By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
March 17, 2009 - Iran is increasing its presence in Latin America, and Hezbollah, a terrorist organization it sponsors, is making inroads in drug trafficking in Colombia, the commander of U.S. Southern Command told Congress today. Navy Adm. James G. Stavridis told the House Armed Services Committee he shares concerns expressed by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates about Iranian activity in Central and South America. Iran has opened six embassies in the region during the past five years and is promoting Islamic activities in the region.
"That is of concern, principally because of the connection between the government of Iran, which is a state sponsor of terrorism, and Hezbollah," Stavridis said today. "We see a great deal of Hezbollah activity throughout South America, in particular."
Much of that activity takes place in the tri-border area of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, and in the Caribbean.
Stavridis noted in his written statement that Southcom supported a Drug Enforcement Administration operation in the tri-border area last August that targeted a Hezbollah-connected drug trafficking organization.
Two months later, Southcom supported another interagency operation in which several dozen people were arrested in Colombia for ties to a Hezbollah-connected drug trafficking and money laundering ring.
Despite big successes in professionalizing the Colombian military and helping it deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Southcom has witnessed a direct connection there between Hezbollah and drug trafficking in Colombia, Stavridis told the committee.
He noted the direct link between the illicit drug trade and the terrorist groups it bankrolls, noting the threat posed by Islamic radical terrorism.
"Indentifying, monitoring and dismantling the financial, logistical and communication linkages between illicit trafficking groups and terrorist sponsors are critical to not only ensuring early indications and warnings of potential terrorist attacks directed at the United States and our partners, but also in generating a global appreciation and acceptance of this tremendous threat to security," he said.
Stavridis called Colombia – the major global source of cocaine and home of the FARC – pivotal in the fight to stop illicit traffickers at the source.
Continued support to Colombia to help it in this endeavor will pay big dividends for the region and for the United States, he said.
"Providing resources and investments to improve the Colombian military, along with enhancing our interagency capabilities, will build the capacity to integrate and share information with U.S. and international counter-narcotic organizations," he said. "Our interagency support efforts will directly improve regional and hemispheric security."