By Colin P. Clarke
February 15, 2019
Responding to a question on current instability in Venezuela and the presence of terrorist groups in the region, specifically Lebanese Hezbollah, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed in a recent interview that the Trump administration believes that the “Party of God,” as Hezbollah is known, maintains “active cells” in Venezuela. He went on to say that “Iranians are impacting the people of Venezuela,” because Hezbollah is trained, financed, and equipped by Tehran.
Some security policy analysts seemed surprised by Pompeo’s claims, but they shouldn’t be. Hezbollah has long maintained a presence in Latin America, especially in the infamous Tri-Border Area, a semi-lawless region where Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil converge. But even beyond the Tri-Border Area, Hezbollah is well-entrenched in Venezuela, where the Shiite terrorist group has long worked to establish a vast infrastructure for its criminal activities, including drug trafficking, money laundering, and illicit smuggling. For example, Margarita Island, located off the coast of Venezuela, is a well-known criminal hotbed where Hezbollah members have established a safe haven. Under the regime of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the government took a more active approach to offering sanctuary to Venezuela-based supporters of Hezbollah.
More controversial than what Pompeo said, however, should have been what he implied—namely, that regime change would rid Venezuela of Hezbollah. Whatever the benefits of replacing the current Venezuelan regime with Washington’s preferred alternative, there’s reason to doubt that it would change the country’s problematic relationship with the terrorist group.
Hezbollah has a long and sordid history in Venezuela. A cocaine-smuggling ringactive throughout the 2000s led by a Hezbollah-linked Lebanese national named Chekry Harb—a drug trafficker and money laundering kingpin who went by the nickname “Taliban”—used Panama and Venezuela as critical hubs in an operation that sent narcotics from Colombia to the United States, West Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Proceeds from the cocaine-trafficking ring were laundered into Colombian pesos or Venezuelan bolivars, with Hezbollah netting between 8 and 14 percent of profits.
Hezbollah’s reliance on sympathizers within its diaspora communities, including in Venezuela, has significantly minimized the group’s potential exposure to detection.Venezuela’s border security officials and law enforcement, amid the country’s general desperation, have been largely unwilling to resist bribes and kickback schemes offered by Hezbollah members and their cadres.
Given the present instability in Venezuela, it’s fair to wonder what would happen with Hezbollah under a government led by opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who was recently recognized as the legitimate ruler of the country by the United States and dozens of other nations, including European heavyweights France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Spain.
A government led by Guaidó would almost certainly be more active in opposing Hezbollah’s presence on Venezuelan soil, not just nominally but in more aggressively seeking to curtail the group’s criminal network and, by extension, the influence of Iran. As part of a quid pro quo for its support, Washington would likely seek to lean on Guaidó to crack down on any Iran-linked activities throughout the region.
But there is a major difference between will and capability. And while a Guaidó-led government might initially demonstrate strong political will in countering Hezbollah and Iran—at least to appease the Trump administration—Venezuela as a country faces an immense challenge in attempting to rebuild its shattered society. Pushing back against Hezbollah may simply fall much lower on the list of priorities for Guaidó and his administration than the United States might like.
The uncertain nature of Venezuela’s security services and military suggests a serious capability gap to contend with when working with Caracas. Venezuela has maintained close links to Russia militarily, and it remains unknown what portion of the security services are or will remain loyal to Maduro. The United States experienced great success with Plan Colombia, a multiyear, multibillion-dollar effort to engage in security cooperation with and build the capacity of Colombian law enforcement and military forces.
But replicating the success of Plan Colombia, which helped the Colombian armed forces gain a significant advantage over the FARC, has proven elusive in other contexts, including in Mexico, where the Mérida Initiative, a security cooperation agreement between the United States and Mexico focused on counter-narcotics, failed to successfully combat drug trafficking and organized criminal networks in that country.
During his first two years in office, President Donald Trump has demonstrated a desire to extricate the United States from costly overseas interventions. This is just one of several reasons why a “Plan Venezuela” aimed at helping that country rebuild critical government institutions may be unfeasible.