The Hezb'allah Threat in the Tri-Border Area
The Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, also referred to as the Triple Frontier, is host to significant activity by various terrorist groups and criminal organizations. One of them is the Shia jihadist group Hezb'allah, which has used the region for fundraising and training, and as a means by which to carry out attacks in South America.
The Tri-Border Area forms at the convergence of the Iguazú and Paraná rivers. It covers an area of roughly 965 square miles and is surrounded by jungle. In includes the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu, the Paraguayan city of Ciudad del Este, and the Argentine city of Puerto Iguazú.
The Tri-Border Area is attractive to terrorist groups and criminal organizations for a number of reasons. In the period between 1971 and 2001, the population of the Tri-Border Area grew from 60,000 to 700,000. The construction of the Itaipú hydroelectric plant was an important driver of this growth. Such rapid population growth in the region contributed to a lack of infrastructure needed to regulate the high degree of increased commercial activity and border crossings, which has made the area significantly more difficult for law enforcement to police.
The Tri-Border Area has a large Arab population. Estimates of the Arab population in the region range from 20,000 to 30,000, with most residing in Foz do Iguaçu, as well as a large number in Ciudad del Este. About 90 percent of that population is of Lebanese origin. The Arab community in the region is tightly knit and has its own schools and clubs. This makes it difficult for law enforcement to penetrate the community, which makes the region an ideal operations base for Arabic-speaking terrorist or criminal groups.
The surrounding jungle provides another reason to make the region appealing to terrorist groups and criminal organizations. As jungles are difficult to penetrate, they are a good place for groups to hide bases, training camps, drug plantations, laboratories, and clandestine runways. An example of this is how the Amazon has been used to shelter dozens of runways and the Paraná River has been used regularly for illicit traffic.
In addition to the conditions that make the region attractive to criminal organizations and terrorist groups in general, there are reasons why it has attracted Hezb'allah specifically. One reason is the relationship between Hezb'allah and the Iranian government. In 1982, the Iranian government held a meeting in Tehran where its officials decided that they would use proxy terrorist groups to export their revolution abroad and use Iranian embassies and Shia mosques to facilitate that goal. Several months after that meeting, Mohsen Rabbani was sent by the Iranian regime to Argentina as a commercial attaché. Rabbani's public reason for being there was to inspect livestock, but the covert reason was to promote an Iranian-backed presence in the area.
Hezb'allah's presence in the Tri-Border Area dates back to the 1980s, when it first established logistical and financial cells in the region. Hezb'allah has utilized its presence in the region as a means of fundraising. A 2005 Paraguayan intelligence report reported that approximately 20 million dollars are collected in the region each year to finance Hezb'allah and Hamas. A major portion of the money transfers in the region are done through informal value transfer systems, such as the hawala system, rather than by a standard wire transfer. As such, they are difficult for law enforcement to trace.
Hezb'allah has also been involved in various activities as a means of fundraising. One of these is the sale of counterfeit products including pirated software, music, and films. Remittances have all been used as a means to mask contributions to terrorism. According to the former head of United States Southern Command, Gen. John F. Kelly, the Lebanese Shia diaspora in the Tri-Border Area "may generate as much as tens of millions of dollars for Hezbollah through both licit and illicit means."
Hezb'allah has also been smuggling weapons to Brazilian criminal gangs. Hezb'allah has been providing the Brazilian gang First Capital Command (PCC) with weapons while also acting as an intermediary in the sale of explosives that the PCC had stolen from Paraguay. In exchange for this, the PCC offers protection in Brazil's prisons for inmates of Lebanese origin.
Hezb'allah has been heavily involved in the narcotics trade in the region, including smuggling cocaine. In June 2017, a Lebanese Paraguayan man with ties to Hezb'allah named Ali Issa Chamas was arrested in the Tri-Border Area for drug-trafficking after being caught at Ciudad del Este's international airport trying to smuggle 39 kilograms of cocaine hidden inside 27 boxes of plastic wrap to the United States.
In addition to fundraising to help carry out terrorist attacks abroad, Hezb'allah has also used the Tri-Border Area as a means by which to carry out attacks within South America. The first example of this was on March 17, 1992, when a car bomb exploded in front of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people and injuring 242. Hezb'allah identified the attack as retaliation for the death of its leader, Abbas al-Musawi, who had been killed a month prior in an attack by the Israel Defense Forces in Lebanon.
On July 18, 1994, Hezb'allah carried out another bombing in Buenos Aires, this time against the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association (AMIA) building. The attack caused the deaths of 85 people and the injury of 151 people, as well as substantial property damage. Several calls were made via pay phones in the vicinity of the AMIA building on the day of the attack placed to a single cell phone subscriber located in Foz do Iguaçu in the Brazilian portion of the Tri-Border Area.
Additional evidence suggested that Foz do Iguaçu may have been used as a base of operations for preparing the attacks. Samuel Salman el-Reda, a Lebanese-Colombian man who was the logistics coordinator for both the Israeli embassy bombing and the AMIA bombing, owned a house in Foz do Iguaçu. He lived there until the AMIA bombing, at which point he fled to Lebanon.
Hezb'allah has used its presence in the Tri-Border Area to engage in terrorist attacks and to carry out fundraising activities, including by illicit means, to carry out terrorist attacks abroad. The group has maintained a presence in this region since the 1980s and remains a security threat to this very day.
Zachary Leshin is a former congressional staffer who has worked extensively in foreign policy. He recently graduated with a Master's in statecraft and national security from the Institute of World Politics.