For more than a decade, Brazil’s left-wing governments shunned Israel and did little to prevent Hezbollah’s growth in their own backyard. Hezbollah relies heavily on the proceeds of transnational crime networks, especially in the Tri-Border Area (TBA), or Triple Frontier, of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, but until recently, Brazilian officials were loath to acknowledge its presence in their country or its involvement in organized crime.
Then, last October, Jair Bolsonaro, a fervently pro-Israel firebrand politician and former military officer, won Brazil’s presidency. Bolsonaro’s top priority is fighting organized crime. Combating Hezbollah’s terror finance is a vital Israeli interest. Making the case that Israel’s and Brazil’s interests perfectly dovetail should be easy: the US Department of Justice recently designated Hezbollah as a transnational criminal organization, and Hezbollah’s partnership with Latin American drug cartels is long-standing and well documented. Last September, Brazil arrested a top Hezbollah terror financier in the TBA. Numerous ongoing Hezbollah terrorism finance, money laundering and drug trafficking cases in the US involve Lebanese with Brazilian citizenship and Brazilian companies.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clearly understands that Bolsonaro’s victory is important to Israel’s interests. He quickly moved to exploit the new pro-Israel mood in Brasilia during his recent weeklong visit to attend Bolsonaro’s inauguration – the first ever visit to Brazil by an Israeli leader. Yet, he hardly mentioned the terror group publicly, although he had a captive audience for his message, focusing instead on the likelihood that Brazil will move its embassy to Jerusalem.
Netanyahu should be careful not to prioritize symbols over substance, a mistake he already made once in Latin America.
Bolsonaro’s affection for Israel, which was clearly on display throughout Netanyahu’s visit, will no doubt facilitate cooperation. But Netanyahu should be careful not to prioritize symbols over substance, a mistake he already made once in Latin America. During 2013-2018, Netanyahu invested heavily in his relationship with Horacio Cartes, then president of Paraguay. Cartes relied on a former adviser to Netanyahu to win his presidential campaign. He too had a genuine warmth for Israel, which culminated with Cartes’s decision in May 2018 to move Paraguay’s embassy to Jerusalem. Most importantly, from Israel’s point of view, Paraguay began voting with Israel against the Arab bloc at the UN.
However, the Paraguayan side of the TBA remained ground zero for Hezbollah’s money laundering in Latin America. The Cartes administration hardly lifted a finger to act against the terror funding networks hiding behind Ciudad Del Este’s bustling commercial activities. Worse – when critics raised Hezbollah’s TBA terror financing activities, Paraguayan ministers confronted their Israeli counterparts, threatening to change Paraguay’s friendly international posture toward Israel, as an Israeli minister recently confirmed to the author.
Israel kept quiet on Paraguay’s collusion with Hezbollah so it could get Asunción to move its embassy. Yet as soon as Cartes left office, his successor, Mario Abdo Benítez, moved Paraguay’s embassy back to Tel Aviv and, despite rhetoric, has done little until now to tackle the problem of Hezbollah’s terror networks in his own country. Israel’s five-year investment ultimately yielded no embassy move and no progress on combating Hezbollah’s terror network.
BOLSONARO’S ELECTION provides Israel with its first clear opportunity to attack Hezbollah’s threat on the Brazilian side of the TBA. Brazil remains host to the largest concentration of Hezbollah operatives and sympathizers in Latin America, who thrived under the umbrella of friendly Brazilian-Iranian relations. Disrupting and dismantling these networks would be hard without the active involvement of Brazilian intelligence and law enforcement, which a pro-Iran political climate has so far mostly prevented. At a time when a future conflict between Israel and Hezbollah seems likelier than ever, Israel should make the battle against Hezbollah’s terror finance networks in Latin America its top regional priority.
There are three key areas in which greater Israeli support could help Brazil crack down on Hezbollah and fight organized crime: Border controls, criminal investigations and money laundering.
Brazil’s 16,000-km.-long border crosses impervious and sparsely populated areas. Natural obstacles make it hard for authorities to effectively patrol it, and Brazil’s 10 neighbors do not always have a stake in keeping their side tight. Then there is the neglect by central authorities, which often do not allocate resources to strengthen border controls. The TBA is a case in point – and one where Israel can help. Israel is already supplying technology for border control to Brazil, such as an Israeli-made Heron drone stationed in the TBA since 2011. However, it has not been operational for years due to a multi-million dollar maintenance contract the Federal Police of Brazil could not afford to honor.
Israel’s expertise can also assist criminal investigations. With its knowledge of the families, clans and Hezbollah connections in south Lebanon, it can help map Hezbollah networks in South America. Brazilian law-enforcement officials may be on their trail already for criminal conduct, but helping them establish a terror nexus would go a long way to help them prioritize and solve cases.
Israel can also help Brazil with efforts to track the drug traffickers’ dirty money. In the heyday of Iran sanctions, the Israeli intelligence community frequently helped identify Iranian sanctions evaders globally. The same toolkit can spot Hezbollah’s global money laundering schemes and could serve Brazil well.
In short, there is much that Israel can do, by prioritizing the hunt for Hezbollah’s dirty money, to help Brazil, and in the process help itself.
In Brazil, Netanyahu invited Bolsonaro to visit Israel in the coming months. When the Brazilian leader visits, the prime minister should explain to him that the fight against Hezbollah and the drug cartels is a single battle that both should care about. Israel can help Brazil’s fight and benefit in the process. It’s a win-win situation. And its outcomes should prove more enduring than a friendly administration and symbolic UN votes.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.