July 14, 2021 | The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies

The Laundromat: Hezbollah’s Money-Laundering and Drug-Trafficking Networks in Latin America

July 14, 2021 | The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies

The Laundromat: Hezbollah’s Money-Laundering and Drug-Trafficking Networks in Latin America

Executive Summary

On January 6, 2021, the Gulf news network Al Arabiya published an explosive revelation. In late 2016, a high-placed Hezbollah operative named Nasser Abbas Bahmad came to what is known as the Tri-Border Area (TBA), where the frontiers of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet. His apparent mission: establish a supply line of multi-ton shipments of cocaine from Latin America to overseas markets in order to generate funds for the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.

Investigative pieces soon followed in the Argentinian and Paraguayan press. And they are onto something: a law enforcement source from one of the three countries told this author, on condition of anonymity, that Bahmad and his business partner, Australian-Lebanese national Hanan Hamdan, were put on a US watchlist in December 2020.

Yet for all the stories reveal, much remains murky.

Over the past decades, Hezbollah has built a well-oiled, multibillion-dollar money-laundering and drug-trafficking machine in Latin America that cleans organized crime’s ill-gotten gains through multiple waypoints in the Western hemisphere, West Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Traditionally, Hezbollah used the TBA’s illicit economy as a hub for money-laundering—less so for cocaine trafficking. For years, Hezbollah-linked drug traffickers in the TBA moved only relatively small quantities of cocaine. Multi-ton shipments are another story.

The large cocaine shipments tied to Hezbollah’s money-laundering networks used to flow from Colombia and Venezuela, and with good reason. Colombia remains Latin America’s largest producer of the white powder, and Venezuela, under the Iran-friendly narco-regime of Nicolas Maduro, is a key transit point for cocaine shipments. If Hezbollah is now involved in establishing a major cocaine supply line in the TBA, something must have changed in its modus operandi. Have Hezbollah’s trade routes shifted?

As if that were not puzzling enough, here is another mystery the media revelations leave unsolved. By December 2017, Bahmad—once a film producer known for his skill as a propagandist but with seemingly no business experience—had left the area, never to return. GTG Global Trading Group S.A., the company he established only a few months before disappearing, lies dormant to this day. Why did Bahmad vanish before the first consignment of his product shipped from Paraguay? Did local authorities thwart his mission? Did someone snitch on him? Or did the producer produce—that is, did he accomplish his mission, leaving no reason for him to stay in the TBA? Did he fool everyone, establish his supply line, and place it in trusted hands before vanishing?

Based on dozens of interviews with confidential sources, documents obtained from regional intelligence informants, and open-source research, this study reveals the singular story of Nasser Abbas Bahmad and his foray into Latin America. His story in turn illustrates how Hezbollah established its largest financial laundromat in Latin America, and how, despite efforts by US and South American law enforcement agencies, it is running at full speed and bankrolling the arming of enemies of America and Israel.

Here is how the laundromat works, and what Washington can do to stop it.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C.-based, nonpartisan think tank focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @eottolenghi.

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Issues:

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