The new wave of leftist governments in Latin America, along with an increasingly brazen posture from Tehran, has given Iran and its proxy terrorist groups a favorable environment to mingle with organized crime, cross borders with impunity, and engage in more direct state-to-state exchanges, analysts say.
“There's always been a certain level of not only networks but also influence by both Hezbollah and behind Hezbollah, Iran, in the region," said Evan Ellis, a former State Department official and research professor of Latin American studies at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.
"That increased with respect to the state-to-state Iranian engagement largely through populist actors in the mid-2000s, with a new crop of leftist populist leaders: Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and certainly Rafael Correa in Ecuador, among others."
The seizure coincided with the return to the region of many of the same populist actors.
“Essentially, you're taking Quds Forces operatives and Hezbollah-affiliated personnel around the region," Mr. Ellis said.
"In recent months, what you've seen also is a broadening of that Iranian engagement with a trip to Nicaragua to talk about oil deals. And more recently, a three-nation trip by President [Ebrahim] Raisi, accompanied by several ministers, including his defense minister, to Venezuela, as well as to Nicaragua and to Cuba, where several deals were signed in each place.”
The Iranian links in the region have become more apparent amid the Israel–Hamas war. On Nov. 8, two alleged Hezbollah operatives were arrested in Brazil for planning attacks in the country. And warnings of a terror threat to the United States have increased, particularly in relation to its porous southern border.
Carlos Berzaín, Bolivia’s former minister of defense and now head of the Interamerican Institute for Democracy, said every Latin American country being ruled under "21st-century socialism" is "publicly converted into an enemy of the United States—adopting the rhetoric Cuba has had for almost 65 years—with very grave political and security consequences.”
The term “21st-century socialism” is commonly used by Venezuela’s socialist dictatorship and others to characterize their ideology.
Mr. Berzaín said his homeland is an example of one of the countries reclaimed by socialists (in late 2020) after a brief stint with the opposition in power.
“Today, Bolivia, as a dictatorship, is dependent upon the leadership of Cuba's dictatorship, and its foreign policy shows it," he told The Epoch Times.
"It is at the service of other dictatorial regimes like Iran, Russia, and China with which there is no traditional or legitimate interest in the type of relations they maintain. Those are founded on corruption ... on Bolivia's condition as a narco-state and on favoring crimes such as terrorism with an ‘anti-imperialist’ rhetoric.”
Leading Iran analyst Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said terrorist networks have grown.
Iran and its proxies’ long and widespread activity in Latin America further increases concerns about a welcoming political environment.
Terrorist group Hezbollah has played a prominent role in the region. U.S. officials estimate that Iran gives the group hundreds of millions of dollars annually, as well as weapons and more.
He said most countries in the region don’t consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization, making it harder to monitor and curb its activities.
"These connections provide access to weapons, explosives, counterfeiting, and most critically, corrupt public officials in key positions at migrations, customs, and ports of entry.”
In recent years, several Hezbollah-connected arrests have been made in Latin America.
"In 2021, Hezbollah operatives attempted to assassinate U.S. and Israeli nationals in Colombia."
Complicity and Close TiesThe enabling of illegal activity by Latin American leftist governments and their direct criminal engagement with Iran have been extensively reported.
Key state actors have facilitated transnational terrorist activity by providing criminals who are wanted by Interpol with transport on state-run airlines and with real passports with fake names.
At the time, Mr. Levitt was the counterterrorism and intelligence director at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"According to Israeli intelligence, the use of such passports by Hezbollah operatives is widespread and the documents are used by the organization's activists in their travels all over the world.''
State enablers include former President Hugo Chávez and his successor, incumbent Nicolás Maduro, previously the minister of foreign relations, according to former Venezuelan officials and intelligence reports.
Mr. López cooperated with a CNN investigation that had access to a classified intelligence document linking former Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami to 173 Venezuelan passports and IDs that were issued to people from the Middle East. The investigation revealed that it included people connected to Hezbollah.
Similar ties are being built with Bolivia, according to Mr. Berzaín.
“[Bolivian President Luis] Arce has ... signed a military agreement that makes Bolivia the platform of terrorism for the Southern Cone due to its geopolitical position," he said, referring to the southern half of South America, made up of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and part of Brazil.
"There have been accusations of Iranians identifying with Bolivian passports for a long time. Iranian participation today is active and growing."
He said Mr. Arce is continuing the work of his mentor, former socialist President Evo Morales.
“In Bolivia, Morales granted trade areas to Iran, licensed a television channel and other media, and allowed cultural and religious penetration," Mr. Berzaín said.
He said Bolivia's Alba Anti-Imperialist School invited Iran's Ahmad Vahidi to the inauguration, who was alleged to have been involved in the AMIA bombing.
Mr. Berzaín said that “governments working to serve dictatorships” such as Iran include Mexico under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Chile under President Gabriel Boric, Colombia under President Gustavo Petro, and Brazil under President Lula da Silva.
“Their reaction ... to the terrorist attacks of Hamas against Israel show their regard and their commitment to terrorism with all their alibis and pretext," Mr. Berzaín said.
Brazil's minister of foreign relations under former President Jair Bolsonaro, Ernesto Araújo, said that “Iran is a long-time partner of Chávez’s Venezuela and Morales’s Bolivia."
"Every time a new country turns to that same branch of socialism, which is narco-socialism, it immediately becomes a close partner of Iran,” Mr. Araújo told The Epoch Times.
In Brazil, an operation to arrest Mr. Rabbani, by then considered a leading Iranian terrorist, was planned but failed, according to official sources who spoke to Brazilian magazine Veja. In roughly 2008—during a previous Lula da Silva administration—Mr. Rabbani was visiting the country, but it took too long for Brazil’s federal police to get the operation authorized, which allowed Mr. Rabbani to escape, according to the report.
He possibly entered the country after taking a state-operated flight from Venezuela with a classified passenger list carrying Caracas-provided fake documentation, according to the magazine. The authorization was late because of a “complicated discussion on the political convenience of arresting him,” the Veja report states.
The Brazilian lawmakers claimed that “resistance is not terrorism” and they pledged their “support and solidarity” to Palestinians' “cause of liberation.”
Ten of the lawmakers were from Mr. Lula da Silva’s Workers’ Party, and two of them are now ministers in the Lula administration. Others are from peripheral hard-left parties, including the Communist Party of Brazil, now part of the governing coalition.
Hamas seemed to take note. The group celebrated Mr. Lula da Silva’s election in late 2022 and called him a "freedom fighter" in a published message of support.
“The Iranians certainly realized how much they have to gain from association with South American crime—through crime-friendly governments,” Mr. Araújo said.
The São Paulo ForumMr. Berzaín said two Americas emerged in the 21st century, "one democratic and the other dictatorial."
"The dictatorial one conspires and continuously attacks the democratic one, which remains passive and defenseless, allowing the existence and expansion of dictatorships," he said.
One operational arm is the São Paulo Forum, which was created in 1990 by Mr. Lula da Silva and Cuba’s Fidel Castro to push forward socialism in the region. The group united narco-terrorist groups including Colombia's FARC, social movements, and government administrations.
FARC members said in a since-deleted 2007 letter to a São Paulo Forum meeting that the forum worked as a “lifeline” for the communist cause and a “formidable proposal.” The forum is active to this day and coordinates hundreds of left-wing organizations.
China’s Game“Iran has served as a spearhead for China and Russia in the region,” Paulo Henrique Araújo, Brazilian author and São Paulo Forum researcher, told The Epoch Times.
Propping up authoritarianism and criminal activity to create turmoil and draw Washington’s attention has been part of China’s strategy for Latin America, according to reports and court documents.
Maj. Gen. Evan Pettus said the Chinese Communist Party has "strategically positioned" itself in the region.
According to Mr. Araújo, China, Russia, and Iran, in collaboration with leftist administrations in South America, intend to "de-legitimize [multilateral] organizations and replace them."
"And first is the OAS," he said. "They mean to void the OAS and replace it with CELAC.”
CELAC, the Community of Latin-American and Caribbean States, is a regional bloc of 33 member states. It was created in Venezuela with broad involvement of São Paulo Forum parties.
Mr. Bolsonaro suspended Brazil's participation in CELAC, but Mr. Lula da Silva rejoined after returning to office this year.
"In the 2021 CELAC meeting in Mexico, you had Maduro celebrated and China received as a guest of honor—the one to really influence political, ideological, economic, diplomatic and other efforts, instead of the U.S,” Mr. Araújo said.
This year, China, Brazil, and Russia have worked to include Iran into a new wave of countries joining BRICS, an organization previously seen as a mostly economic and loose group of developing countries that has become a stronger geopolitical alliance amid increasing tensions with the United States.