In January this year, security agencies in the United States, Brazil and Paraguay dismantled one of the biggest cocaine-trafficking outfits ever detected in Latin America, in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. According to the US authorities, this criminal network was spearheaded by Lebanese citizen Nasser Abbas Bahmad, who has long-standing ties to Hezbollah and has since disappeared.
The Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil is the epicentre of worldwide cocaine trafficking. Recently, however, it has also become the epicentre of "narco-terrorism” in the region. What do we mean by this, and how does it work on the ground?
The Drug Corridor Exposed, and What’s at Stake
The Tri-Border Area is fertile ground for drug smugglers. To the north lie the regions that supply the highest-grade cocaine to criminal gangs, and to the south and east, the most accessible ports from which it can be transported to profitable markets.
The drug shipments used by Bahmad’s network were being conveyed from Colombia and Peru's central zone to "kitchens" located in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia for purification. Shipments then crossed the border practically unhindered to arrive at Ciudad del Este in Paraguay. From there, a portion was transferred from Ciudad del Este across the Puente de la Amistad bridge to Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil, with a final destination of São Paulo.
The other portion, meanwhile, crossed the Puente Tancredo Neves bridge to reach the Argentine border city of Puerto Iguazú. The drugs were then packed onto gigantic boats which conveyed them down the famous Parana River, either to the city of Rosario, Santa Fe, or directly to Buenos Aires. At the Port of Buenos Aires, ships would then carry the cocaine load – usually disguised as soybeans or charcoal – to European ports.
At the time of being loaded onto the boat, a kilogram of cocaine is worth about US$8,000. When it reaches European ports, it is worth upwards of ten times more. In the streets of Berlin or London, the profit margin increases even further.
This drug corridor, from the north down to the port of Buenos Aires, was only uncovered by investigators in January 2021. This led to the seizure of 12 tons of cocaine that were ready to be shipped to various ports worldwide. Nasser Abbas Bahmad’s drug trafficking network, however, had first settled in the Tri-Border area in 2014. Day by day, and years by year, while drugs flooded the streets of Latin American cities and major European capitals, Hezbollah was making millions of dollars.
Hezbollah's Links to Drug Trafficking in Latin America
"Hezbollah has been always connected to drug trafficking," says the Argentine journalist Gustavo Sierra, who moved to the Tri-Border area in 2019 to investigate Hezbollah and the drug trade in one of the most crime-riven zones of Latin America.
Sierra continues: "Hezbollah has its stronghold, the Bekaa Valley, in Lebanon: one of the largest opium- and hashish-producing areas in the world. It is a very lucrative business that takes advantage of the old smuggling routes to Europe to make good profit.
“In 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) identified a hierarchical structure within Hezbollah in charge of illicit operations, going back to 2007 at least. It is called the ‘Office of Business Affairs of the External Security Organization’ and was founded by then-Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyah. To this opium and hashish-producing business, Hezbollah added cocaine trafficking, thanks to the routes in Latin America and the Colombian, Mexican and Venezuelan cartels.”
In 2009, Michael Braun, the DEA’s then-head of Special Operations, testified to the United States Congress that Hezbollah members were "rubbing shoulders with the Latin American and Mexican drug cartels". Braun described this alliance of jihadists and drug traffickers as "hybrid terrorist organizations”.
In a 2012 article for The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Braun went on to clarify: "Hizballah entered the global narcotics trade approximately seven years ago by acquiring relatively small amounts of cocaine in 15kg-20kg quantities. Hizballah entered the global narcotics trade approximately seven years ago by acquiring relatively small amounts of cocaine in 15kg-20kg quantities.” The DEA's Project Cassandra has since estimated that Hezbollah earns close to US $2 billion annually through illegal drug trafficking in the Tri-Border Area.
Who is Nasser Abbas Bahmad?
The US authorities have described Nasser Abbas Basmad as “the key figure in money laundering, trafficking and financing inside Hezbollah". Bahmad, now a fugitive and thought to be hiding out in Lebanon, is understood to be a prominent financier of the Shiite militant group in Latin America, with a mission to raise funds for the organisation overseas.
Separately, Basmad is also a Khomeinist ideological cadre. He has a film production company in Lebanon and produced movies such as El Emir (The Prince), which was screened at the Islamic Resistance Film Festival held in Tehran in 2014. Brazilian intelligence has also published photographs of him together with former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In January this year, the Dubai-based news channel Al-Arabiya publicly accused a Lebanese woman, Hanan Hamdan, of co-masterminding the drug operation together with Bahmad. The pair, it said, were partners in three separate companies registered in Australia: GC Garden Charcoal, officially a purveyor of barbecue charcoal, Garden Shi Sha and Knight, for shisha tobacco and cigarettes respectively. Hamdan also established an Iraq-based company Global Trading Group (GTG) PTY Ltd, which was used to create two further subsidiaries, CG Charcoal Garden and Master Nanoking Argento.
Subsequent investigations revealed that GTG was a Hezbollah shell company being used for drug trafficking to several countries, with the cocaine disguised as shisha charcoal. The company's own documentation shows that the owners of Global Trading Group in Paraguay were Nasser Bahmad and Ali Fawaz, a man with Paraguayan nationality who also lives in the Tri-Border Area.
Another of Nasser Bahmad's close associates in the area was a Lebanese citizen named Adham Tabaja. The US government sanctioned him in 2015 for money laundering and drug trafficking for Hezbollah. Tabaja was registered as a shareholder of Al-Manar Holding Group, the group in charge of Hezbollah's official TV channel in Beirut, and a partner in Al-Walaya TV, which disseminates pro-Hezbollah propaganda in Lebanon.
Dismantlement of One Operation is Just the Beginning
Nasser Bahmad’s network was also far from the only one of its kind operating on behalf of Hezbollah in South America. According to Paraguayan law enforcement, drug gangs in the Tri-Border region "are all linked and related in one way or another with Hezbollah."
Several other partners have been located in Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. Among them are the Brazilian cartels Primer Comando Capital (PCC) and Comando Vermelho (CV), which compete with each other the control of drugs in Brazil and both maintain strategic ties with Hezbollah to guarantee the export of their cocaine to Europe. The Mexican cartel Los Zetas, El Envigado in Colombia, and the Venezuelan cartel Los Soles have also been accused of strategically aligning with Hezbollah to sell more drugs.
It’s not all drugs, either. Hezbollah makes use of its presence in the Tri-Border Area to sustain all kinds of illicit business. As Professor Luciano Stremel Barros, an expert from the IDESF study center in Foz, has said in the past: "Hezbollah uses organized crime to make money for its causes. There is a rapprochement between cigarette smugglers from Paraguay with representatives of this terrorist group using the same logistics of money and as a source of financing.”
Meanwhile, perhaps the best definition of the damage that Hezbollah is wreaking in its home country as a consequence was recently expressed in an article by the renowned Lebanese journalist Baria Alamuddin, via the Saudi Arab News agency. “Hezbollah will continue to block the formation of a government in Lebanon until the foreign, economy, health and transportation ministries are under its control. The control of these ministries increases its ability to continue with these criminal activities that enrich the organization and its leaders, while impoverishing the people.”