By Emanuele Ottolenghi
June 14, 2019
Hezbollah is reportedly feeling the pain of U.S. President Donald Trump administration’s maximum-pressure campaign against Iran. Tehran, after all, contributes about $700 million to the U.S.-designated terrorist group’s estimated yearly budget of approximately $1 billion. As sanctions squeeze Tehran, less money is supposedly flowing to Hezbollah as a result.
However, sanctions on Iran are unlikely to cause Hezbollah to go broke, because the Lebanese group brings in an estimated $300 million per year from independent sources including the proceeds of transnational crime, although the true figure is likely much higher. In Latin America’s booming cocaine trade, Hezbollah members and associates provide cartels with reliable money-laundering services.
Unless the Trump administration begins disrupting these cash flows, Hezbollah will live to fight another day.
Hezbollah has already shown it can survive tough sanctions on Iran.
Between 2006 and 2014, the international community gradually built a formidable sanctions regime to pressure Tehran into nuclear concessions. Yet those sanctions had little impact on Hezbollah’s ability to consolidate its grip on Lebanon’s domestic politics while waging war next door in Syria. Iran, in fact, increased its contributions despite sanctions. Hezbollah’s budget also expanded throughout those years because, over the previous two decades, Hezbollah had diversified its income sources through illicit financial schemes in Latin America.
Washington has not made consistent efforts to address this threat. For fear of derailing nuclear negotiations with Iran, the administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama terminated Project Casssandra, an eight-year operation run by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) that aimed to combat Hezbollah’s growing collusion with drug cartels. The Trump administration promised to turn its attention back to Hezbollah’s Latin American operations, but so far has issued neither sanctions nor indictments against Hezbollah allies in Latin America.
To be sure, Washington has not been idle in targeting Hezbollah outside Latin America. Since January 2017, the Treasury Department has sanctioned dozens of Hezbollah leaders, operatives, associates, and their businesses. The Department of Justice named Hezbollah one of the top five transnational criminal organizations that threaten America’s national security. It also established two Hezbollah task forces to review Obama’s decision not to seek prosecutions of Hezbollah drug traffickers and prosecute Hezbollah’s financial crimes. Congress, for its part, passed new Hezbollah sanctions last October, giving the president more expansive authority to prosecute Hezbollah financial facilitators.
In addition, ongoing probes of Hezbollah’s Latin American operations are yielding important results. The Trump administration has indicated that a key witness to Hezbollah’s financial crimes in the Western Hemisphere, former Venezuelan intelligence chief Hugo Carvajal, may soon be sharing “a treasure-trove” of information with U.S. authorities. The shadowy relationship between Venezuela, Iran, and Hezbollah expanded during Carvajal’s tenure. He was arrested in Spain in April and is awaiting extradition to the United States on drug charges as per an indictment originally filed in 2011. However, U.S. prosecutors need not wait for Carvajal’s revelations to begin hitting Hezbollah’s Latin American money-laundering schemes.
Robust evidence regarding Hezbollah’s illicit finance networks is already out in the open, sometimes thanks to unlikely sources. One is Ayman Joumaa, the kingpin of one of Hezbollah’s largest money-laundering schemes, which the DEA investigated as part of Project Cassandra.
The DEA believed that Joumaa, using the Lebanese Canadian Bank and a vast network of businesses, laundered $200 million a month for Colombian and Mexican drug cartels. The investigation culminated in Joumaa’s indictment in 2011 and in subsequent civil forfeiture actions against the Lebanese Canadian Bank and a string of used car businesses in the United States. Joumaa’s network allegedly used U.S. companies to buy used cars and resell them in West Africa as part of a complicated means of laundering drug money back to the cartels.