Ana Maria Luca

Hezbollah’s glory days in
South America are numbered

Sometimes a shift in foreign policy opens up archives

A customer (L) talks with a shop assistant next to a Lebanese Islamic Shiite group Hezbollah pennant at an military supply shop, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, 28 July 2006. (AFP Photo/Mauricio Lima)

Primeiro Comando da Capital, or PCC, a criminal gang that operates across Brazil, has recently been connected to Hezbollah. The PCC is the largest of Brazilian crime organizations, active in 22 out of 27 states. Although its leaders are in prison, the network is still operative and makes around $32 million per year.


A report in the famous Brazilian daily O Globo broke the news at the end of 2014 that intelligence services in Brazil believed that there were Hezbollah members in the country who were connected to Brazilian criminal gangs, providing weapons and explosives for the Brazilian criminals. In exchange, the Lebanese got protection for Lebanese inmates in PCC-controlled Brazilian prisons. It doesn’t really sound like a fair trade, but when you’re dealing with a criminal organization that controls nearly the entire country, including its prisons; in order to exist you have to be under its wing.


The report made big waves in Brazil, especially since there are many reports on Hezbollah’s presence in rural Venezuela. Its connection with the PCC was made in the wake of the arrest of a Lebanese man who admitted to his affiliation with the group in Lima, Peru. It also came on top of of earlier investigations, reports and allegations of cooperation with the Mexican Los Zetas cartel. The documents, leaked by the Brazilian police to the press, show an interesting political shift in national and regional politics.



Some documents in an archive


It was a police informant who told the Brazilian federal police about the PCC-Hezbollah deal, and subsequently authorities started to follow members of the Brazilian cartel. According to the federal report quoted by O Globo, “the high concentration of inmates in high-security prisons helped coagulate inmates with common interests, facilitating the contact of terrorist groups of Arab origin [sic] with the PCC, heavily present in the prisons of Sao Paolo state.” The document also stresses that the international contacts of the Lebanese traffickers served the interests of drug traffickers in Brazil, which in return allow for a tolerable experience of the foreigners inside the prison system.


After further investigation into how the networks function and with the testimonies of informants in cities of the Tri Border Area, such as Foz de Iguacu in Brazil, Iguazu in Argentina and Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, the intelligence unit of the Brazilian Federal Police confirmed that the Lebanese smugglers are channels through which the PCC gets weapons from abroad, including C4 explosives stolen from Paraguay.



Not exactly breaking news


Information on how Hezbollah has cooperated with cartels in South America, including Brazil, emerged in the international media in 2006, when the US Treasury Department raised the matter with several South American governments. At the time, Brazil denied any presence of Hezbollah supporters or agents on its territory. However, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) insisted on the matter for the next several years, pressuring the left-wing Brazilian government. When Paraguay was concerned about the group’s activities in Ciudad del Este, Brazil apparently was not because, in fact, very silently, the Brazilian Federal Police had been keeping a close eye on Lebanese immigrants.


By 2008, the Federal Police had knowledge of the association between Lebanese networks and the PCC, according to archival documents. The Brazilian police had reports of surveillance missions on Lebanese citizens who travelled frequently between the cities of Foz, Brazil; Ciudad del Este, Paraguay; and Puerto Iguazu, Argentina.


The police had knowledge of the deal with the PCC, but the government did not have the political interest to cooperate with the US. Brazilian foreign policy was to become a regional power, have as few problems as possible with its neighbors, and act at times as a countervailing force to US political and economic influence in Latin America.


In 2008, around six months after Imad Moughnieh was assassinated in Syria, the Brazilian police became concerned that Hezbollah supporters in the country were planning an attack. The target is not specified in police archives, but the police intelligence service had a list of people, detailing the hotels in which they stayed and timeframes of their accommodation. These alerts were issued after the police arrested a Lebanese, Mustapha Hamdan, and a Syrian, Farouk Sadek Abdo in February. Abdo had been about to destroy a list of 17 phone numbers that the police later tapped.



No country is a friendly country forever


Information coming from South America and accusations that businessmen of Lebanese origin are funding Hezbollah have been around since 2006. The US Treasury Department has over the years blacklisted a long list of businessmen in the Tri-Border Area of Argentina (TBA).  Among them, Hezbollah’s chief representative in South America, Bilal Mohsen Wehbe, who, together with Ali Muhammad Kazan, raised more than $500,000 for Hezbollah from businessmen in the TBA.


The efforts of US agencies to curb Hezbollah’s financial activities in South America have always been clear. After the case of Colombian-Lebanese drug lord Ayman Joumaa and his connections with Hezbollah-linked accounts in the Beirut-based Lebanese Canadian Bank, the name of the fearsome Los Zetas was thrown into the equation. But it was never proven how far this relationship went; if it existed just because Joumaa was connected to Los Zetas or if it went further.


But it was also obvious how difficult it would be to prove if a certain businessman was really connected to Hezbollah and, more importantly, that the Party was aware of it. Many such cases are awash in indemonstrable accusations, and evidence is often circumstantial. In this case, however, that may be about to change.



A slight change in foreign policy


Sometimes a shift in foreign policy opens up archives.


Hezbollah’s activities in South America remain mysterious only because several countries in the region, and particularly the Bolivarians led by Venezuela, have been antagonistic toward the US while being friendly with Iran and, implicitly, Hezbollah. The Brazilian government has also chosen to avoid interfering in the matter.


But things are changing drastically in the region. The late President Hugo Chavez, America’s most ostentatious enemy in the region, is gone. The times when Hezbollah members got Venezuelan papers to travel to the United States and Canada are probably over. Cuba — another country warmly disposed towards Iran, has recently seen an unprecedented thawing of relations with the US.


Hezbollah isn’t very happy about that. This is how Hezbollah’s international relations official, Ammar Mousawi, congratulated Cuba: “The achievements of Cuba, which was firm in its principles, are a lesson for all peoples of the world who suffer from American hegemony," calling on the regime in Havana to "thwart the political, economic and military siege of Washington against Cuba for over half a century."


But Mousawi had reason to be upset by the change: the shifts may well mean less cooperation with South American governments; intelligence agencies may begin to open up archives; police may cease turning a blind eye, and the diaspora that has contributed to maintaining the Party’s coffers may be less inclined to risk continuing to do so. The bottom line is: Hezbollah’s golden days in South America are numbered.


 Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609.

When you’re dealing with a criminal organization that controls nearly the entire country, you have to stay under its wing in order to exist. (AFP Photo/Mauricio Lima)

Many such cases are awash in indemonstrable accusations, and evidence is often circumstantial. In this case, however, that may be about to change."

  • tekors

    It's "Primeiro Comando da Capital", in portuguese. You know, in Brazil they speak Portuguese, not Spanish. Also, PCC operates mostly in Sao Paulo and hardly in Rio de Janeiro where the old criminal group Comando Vermelho (Red Command) operates. PCC does not operate "across the country" (as I said, mostly in Sao Paulo state), Brazil is a huge country, bigger than the US (if you don't count Alaska).

    January 6, 2015

  • aml16091

    Thank you very much for pointing that out. We'll correct it. The documents I had were in Spanish and I didn't think of translating it back into Portuguese. But according to police reports, the PCC are active in 22 out of 27 states, but yes, mainly in Sao Paolo,

    January 7, 2015