin America, the momentum throughout the region must not be stopped.
The time is long overdue for Latin America to catch up to the world in counterterrorism cooperation to stop Hezbollah from taking root and spreading its influence in our hemisphere.
Joseph M. Humire is the executive director of the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS), a fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a distinguished senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute.