By Florencia Montaruli
December 9, 2021
In mid-November, Colombian Defence Minister Diego Molano startled the international community by declaring Iran and Hezbollah “enemies” of his country. Molano claimed that two months previously, “we had to deal with a situation in which we had to organize an operation to capture and expel two criminals commissioned by Hezbollah with the intention of committing a criminal act in Colombia.”
Colombian military intelligence later reported that Lebanese Hezbollah had been spying on US and Israeli businesspeople in Colombia and US diplomats in Bogotá. According to national media, a former intelligence agent recently assigned to the Israeli diplomatic team in Colombia realized he was being stalked. The man, feared to be the target of a murder plot, was evacuated to Tel Aviv.
Now, newly-published details have given an idea of the magnitude of Hezbollah’s alleged plot. The newspaper El Tiempo reports that an Iranian national recruited two fellow prison inmates in Dubai sometime between 2017 and 2021. The same information was published by the daily Israel Hayom, which added that the “recruiter” was a member of the IRGC’s expeditionary Quds Force.
Both papers report that on their release in May 2021, the two “groomed” convicts arrived in Colombia and began spying on Israeli businesspeople and their families, tracking their daily movements from their homes to their places of work and study. The “spies”, El Tiempo reported, also established contact with local people in a bid to carry out an assassination plot.
After the alleged plot was foiled in September, it was claimed that the cell also wanted to target US diplomats in Colombia. By the time of Molano’s disclosure, the two agents had already been arrested and expelled from the country. Their identities have not been made public.
Colombia is home to a sizeable Lebanese Shiite community and borders Venezuela, the Iranian regime’s closest political-ideological ally in Latin America. Colombia also has close commercial, diplomatic and security ties with the United States and Israel. But Hezbollah, thanks to its close association with the FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces), has also been able to establish itself in the country.
In August 2009, a Lebanese national named Jamal Yousef, aka Talal Hassan Ghantou, was arrested in Honduras after being charged by US prosecutors with conspiring to supply a massive cache of military-grade weapons to the FARC. The weapons he was selling, prosecutors said, had been stolen from Iraq with the help of a cousin who was a member of Hezbollah. Yousef was later sentenced to 12 years in prison by a court in Manhattan.
Up until 2012, the same year Yousef was jailed, a criminal outfit known as the Saleh clan – led by Ali Mohamad Saleh, a prominent Shiite businessman and Hezbollah agent, and his brother Kassem, operated an extensive cross-border criminal network in Colombia and Venezuela. The group’s activities were discovered in 2008 during Operation Titan, a two-year anti-drug operation carried out by Colombian and US agents that saw 130 people arrested and $23m seized. For years, the Saleh clan controlled illicit drugs, weapons, contraband, bulk cash smuggling, and money laundering markets in Maicao, Colombia, close to Venezuela’s northern border.
Part of the reason Colombia is an attractive target for Hezbollah agents is the relatively low risk of reprisal. In most cases, the local legal framework makes it virtually impossible to generate harsh sentences for terrorism-related offences, and a well-placed bribe can sometimes buy a suspect’s freedom. Captured agents are often expelled and sent back to their home country, which is no disincentive.
Key Opposition Figure’s Soft Stance on Iran and Hezbollah
Shortly after Molano’s controversial statements were aired, Senator Gustavo Petro, a leftist former mayor of Bogotá who plans to stand in next year’s presidential elections, waded into the fray. “Minister Diego Molano,” Petro wrote on Twitter, “can Colombia consider a country with which it maintains diplomatic relations an enemy? Can a minister put us in warlike circumstances with a country that has never hurt us?”
Back in the 1970s and 80s, Petro was a vital member of the April 19 Movement (better known as M-19): an urban guerrilla militant group that was an ally of the FARC up until 1990. He has been accused by his rival, President Juan Guaidó, and his supporters of maintaining close ties with the corrupt Maduro regime in Venezuela, which is bolstered by both the FARC and Hezbollah. For his part Petro denies supporting “dictatorship”.
Petro was also embroiled in controversy in October this year, during an investigation into the financing of left-wing movement Podemos in Spain. A Chavez-era spy chief, General Hugo “El Pollo” Carvajal, had been arrested in Spain in September after nearly two years on the run and made a series of explosive allegations while in prison. In a letter to the Spanish High Court judge, Carvajal claimed Petro was among a series of politicians and parties that had been funded by the Venezuelan state over 15 years: “While I was Director of Military Intelligence and Counterintelligence in Venezuela, I received a large number of reports indicating this international financing was occurring. Concrete examples are Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Lula Da Silva in Brazil, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay, Ollanta Humala in Peru, Zelaya in Honduras, Gustavo Petro in Colombia, the Five Star Movement in Italy, and Podemos in Spain. All of these were reported as recipients of money sent by the Venezuelan government.”
Carvajal has been accused by the US of drug trafficking and collaboration with the FARC, which he denies, and none of his allegations yet been tested in a court of law. Gustav Petro in turn has denied the accusations, though the Venezuelan politician Diosdado Cabello, second in charge of Maduro regime, has also claimed that Petro went to Venezuela to request financing for one of his campaigns.
In January 2020, after the assassination of IRGC Quds Force commander Ghasem Soleimani, Petro slammed the Trump Administration for the killing on Twitter, claiming Soleimani had been “the architect of the defeat of IS [Islamic State]”.
The recently failed plot in Colombia will not stop the Iranian regime and its main regional proxy, Hezbollah, from trying to deepen the ideological presence in Latin America. Even where the authorities have remained vigilant, both groups have laid the foundations of a new battlefront against the Islamic Republic’s unilaterally-sworn enemy, the US: one they show no sign of abandoning as yet.