June 1, 2021 | Tablet

Underwriting Hezbollah Inc.

By funding the failed Lebanese state and lifting sanctions on Iran, the United States is partnering with the world’s deadliest crime syndicate
June 1, 2021 | Tablet

Underwriting Hezbollah Inc.

By funding the failed Lebanese state and lifting sanctions on Iran, the United States is partnering with the world’s deadliest crime syndicate

Hezbollah’s direct involvement with organized crime is well documented, ongoing, and a threat to U.S. national interests. Iran’s complicity in Hezbollah’s crimes, as well as its own criminal conduct, are also public knowledge. So why is the Biden administration preparing, as part of its return to the 2015 nuclear deal, to release billions of dollars in funds to Iran and open business opportunities for a global criminal enterprise?

On March 30, Adalberto Fructuoso Comparán Rodríguez walked into a meeting in Guatemala City, thinking he was about to complete an arms’ deal with a Hezbollah financier. Instead, he was arrested. This was a classic Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation. The DEA had Comparán Rodríguez, the former mayor of Aguililla, in Michoacan, Mexico, in its sights. Court documents allege him to be one of the leaders of the Michoacan United Cartel. To lure him and his associates, the DEA engaged a confidential source, who posed as a Hezbollah representative with close ties to Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. The informant offered Comparán Rodríguez to buy drugs, launder money, and sell weapons. Comparán Rodríguez fell for it, and after arranging a meth deal, he sought to procure sniper rifles and assault weapons from the informant. The delivery was to take place at a Guatemalan port that Comparán Rodríguez had “greased” to let illicit merchandise elude inspections.

This was an elaborate ruse, but a credible one to Latin American narco traffickers. In the past two decades, Hezbollah has earned a stellar reputation among criminal syndicates as an efficient and reliable partner in crime. And not just in Latin America.

Just four weeks after Comparán Rodríguez was arrested in Guatemala, Saudi officials seized more than 5 million Captagon pills hidden in a pomegranate shipment from Lebanon. They believe Hezbollah is behind the shipment. Captagon, a powerful synthetic drug currently flooding both European and Gulf markets, is increasingly produced in Syria and the Hezbollah-controlled Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. From there, it is smuggled out through the Syrian port of Latakia or directly from Lebanon, thanks to the ongoing cooperation between the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, who controls the production, and Hezbollah, which manages the logistics. Shipments tied to this racket of Iranian proxies keep showing up in alarming quantities all over the Mediterranean: In July 2020, Italian authorities seized 84 million pills worth more than 1 billion euros at street price, and in 2019, 33 million pills worth almost 600 million euros were seized in Greece.

One key difference between Hezbollah’s business operations and those of other criminal syndicates is that amassing wealth is not itself the end goal, but a means to promote the revolutionary political and military ambitions of Hezbollah and its patrons in Tehran. The same networks that generate income also provide the infrastructure for terror attacks. Confronting Hezbollah’s criminal syndicate is not simply part of the unending struggle against organized crime, but rather a national and global security imperative.

Crime is a core component of Hezbollah’s fundraising. Open-source studies suggest that involvement in illicit activities generates roughly 30% of Hezbollah’s annual operating budget of roughly $1 billion, and that Iran provides the rest. But a closer look at Hezbollah’s narco trafficking operations suggests its proceeds from criminal activity may far exceed prevailing estimates.

The Ayman Joumaa network, which the DEA exposed in 2011 and the Treasury Department linked to Hezbollah in 2012, was laundering up to $200 million a month for Mexican and Colombian cartels. Joumaa, according to the DEA, took a hefty commission for his services—between 8% and 14%, or between $16 million and $28 million per month. In its heyday, the Joumaa operation alone would therefore cover at least two-thirds of Hezbollah’s annual revenue from illicit activities. And while Joumaa’s operation was disrupted, his complex scheme of used cars to launder drug proceeds continued to operate long after sanctions and indictments were made public.

Read in Tablet

Issues:

Hezbollah Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran in Latin America Iran Sanctions Iran-backed Terrorism Sanctions and Illicit Finance