The small Central American nation of Guatemala does not usually pop first in literature and intelligence about Lebanese Hezbollah's operations deep in the heart of South America. So any surprise would be expected when the government of Guatemala in October, very far from that action, suddenly designated the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim paramilitary group, and all of its branches, as a terrorist organization.
Guatemala's designation follows one by Honduras in January and three other Latin America nations – Argentina, Paraguay, and Colombia – in 2019. The designations theoretically subject Hezbollah and anyone caught supporting it to surveillance, asset seizures, arrest, and prosecution in coordination with the American intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
But the seemingly incongruous designations are more connected with a broader U.S. strategic initiative to pressure Hezbollah's South America revenue lifelines as the group and its primary sponsor, Iran, reportedly reel under harsh U.S. economic sanctions. ...
Guatemala's designation came after close coordination with the U.S. National Security Council.
Guatemala's designation came after close coordination with the U.S. National Security Council as part of that broader effort to crack down on Hezbollah money laundering and illicit finance operations, a spokeswoman for President Alejandro Giammattei told the Investigative Project on Terrorism.
In an email exchange, Francis Masek would not discuss the extent to which Hezbollah operatives were active in Central America, only that "security reports" show the group as "having a presence in Latin America" with some presumed spillover through Guatemala.
"We know that the terrorist group has a presence in Latin America and that is why coordination has been initiated with neighboring countries, to counteract the presence of members of the group in the Central American Region," Masek explained. As to the extent that Hezbollah is active in her region, she replied, "There has probably been some kind of undeclared presence but only as passage, like drugs, let's say."
Though probably unrelated, but with beneficial timing, the U.S. effort to expand the assortment of Latin America countries willing to make life riskier for Hezbollah occurs as Iran has repeatedly vowed to retaliate against the United States for the Jan. 3. assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. Iranian leaders have said they could attack anywhere at any time and, even before his death, Soleimani gave a speech during which he called out the American president: "Mr. Gambler, Trump! I'm telling you that we are close to you, exactly where you wouldn't think that we are."
A menacing presence
Guatemala and Honduras were late comers to the Hezbollah-designation party in the Americas, joining Colombia, Paraguay and Argentina during 2019.
Of the five, Argentina was a key first player and not just because the country suffered the 1992 and 1994 bombings of the Israeli embassy and the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association community center in Buenos Aires. After Argentina branded Hezbollah a terrorist organization in July 2019, it froze the assets of 14 Hezbollah associates present in the country at the time, some of whom had "worked closely with numerous extremists" in a Tri-Border free trade zone shared with Paraguay and Brazil.
Significant to the Argentine effort was the Paraguay designation, which targeted Hezbollah operatives known to be operating in the free trade zone.
In Peru, authorities arrested Muhammad Ghaleb Hamdar, an apparent operative of Hezbollah's clandestine services arm, Unit 910, named for stockpiling explosives and weapons and using false documents. The unit's operatives have been found in Colombia and Venezuela. In 2017, Bolivia uncovered a Hezbollah cache of explosives.
Further north, though, open source reporting about Hezbollah activity in Central America and Mexico is spotty at best. The U.S. State Department's most recent annual Country Report on Terrorism covering 2019 doesn't address Honduras or Guatemala at all, though it does mention Panama's cooperation with U.S. law enforcement on "ongoing counterterrorism cases in 2019, including individuals linked to Hezbollah."
Joseph Humire, executive director of the Center for a Secure Free Society and a Middle East Forum fellow, praised the recent Latin America terrorism designations because they "put us all in the same language, on the same page," especially in "countries that always knew Hezbollah was there."
Humire, who spends time with local intelligence officials in Central American countries like Guatemala, said that while intelligence agencies are not certain about Hezbollah "density" closer to the U.S. border, he is seeing evidence of increasing presence and activity.
"There is a significant documented presence in Mexico" through Iranian cultural networks, he said, and more recently a center of Hezbollah operations became "very active" in a free-trade zone that straddles Belize, Mexico, and Guatemala. This one connects through Venezuela with other illicit Hezbollah operations in South America.
"There's always been a concern about the Belize presence," said Humire.
Humire cautioned, however, that designations from five countries in the Americas is merely a good start and complained that 30 more haven't acted and are vulnerable to Hezbollah operating with relative impunity. ...
Even with the powers of designation at the disposal of Honduras and Guatemala, actual intelligence and justice system capabilities may lag behind Hezbollah's clandestine operatives working in the region, said Renzo Rosal, a political analyst with the Association of Social Investigation and Studies, a Guatemala think tank.
"This is part of a trend at the global level where expressing these kinds of statements, especially in the case of Guatemala, is largely symbolic," Rosal told the IPT. "Guatemala works well in other things, but for the detection of terrorist operations and groups? They seem to me to be quite weak, and therefore there will be a lot of dependence on what the United States does in the region."
Todd Bensman is a fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior national security fellow for the Center for Immigration Studies. He previously led counterterrorism-related intelligence efforts for the Texas Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division.