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The DEA says it just busted a Hezbollah operation laundering money for drug cartels

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

On Monday, the Drug Enforcement Administration claimed to have busted a money laundering, drug-dealing scheme that linked the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah to major drug trafficking operations in Latin America.

The scheme "spans the globe and involves numerous international law enforcement agencies in seven countries," the DEA says in a press release, which adds that the network has been "used to purchase weapons for Hezbollah for its activities in Syria."

According to the DEA, members of a Hezbollah branch called the External Security Organization Business Affairs Component (BAC) served as money launderers for at least one Colombian cartel, La Oficina de Envigado.

The cartels sent profits from their European sales to Hezbollah. Hezbollah kept a cut and laundered the rest to cartel operatives in Latin America through the hawala system, an informal money distribution system that spans the Muslim world and is typically used for things like remittances.

Hezbollah got extra cash, while the cartel got an efficient way to clean its dirty money. The DEA now says that it and its partners in Europe and Colombia rolled up a number of the people involved in the network.

A brief caveat on "narcoterrorism"

What this illustrates is the way terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah can find common cause with drug cartels; two criminal enterprises that share no real ideological mission but found a mutual interest in doing business. It's a confluence that, especially since 2001, US law enforcement has given the somewhat inflated title of "narcoterrorism."

But there's somewhat of a troubled history when it comes to US law enforcement and narcoterrorism.

Journalist Ginger Thompson, in a recent piece in the New Yorker, investigated a number of cases prosecuted under a special Patriot Act amendment, passed in 2006, that turned narcoterrorism (engaging in both the drug trade and global terrorism) into a special crime.

More often than not, she found, undercover DEA agents offered suspects large amounts of money to conduct drug trafficking on behalf of what the suspects were told was a terrorist organization. The DEA would then arrest people with no prior history of terrorist activity, prosecute them, and claim a victory in the war on terror.

When [DEA] cases were prosecuted, the only links between drug trafficking and terrorism entered into evidence were provided by the DEA, using agents or informants who were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to lure the targets into staged narco-terrorism conspiracies...

Russell Hanks, a former senior American diplomat, who got a firsthand look at some of the DEA’s narco-terrorism targets during the time he served in West Africa, told me, "The DEA provided everything these men needed to commit a crime, then said, ‘Wow, look what they did.’ " He added, "This wasn’t terrorism—this was the manipulation of weak-minded people, in weak countries, in order to pad arrest records."

This is not to cast aspersions on this DEA investigation into Hezbollah specifically, but rather just to encourage a grain of salt when it comes to allegations of mass-scale collusion between terrorist organizations and drug cartels. But there is also reason to believe this one is real.

Hezbollah's ties to Latin American drug cartels

Even in her article on exaggerated allegations of narcoterrorism, Thompson notes that "in a number of regions, most notably Colombia and Afghanistan, there is convincing evidence that terrorists have worked with drug traffickers."

Hezbollah is one such terrorist network. Matthew Levitt, the director of the Stein Counterterrorism Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has spent a lot of time researching Hezbollah's connections to the drug trade.

According to Levitt's research, Hezbollah got into the drug and money laundering business not long after the group first formed in the 1980s. At that point, Lebanon was the Middle East's biggest local drug manufacturer, so it was a natural industry for a nascent Lebanese terrorist group to tap for startup capital.

They started by smuggling drugs across the border into Israel, later expanding into Latin America by tapping members of the Lebanese diaspora in the region.

"Starting in the 1980s," Levitt writes in a 2012 report, "DEA agents noticed that so-called Lebanese Colombians were increasingly involved in moving drugs and money laundering for drug cartels through the port of Barranquilla near Macao on Colombia’s Caribbean coast."

Since then, Hezbollah's involvement in drug sales and money laundering seems to have grown (though Hezbollah officially denies it). Levitt believes that "it has significantly expanded and institutionalized its narcotics logistics and money laundering enterprises, to the point where it could soon raise more money from narcotics than all its other funding streams combined," a sum total of well over $200 million.

As a result of these longstanding ties to the narcotics trade, Levitt appears to find the DEA's claim of a major Hezbollah bust plausible. "DEA exposes #Hezbollah's Business Affairs Component (BAC), facilitating terror ops & arms procurement [for] Syria," he tweeted, with a link to the Monday press release.

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