The phrasing and emphasis were deliberate. Colombian Defense Minister Carlos Trujillo stood at a podium at the Pentagon reading a prepared statement in English when he turned to U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper to pause and enunciate one word at the end of a list of shared threats: “Hezbollah.”
The Iranian-sponsored terrorist organization has long had a presence in Latin America, but recent United States-Iran tensions and the potential for a proxy strike on U.S. interests from a staging point in not-so-friendly Venezuela have brought concerns to the forefront.
“We also reaffirmed our joint commitment to counterattack the illegitimate Maduro regime’s harboring of terrorist groups such as the ELN, the FARC, and others, such as Hezbollah,” Trujillo said of his Feb. 7 meeting with Esper.
Colombia took the opportunity to highlight its most important bilateral defense partnership at a time when U.S. Southern Command, or SOUTHCOM, is undergoing a budget review that could scale back U.S. military operations in the region.
The South American nation, with U.S. support, has in recent years made great strides against domestic terrorist groups ELN and FARC. Battlefield successes have led to a peace agreement with FARC leaders and paved the way for commercial and tourist growth.
Outside Colombia’s control are the Islamic terrorist groups protected by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro across a 1,300-mile shared border.
The commander of SOUTHCOM, Navy Adm. Craig Faller, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in July that Iran and Hezbollah still pose a threat in the hemisphere.
“There are active connections between Iranian regime and Lebanese Hezbollah fundraising activities throughout the region. We watch these closely,” Faller told senators eight months after taking the helm of the hemispheric command headquartered just west of Miami.
“There’s also Iranian sponsorship of Islamic centers with very dubious and questionable purposes throughout the hemisphere that has considerable ties to known terror activities in Iran,” he said.
Faller highlighted close working relationships with Brazil and Argentina, which suffered two Hezbollah attacks in the early 1990s that targeted the Israeli Embassy, killing 29, and leveled a Jewish community center, killing 85.
Hezbollah is believed to maintain a presence and to conduct fundraising in the porous tri-border region of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay.
Hezbollah’s presence in Venezuela is more of a mystery since cooperation and information sharing with the U.S. broke down during the socialist regime of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, between 1999 and 2013.
“Hezbollah has been here for ages of course, since before Chavez,” Caracas-based Phil Gunson of the International Crisis Group told the Washington Examiner.
Gunson said there is no hard evidence that Islamic terrorist cells are hosting training camps on Margarita Island or are indoctrinating indigenous groups. What is clear is that Chavez suspended surveillance of Hezbollah activities in Venezuela. Socialist Venezuela and Iran had warm ties for many years, exchanging state visits and working together to taunt America.
“But, so far as I know, their activities are limited to fundraising, ostensibly for their social projects back in the Middle East,” Gunson said.
Gunson said he is “extremely skeptical” of a Hezbollah threat emanating from Venezuela.
“It’s more than likely that Venezuelan passports have found their way into the hands of some dubious Middle Eastern characters, whether by accident or design,” he said, underscoring that he is not convinced there is a “genuine terror threat” in Venezuela.
“The whole issue has to be treated with great caution, since, along with drugs, of course, it is a lever some in the opposition seek to use to provoke a stronger U.S. response,” he said, describing efforts by the Venezuelan opposition under National Assembly President Juan Guaido, who is recognized by the U.S. and 50 other countries as the legitimate president of Venezuela.
Still, Faller gave members of Congress a compelling reason for continuing to support SOUTHCOM’s bottom line and its mission to foster strong military partnerships in the region.
“Iran continues to be the No. 1 state sponsor of terror around the world, and their long arm of malfeasance is everywhere,” Faller warned in his testimony. “We keep our eye on this, and we work closely with our capable partners.”