The nexus between terrorism and Latin America drug-trafficking networks


During the last ten years, drug trafficking, transnational gangs and other criminal organizations have grown in size and strength and, according to Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Al Qaeda groups in West Africa were charging protection fees to cocaine drug-trafficking groups affiliated with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Terrorist group operatives would also be linked to Mexican drug cartels and would receiving training, weapons and cash from sources in Latin America.
The interconnection between narcotrafficking and terrorist organizations is part of a greater framework called hybrid networks. Every single expression of these networks (terrorism, drug or human trafficking, kidnapping, money laundering, etc.) represents a security threat to any nation and their “joint-venture” is seriously undermining the stability of many regions of the world.
The research makes reference to some illustrative cases as to understand how strong the collusion between drug trafficking networks and terrorist organizations is today and what trends are predictable.

The Nexus between Terrorism and Latin America Drug Trafficking Networks

According to some reports, the size of the illegal economy is estimated from 8 to 15 percent of world GDP (Luna, D.M., 2012). This impressive amount derives from the illegal revenue produced by a series of illicit activities such as narcotrafficking, kidnapping for ransom, money laundering, trafficking of humans, arms, electronic components, precious stones, stolen and counterfeit goods.
Taking advantage from globalization – increasing of goods traded, faster shipments and transfers, spread of broadband – criminal networks reveal their ability to adapt, innovate and find suitable resources to expand their power.
This ability as well as the huge profits each single criminal specialization is able to generate is the essential factor determining their proliferation and the consequent interconnection as to make Hybrid Networks, that is a sort of “globally integrated enterprises able to usurp states’ basic functionalities and provide social services and public goods” (Farah, D., 2013).
Actually, the cash flow generated allows access to large-scale resources both material and human – high quality equipment and trainings, educated lawyers and accountants, former special operation forces –, to deploy a corruptive influence on rule of law actors and undertake new criminal activities frequently cross borders.
Through resource development, reorganization and diversification, criminal networks are able to overcome legal barriers and exploit weakness of the state so as to produce gradual erosion, or overwhelm the state’s power and undermine its legitimacy (Stavridis, J.G., 2013).
This multi-dimensional matrix, as Luna D.M. (2012) effectively explained, connects all illicit players – criminals, corrupt officials and terrorists – that, in function of their interests and resources available, will operate jointly or on their own.
Data based on case evidences, intelligence analysis and institutional documents show that Hybrid Networks formed by the nexus between drug trafficking and terrorism are largely part of Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs).
The distinctive features of Hybrid Networks make plane that future warfare will have a criminal or a terrorist dimension, or a combination of both and will arise in failed states temporarily or permanently anarchic and in vast anarchic urban districts and suburbs under control of criminal organizations, terrorists or traffickers (Raufer, X. 2008).
Making reference to: a) the case of Lebanese Canadian Bank and Joumaa showing drug-terror connections through money laundering; b) the drug-terror nexus in Latin America – FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejèrcito del Pueblo), Hezbollah, Tri-Borders Area, Mexico and Central America’s Northern Triangle; c) the drug-terror links between Latin narcos and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); the study will verify the reliability of Raufer’s preview.

a) The Libanese Canadian Bank and Joumaa Case

On February 2011, after five years of investigation, the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) and the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) were able to uncovered a network referring to a Lebanese narcotics trafficker, Ayman Joumaa, that “coordinated the transportation, distribution and sale of multi-ton shipments of cocaine from South America and has laundered the proceeds from the sale of cocaine in Europe and the Middle East […] operating in Lebanon, West Africa, Panama and Colombia” (DEA Public Affairs, 2011). Joumaa, along with nine individuals and nineteen entities, launder proceeds from their illicit activities, tantamount to US $200 million per month, through accounts held at Lebanese Canadian Bank (LCB).
DEA verified that the Jumaa organization, through 30 Lebanese-owned export firms, laundered proceeds for a total of US $329 million by shipping used cars from United States to West Africa and using the relevant revenue in the Colombian cocaine trade. As per DEA allegations, Jumaa coordinated transactions between Hezbollah and Los Zetas, the most powerful drug cartel in Mexico, from 2005 to 2007. In that period, in payment of 85 metric tons of cocaine, Los Zetas flowed into Joumaa’s network US $850 million.
Later on investigations unveiled also LCB’s culpabilities in failing to deploy internal controls, inadequately monitoring highly vulnerable transactions and in offering complicity at the managerial level.
The name of Ayman Joumaa emerged from wiretapped phones tied to Chekri Mahmoud Harb and the Medellìn cartel. Mr. Harb was engaged in June 2007 by an undercover agent for the DEA and described briefly the cocaine route – from Port Aqaba, to Syria and then Lebanon – implying connections with Hezbollah. However, after Harb’s conviction (Operation Titan, 2008), the DEA lost the chance to investigate the Hezbollah trail and only a review of wiretappings allowed a new investigation.
Ayman Joumaa, formerly of Medellìn, was owner of the Caesars Park Hotel in Beirut. He was a Sunni Muslim, but according to Interpol, he was linked to Shiites Hezbollah based in the South of Lebanon. Later on, U.S. investigators uncovered that used cars bought in United States were sold in Africa with proceeds flown into Beirut and deposited into three money-exchange houses falling under Jumaa’s family. Cash was then deposited into the LCB intermingling with European drug proceeds as to make it appear legitimate.
Ayman Joumaa has been indicted on the basis of LCB’s case evidence and has been charged with coordinating shipments of Colombian cocaine to Los Zetas in Mexico for sale in United States and laundering proceeds. However, because there is no extradition treaty with Lebanon and Joumaa’s location is unknown, he will probably never face trial. On the other hand, the Treasury Department identified LCB as a “primary money laundering concern” in February 2011 and prohibited American financial institutions from doing business with the bank. Recently, LCB reached a settlement with federal prosecutors and agree to pay US $102 million to settle the charges.
The unveiled Lebanese network brought back the attention on the remarkable ability of Hezbollah to operate as a traditional terrorist group, a paramilitary force in southern Lebanon, influential player in Lebanese politics and as a welfare state within a state. No matter the sphere of its activities, Hezbollah has shown a high capacity to deploy resources very far from Lebanon (one for all, the attack against the Asociaciòn Mutua Israelita Argentina – AMIA of Buenos Aires that killed 85 people in 1994) and into Lebanon itself, currently believed to field between 5,000 and 7,000 soldiers and to possess about 5,000 rockets. Since the Syrian civil war brought out in 2011, Hezbollah fighters have also supported the Syrian Army in several instances and recently contributed to the victory of Assad troops against rebel groups in the town of Qusair, near the Lebanese border. Under the direction of Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah as well establish itself as a political party and today holds twelve seats in Parliament, enough, in such a fractured assembly, to influence policy and cause the dismissal of government ministers in case of dissent. An undeniable proof of Hezbollah’s influence on Lebanon politics is the full control displayed on the Beirut’s International Airport, despite the presence of the Lebanese official authorities. The security of Rafik Hariri International Airport has long been in question, being located in an area of the city directly under Hezbollah’s influence. This issue is so serious that, last August, Lebanese civil aviation authority expressed its concern that IATA (The International Air Transport Association) may declare the Beirut Airport unsafe.
However, Hezbollah’s influence rests essentially on the state-like functions it that is able to perform, such as providing food, housing, health assistance and schools.
While Hezbollah’s main expenditures involve providing various social services in Lebanon, as well as purchasing military weapons and equipment, costs are fully covered through the revenue generated by drug smuggling conducted along Hezbollah-controlled Syrian border routes.

b) The Drug-Terror Nexus in Latin America: FARC, Hezbollah, Tri-Borders Area, Mexico and Central America’s Northern Triangle

As Luna pointed out during a public speech on 2008, over the past 13 years, drug trafficking, transnational gangs and other criminal organizations have expanded their power in Mexico, Central and South America, compromising the endurance of government institutions.
His research suggests that the convergence of criminal and terror networks is a logical consequence of their proliferation. As it happens in the legitimate economy, the interconnection between criminal syndicates and terrorism is directed to maximize illicit business opportunities and make the most of different skills. This convergence is due also to a sort of “tactical transformism” whereby the adoption of criminal practices allows terrorists to self-financing and contributes to give them unusual features.
The FARC case is a clear example of this adaptive process. By engaging in criminal activities such as drug trafficking, extortion and exploitation of mining, FARC attempts to fund their warfare to overturn the state. Indeed, regardless of FARC claims according which they only impose taxes on economic activities in the areas they control, case evidence clearly proves FARC involvement in every step of drug trade. Most FARC fronts levy taxes on coca farmers, buyers of coca and drug laboratories as well on shipments and flights carrying drugs. Some fronts run cocaine laboratories or supervise those in outsourcing. Data provided by InSight Crime (2013) indicate that a kilo of coca base costs around US $1,000 in Colombia and a kilo of cocaine is sold at US $2,000. In neighboring countries, the cost rises to US $4,000/6,000, whereas in Central America that kilo is sold at US $8,000/12,000 and up to US $15,000 in Mexico. Once the cocaine reaches the United States, a kilo is worth at least US $25,000 and it rises to US $60,000 per kilo once in the United Kingdom. The yearly production of cocaine is estimated to be around 300 tons and FARC is reported to be responsible of 60% of coca crops. Thus, InSight Crime calculates that FARC profit from drug trade is more than US $200 million.
FARC began to export cocaine after the failure of peace process on February 2002. In fact, on 1998, the then President of Colombia, Pastrana, had granted FARC a safe haven the size of Switzerland to help move peace talks along. The zone was off-limits to the army and FARC used this area to train and expand the planting of coca crops. On 2000, the FARC Eastern Bloc made the first documented international deal with a cartel of Tijuana and from 2008 onwards, FARC has been supplying drugs to the Sinaloa Mexican Cartel, moving cocaine into Venezuela and Central America.
Analysts agree that links with Mexican cartels as well as with Colombia’s hybrid criminal organizations BACRIM (Bandas Criminales Emergentes) are exposing many of FARC blocs to a high risk of criminalization. The Magdalena Medio Bloc – involved in drug smuggling into Venezuela and believed to deal in with corrupt officials in the Venezuelan Armed Forces named Cartel of Suns – and the Joint Western Command would be among the most exposed to the risk.
After 2002, FARC lost the granted area in Colombia and Venezuela, until then occasionally used as a site of operations, turned it into a rearguard area. Although the direct relationship between Venezuela President, Hugo Chavez, and FARC appears not have been as close as some allegations suggested, FARC has presence in the Venezuelan states of Tachira, Zulia and Apure, one of the main transit points for cocaine moving to Europe and Central America. Blocs operating in the area make significant profits also through cross-border fuel trafficking and illegal mining both by extorting gold miners and exploiting the Venezuela’s coltan reserves.
This framework could change dramatically if the new peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC were to be successful. According to Colombian official sources, the Urabeños, the most powerful paramilitary drug trafficking syndicate, are recruiting former FARC rebels and buying fields of coca crops. The Urabeños would then be looking to take advantage from FARC’s possible demobilization just as the Sinaloa Cartel would be doing in the Eastern Colombia (InSight Crime, 2013).
This ongoing transfer of business could raise a security challenge, if FARC were to agree to lay down arms or will continue to fragment and intensify its criminal activities.
Hezbollah in Latin America and the Tri-Border-Area
On 28 December 2012, President Barack Obama signed the Countering Iran in Western Hemisphere Act of 2012 “to counter Iran’s growing hostile presence and activity in the Western Hemisphere”. The legislation has been enacted to preclude the risk posed by Iran, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the IRGC’s Quds Force and Hezbollah (Southern Pulse, 2013).
Iran’s influence in Latin America is part of a strategy to counter the effects of isolation caused by international sanctions and find new allies able to provide strategic materials, technology and bases to infiltrate and undermine the United States and its interests.
Consistently with this program, from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election on 2005, Iran has opened 6 additional embassies in Latin America, counting now a total of 11, based in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela. The latter has been, at least until Hugo Chavez’s presidency, the Iran’s best ally and has facilitated the development of partnerships with Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, members of the Bolivarian Alliance (Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América, ALBA). On July 2011, during his hearing before the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, Douglas Farah referred to an “agreement to create a dedicated shipping line between Iran and Ecuador and visa-free flights to and from Caracas, Teheran and Damascus”. Farah mentioned as well reports that provided information on Iranian trainings and equipment for communications intercepts received by the intelligence services of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. The impressive growth of trade balance between Iran and Latin America, more than tripled to around US $4 billion in just three years, demonstrates the extent of their economic ties. To date, Iran is supplying mining and hydrocarbon sectors with technical and engineering resources, relying also on hundreds of passports and national ID cards issued by Chavez and ALBA countries to Iran citizens.
Since December 2011, Iran has been maximizing the spread of its influence through Hispan TV, a Spanish language satellite news network operated by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting’s (IRIB) distributing its contents through various Social Networks and mobile applications as well. After a short period of blackout caused by the removal from several European and American satellites as part of international sanctions, HispanTV is again available.
Indeed, Iran is exerting an indirect influence through Hezbollah and other terrorist networks operating in the area (Noriega, 2013; Southern Pulse, 2013).
The illicit financing activities conducted in Latin America by Hezbollah, including drug trafficking, counterfeiting and contraband smuggling, have been extensively proven and become remarkable from 2006, after “significant fallout” with Iran over funding (Brice, A. 2013). The core of Hezbollah’s activities is the Tri-Border-Area (TBA), where the borders of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina intersect. This area, known as one of biggest contraband and smuggling hubs, would contribute about US $20 million per year to Hezbollah’s coffers (Hearing before the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, 2011).
Various government sources have investigated two terrorist networks connected to Hezbollah and operating in Latin America. The first one was headed by Ghazi Atef Nasseredine Abu Ali, a Venezuelan citizen born in Lebanon and the second most important officer at the Venezuelan embassy in Syria. Nasseredine liaised closely with Chávez’s Justice and Interior Minister, Tarik El Aissami, and his diplomatic assignment in Damascus grants him a key position for the network’s purpose, i.e. the expansion of Hezbollah’s influence in Venezuela.
The network includes as well Abdallah and Oday, brothers of Nasseredine. Abdallah, previously member of the Venezuelan congress and linked to Islamic communities in Venezuela, handles several money laundering operations from Margarita Island where he lives together with the younger brother Oday charged with the settlement of paramilitary training centers on the Island (Noriega, 2012) .
The second network, established by Hojjat al-Eslam Mohsen Rabbani, director of Oriental Thought Cultural Institute in the Iranian city of Qom – designed for the propagation of Shia outside Iran – and previously the Iran’s cultural attaché in Buenos Aires, acts as well to recruit operatives, mostly in Brazil and Argentina.
All together, the two networks gather more than 80 operatives in at least 12 countries throughout the region (Noriega, 2012). In Belo Jardim, Brazil, the local police found evidence of Rabbani involvement in the recruitment of Brazilians that have been subsequently sent to Iran along with youth from Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and Mexico.
Rabbani’s effort to attract followers throughout Latin America resulted also in the conversion to Shite Islam of a native Argentinean, Santiago Paz Bullrich, now known as Sheik Karim Abdul Paz. After having studied in Qom, he is now the imam of the Islamic Cultural Center in Santiago de Chile and shows sympathies for Hezbollah, affirming that it is a “fundamental part of the heroic worldwide resistance against the U.S. and Israel’s terrorist imperialism” (Mahjar-Barducci, 2011).
Mahjar-Barducci reports that, from 2007 to 2011, three groups of Brazilians have visited Iran under Rabbani’s organization and some students confided to have visited the premises of Hezbollah. Following other newspaper sources, some documents would prove that religious classes include radical preaching and training in military camps.
However, the Latin America’s diaspora of Lebanese expatriates is still the range of potential followers. The number of Muslim’s in Brazil is estimated to be approximately one million people, including converts to Islam, Arab immigrants and their descendants, being converts making up no more than 1%. The second largest Muslim population is located in Venezuela, where more than 100,000 Muslims are living, primarily Lebanese, concentrated in Margarita Island, and Syrian descents.
Noriega (2012) believes that this outlined framework is potentially exposing to terrorist attacks the next FIFA World Cup tournament in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016, both taking place in Brazil.
Mexico and the Central America’s Northern Triangle
Criminal organizations have increasingly reinforced their presence in Mexico and in the Central America’s Northern Triangle in so much as Farah (2013) believes that they have become the de facto authorities. Other analysts prefer to talk about a “dual sovereignty”, a hybrid polity where the government remains “in control of certain political, economic, social and cultural areas” while “abdicating responsibility and domination of organized crime to others” (Werbowski, M. 2010).
Although quite dissimilar, both views rest on some indisputable facts. First, Mexico is the home of largest and most violent organized criminal networks, trafficking in drugs, weapons and humans and laundering their proceeds by means of money changers, banks and local projects (InSight, 2012). Second, criminal syndicates operate in a framework of officials’ complicity and corruption. Third, they exert high territorial control which allows exploitation of the opportunities provided by the unstable Law Enforcement Agencies and by oversee areas through front businesses as well. Moreover, the revenue generated by Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), estimated between US $10 billion and US $15 billion annually, gives access to armament, training and tactics increasingly sophisticated.
This impressive power has been spreading and infecting the neighbor countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the so called Central America’s Northern Triangle.
In this extended region, states have lost their supremacy and are facing a crisis of authority and legitimacy. Following the “transactional paradigm” of Farah (2013), the territorial and political recession of states caused the emergence of transactional relationships based on the exchange of goods and services among state and non-state actors. These “integration systems” allow, by example, the right of passage for cocaine load in return for cash; the political protection of criminal activities in exchange for support of political campaign; court decisions not to prosecute, access to prisons to assassinate witnesses, murders for hire executed by policeman, all in exchange for thousands of dollars.
The most prominent criminal groups operating in the Triangle’s area are the Mexican Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Federation; the transnational gangs of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Calle 18; the extra-regional actors belonging to Russian, Ukrainian and Chinese criminal syndicates; para-state actors as Hezbollah and FARC.
The convergence of all this Transnational Crime Organizations (TOCs) into the main transit hub for any illicit product originating from South America and destined for United States is causing significant changes in tactics, methods of transport and investments.
In fact, although the smuggling routes have been in use since late 1980s, actors and operating procedures have been changing along the years. Once Medellin and Cali cartels of Colombia have pulled out, the Mexican organizations took over in all phases of cocaine process. Later, the U.S. war against drugs in the Caribbean forced Colombian and Mexican traffickers to find others routes into Central America, in particular through Honduras and Guatemala. Then, since 2006 we have been witnessing the violent expansion of most powerful Mexican organized group, Los Zetas, almost to Guatemala and the Sinaloa Federation in Honduras. Los Zetas diversified their income by taxing every kind of illicit activity occurring in the area under their control and by selling in Guatemala gasoline stolen in Mexico.

c) Latin Narcos and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

As discussed above, there is often is a close tie between terrorism and organized crime, including drug trafficking, especially in contexts where corruption is widespread and institutions are vulnerable. This connection consists of collusion or direct involvement of terrorists in the criminal activities.
Terrorist-criminal relation is often a temporary association based mainly on necessity and then constantly shifting and evolving (Farah, 2013). In fact, the nature of this relation allows drug traffickers to benefit from best military skills, weapons supply and, sometimes, freedom of movement, whereas terrorists can make profits facilitating criminal activities, and gain access to forged documents and clandestine transfers supply to move their members as well as expertise in money laundering. Following the decline of state sponsors, an increasing number of terrorist groups self-finance with illicit activities. By example, it was verified that Al Qaeda has resorted to illicit activities to finance the Madrid bombings, 2004 and plenty of case evidence and reports show a similar shift in North Africa, the operative area of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
AQIM originates from the merger of an Algerian rebel group known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat and the Al-Qaeda franchise on 11 September 2006. Since then, AQIM have conducted a series of kidnappings and bombings across Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
Taking advantage of the political instability of Sahel, the border’s permeability and the vast corruption, AQIM has long been engaged in smuggling drugs and weapons and it is reported to be recruiting not only fellows, but criminals too.
The AQIM relevance into the TCOs system has grown together with the emerging of Europe as premier market for Latin American drug traffickers. Its knowledge and control of desert routes unrolling over northern Mali, Algeria and Mauritania is a key factor for its business. Throughout the so called “shadow facilitators”, i.e. logistics coordinators, money laundering agents, business brokers playing as linkage point, AQIM is hired by Latin drug traffickers to safeguard the transport route from arrival points across Gulf of Guinea’s nations through Mali or Mauritania and eventually into Algeria and Morocco, before crossing the Mediterranean into Spain.
A report released by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on July shows that West Africa is now the new hub for cocaine trafficking from South America en route to Western and Central European markets, thus highlighting the present-day importance of the issue.
The first evidence of links between Islamist militants and Latin American drug-trafficking organizations came from the discovery of a wreckage plane in the Mali desert, 200 kilometers north of Gao, in 2009. The plane was believed to have carried up to 10 tons of cocaine from Venezuela and after having landed on a makeshift airstrip it was burned by three Mali nationals who were arrested while dismantling the plane. Further investigations led to discover that AQIM charged up to US S$ 10,000 per kilogram of cocaine transported.
U.S. and West African sources suggest that, from 2006 to 2010, the narco-flights from Latin America to West Africa were at least ten, but the real number is likely to be higher.
The de facto division of Mali pushed traffickers to move their business to Niger, especially in Arlit and Agadez, but the major hub for cocaine in West Africa is still Guinea-Bissau. In 2007, DEA estimated that narco-flights took in between 800 and 1,000 kilogram of cocaine every night. Experts report that in Guinea-Bissau trafficking results from a deal between the army, which sees to logistics and protection for the planes, and civil authorities. The former prime minister, Carlos Gomes Jùnior (“Cadogo”), arrested in the April 2012 coup, was suspected covering up this deal and profiting from it (Frintz, 2013).
Recently, according to a report by a Spanish newspaper, the DEA has found also direct links between AQIM and FARC. On March 21 the U.S. organization arrested two Colombians and three Salafists, operating under the command of AQIM, in Southern Algeria. Colombians were founded while exchanging cocaine for a shipment of arms with Al-Qaeda and one of them has been identified as a FARC member. The plane used to transport the cocaine belonged to Colombians collaborating with the FARC and was burned after its arrival in the town of Kidal in Mali. According to DEA and Spanish intelligence services, AQIM has increased its capacity to obtain weapons and explosives from the Libyan conflict. If confirmed, it would be the first case of a verified collaboration between paramilitary terrorist organizations in different parts of the globe.


The Hybrid Networks represent a unique challenge. They are highly resistant to unilateral approaches and respond to countermeasures displaying high flexibility and adaptive capacity. Their convergence acts as a force multiplier and could evolve into strategic partnerships.


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