by Elie Obeid

South America, a region so full of riches and capabilities, yet always so troubled. Perceptions about South America differ from one person to another, depending on the topic of discussion, interests, political opinions, knowledge among other things. Throughout the twentieth century, the region was dubbed with political instability and a growing environment of criminal activity making it the home of some of the worst criminals on the planet and the hub for narcotics and money laundering. Not only that, but the dangerous situation in some countries led to power some of the worst dictators. Either through a coup d’état or a revolution based on empty promises and lies that they relinquished after they reached office and exerted their newly founded powers against civilians to consolidate their positions and crush any opposition.

Over the course of the 20th century, the leadership of most of the countries in South America has fallen into the hands of leftist and populist governments; these latter used the rise of commodities prices to increase spending and enjoyed a period of economic prosperity. However, this time of success came to an end when commodities prices plummeted leaving behind them devastated economies and rendering once rich countries, poor.

Only dictatorships and populist governments were not the only things that flourished in South America over the past decade. Kingpins, drug cartels, mafias managed to create a place for themselves within the system often relying on the corruption existing within the operations of these countries to ensure their security and to grow their business. In some cases like Venezuela, for example, it is said that even the army is involved in organised crime activities with their role has evolved over time from only facilitation of the transport of drugs. The newly found haven allowed the creation and growth of empires based on drug trafficking primarily which later grew too powerful mafias that were running more than just a narcotics trafficking business.

The massive demand for drugs back in the late 20th century and even nowadays, allowed the narcotics trade empire to proliferate both in size and in volume. This also paved the way for the drug trafficking organisations to develop in a hierarchical way allowing them to expand their business faster and smooth the flow of work. While it was beneficial from the business side, this hierarchical organisation allowed the state to be able to target these organisations better leading to their destruction, similar to what happened to Escobar empire and the Cali Cartel. Nonetheless, the unfortunate fate of these former Colombian cartels led to the creation of more fragmented cartels, which are dispersed everywhere and rendered them stricter targets for the state actors who are fighting against organised crime and drug trafficking organisations across the various South American States.

The fame of the South American drug cartels and organised crime organisations, quickly reached the ears of other players on the international crime arena who found in the activities carried out by these organisations an opportunity not to be missed for cooperation on different levels.

Several reports throughout the years have linked South American drug traffickers and infamous terrorist organizations such as the FARC, Hezbollah, and even ISIS in money laundry activities to finance their terrorist operations across the globe. The reports have indicated how these organizations have reverted to drug trafficking in order to provide financial support for their criminal activities. Also, certain countries like Iran, for example, seem to have found their way into the money laundry business through South America to support their military operations carried out by their military or by proxy fighters i.e. Hezbollah around the globe. Money laundry hasn’t only been limited to countries and militias, but some corporations seem to have been playing their part in that as well.

Although the terrorist threat in South America is perceived to be very low, however, the region continues to suffer from insufficient intelligence gathering, inadequate information sharing, lax screening of travellers, inadequate laws for prosecuting terrorists and foreign terrorist fighters, and weak border controls. Links between organised crime and terrorists have strengthened, and terrorist sympathisers are thought to have provided financial support to terrorist groups in other regions.

According to the US State Department’s 2015 Annual Country Report on Terrorism issued in June 2016 stated that South America and the Caribbean served as areas of financial and ideological support for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other terrorist groups in the Middle East and South Asia. It touched on the issue of individuals from South America and the Caribbean leaving the region to fight with the Islamic State.

The 2015 report also asserted that Hezbollah “continued to maintain a presence in the region, with members, facilitators, and supporters engaging in activity in support of the organisation,” including efforts to build the organisation’s “infrastructure in South America and fundraising, both through licit and illicit means.” It noted that Hezbollah has been carrying fundraising activities in the tri-border area (TBA) of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay and highlighted the presence of Hezbollah supporters and sympathisers in Venezuela. In March 2016, SOUTCHOM Commander Admiral Tidd estimated that some 100-150 foreign fighters had travelled from the region to Syria and Iraq5.

In 2016, following an investigation that started back in February 2015 after European law enforcement agencies began targeting networks in the Latin region, the United States DEA arrested on a group of Hezbollah members who were involved in a global cocaine trafficking scheme. Law enforcement agencies from seven countries took part in the year-long investigation known as “Project Cassandra,” which they say highlighted how a network founded years earlier.

The most significant arrest was that of Mohamad Noureddine, a Lebanese national the DEA said laundered money for Hezbollah who has been classified as a “specially designated global terrorist” by the US government. The money was then sent to Colombia to pay drug traffickers using the “Hawala” method of transferring money with a large portion of the drug process transiting through Lebanon and a significant amount going to terrorist groups including Hezbollah according to the DEA. The network was also said to have laundered the funds through the “Black Market Peso Exchange,” the system used by Colombia drug cartels to clean drug money by “selling” dollars to South Americans with pesos they want to convert so they can purchase goods in the United States.

Corruption, weak government institutions, insufficient interagency cooperation, weak or non-existent legislation, and a lack of resources remained the primary causes for the lack of significant progress on countering terrorism in some countries in South America. However, serious action is being taken to combat drug trafficking and money laundry in financing terrorism like the creation of the Financial Action Task Force of Latin America (GAFILAT), a Financial Action Task Force (FATF)-style regional body and the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission Anti-Money Laundering Group. Also the establishment of COPOLAD (Cooperation Programme on Drugs Policies), a partnership cooperation programme between the European Union, Latin America and the Caribbean countries aiming at improving the coherence, balance and impact of drugs policies, through the exchange of mutual experiences, bi-regional coordination and the promotion of multisectoral, comprehensive and coordinated responses.

Today, terrorism acts worldwide have seen a considerable surge and the need for adequate policies, against drug trafficking and money laundry has become a necessity. Also the support of governments and institutions who are working against such criminal activities while sanctioning individuals and organisations that are facilitating is a must.

The fight against terrorism is long and should be fought on multiple levels, drying the sources of funding may be described as sticking one pin but it’ll be a pin that goes straight to the heart.

17 December 2017
This text was published in Bullseye issue 70