May 9, 2017 | Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Emerging External Influences in the Western Hemisphere

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Chairman Rubio, Ranking Member Menendez, members of the Subcommittee, on behalf of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and its Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance, I thank you for the opportunity to testify.

Across the Western Hemisphere, Islamic terror networks are expanding their influence by increasingly cooperating with violent drug cartels, often with the assistance of corrupt political elites. This toxic nexus is fueling both the rising threat of global jihadism and the collapse of law and order across Latin America that is helping drive drugs and people northward into the United States. Developing a strategy to combat this growing risk to the American homeland needs to be a U.S. policy priority. One of its primary targets should be Iran’s most deadly proxy, the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.

Thanks to a vast network of support in key areas of Latin America, Hezbollah plays a central role in a new landscape where drug and human trafficking, gun running, illicit cigarette trade, trade-based money laundering, and terror financing can no longer be treated as distinct phenomena. Terror organizations like Hezbollah help criminal cartels and local mafias move merchandise to their markets. They then launder revenues through sales of consumer goods. Finally, those profits fund terrorist activities.

Hezbollah’s enduring success in the region is the result of a deadly combination: the purchase of political influence and impunity through corrupt political elites in key Latin American countries, and the reliance on a network of expatriates who collude in illicit and highly profitable schemes, motivated by a varying mix of familial loyalties, greed, religious zeal, and opportunism.

Behind Hezbollah stands Iran, which seeks to leverage the group’s networks to gain political influence, while helping it expand its base of supporters and protect their illicit activities. Although Iran’s quest for regional influence and Hezbollah’s infrastructure of organized crime and terror finance may superficially appear to be separate endeavors, in fact Hezbollah’s Latin American operation is an integral part of Tehran’s strategy, as it relies on Iran’s support while in turn provides assistance to Iranian operations when needed.

Iran’s and Hezbollah’s operations in Latin America thus intersect and mutually reinforce one another. Both pursue goals that are not only diametrically opposed to U.S. interests but also clearly pose a direct threat to American national security.

In my testimony, I will outline their separate but intertwined operations, identify key trends, and characterize the nature and reach of its operations. I will then offer policy suggestions for Congress and the administration.