Mystery continues to surround Hezbollah’s alleged links to the seventeen suspects arrested on drug trafficking charges on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao on April 28. According to Curacaon authorities, approximately 250 law enforcement officials took down a major drug trafficking and money laundering ring led by a criminal network that shipped and sold cocaine and other contraband from Latin America and the Caribbean to Europe and the Middle East. In a significant twist, Curacaon authorities announced that the suspects had ties to international organized crime networks linked to Hezbollah in Lebanon; the suspects are accused of, among other things, having funneled part of their proceeds to Hezbollah through informal banking mechanisms (St. Maarten Island Times, May 2; Netherlands Info Services News, April 30; AP, April 29). Four Lebanese nationals were among those arrested in addition to an unspecified number of Colombians, Venezuelans, Cubans, Curacaons, and Surinamese (St. Maarten Island Times, May 2; NIS News, April 30). Curacaon authorities reported that officials from the Netherlands, Belgium, Colombia, Venezuela, and the United States aided in the investigation (St. Maarten Island Times, May 2; NIS News, April 30).
The suspects are reported to have specialized in exporting Colombian cocaine that they obtained from smugglers who transported the drugs to Curacao using speedboats and ocean-going cargo ships that embarked from Venezuela. The drug ring is also reported to have imported arms, ammunition and hashish from the Netherlands to Curacao. Sources in Curacao reported that the suspects established an elaborate scheme to launder their illicit profits. Among other things, the smugglers purchased property in Curacao, Colombia, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and Lebanon. The Curacaon-based contingent of the drug ring, for instance, operated legitimate businesses on the island that served as front companies for their illicit activities (St. Maarten Island Times, May 2; NIS News, April 30).
On the surface, these events may appear to validate the concerns of many observers regarding the nexus between international organized crime and radical Shiite Islam in Latin America and the Caribbean. A closer examination of this case, however, indicates that other factors may be at play.
A Smuggler’s Paradise
Curacao’s geographic proximity to the Venezuelan coast makes it an ideal transshipment point for narcotics - especially Colombian cocaine - arms, and other contraband originating in Latin America and other parts of the Caribbean destined for international markets. Local- and foreign-based smugglers are also known to exploit the island’s direct air traffic links to the Netherlands and close European ties to ship their wares. The free-trade zone (FTZ) and state-of-the-art shipping and port facilities that have made Curacao a key hub in legitimate global trade and passenger cruise ship traffic are also conducive to smuggling and other illicit activities. While Curacao’s oil industry has traditionally served as one of the island’s main sources of revenue (Venezuela’s state-run Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. [PDVSA] runs major oil refining operations at Curacao’s Isla refinery), it is also a major offshore banking and financial services center. The offshore banking and financial services industry, an industry which represents an intrinsic part of the political-economy of the Caribbean, is often associated with money laundering, tax evasion, and international organized crime. Due to the scenic island’s reputation as a tourist paradise for European and North American vacationers, however, this dark side of Curacao is often overlooked. Yet it is important to point out that Curacao is not alone in the region in this regard; much of Latin America and the Caribbean are beset by corruption, weak institutions, porous borders, and poverty, leaving them susceptible to international organized crime.
While Curacao enjoys autonomy in its domestic affairs, all matters related to foreign policy and national defense remain the responsibility of the Dutch government. The Dutch armed forces maintain a permanent presence on the island. In addition, United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) forces have, since 2000, utilized Curacao and fellow Dutch Caribbean island Aruba as Forward Operating Locations (FOL) to support its mission in the region. U.S. surveillance aircraft, for instance, depart from Curacao’s Hato International Airport to conduct counter-narcotics detection and monitoring missions. U.S. investigators, security officials, and military personnel also operate from the FOL in concert with local and regional partners. In spite of its strategic importance and the attention it receives from the United States and the Netherlands, Curacao remains a smuggler’s paradise. This reality is emblematic of the scale of the challenges posed by international organized crime in the region.
Allegations linking Hezbollah to drug trafficking in Latin America and the Caribbean surface periodically (The National [Abu Dhabi], March 22). While Hezbollah continues to receive financial and material support from Iran, the group is known to boast an impressive independent fundraising capability. Donations from its supporters and sympathizers across the globe (including the sizeable Arab diaspora in Latin America and the Caribbean), proceeds from legitimate business interests managed by the organization and illicit activities such as drug trafficking, counterfeiting, and related activities are widely assumed to help sustain the organization’s social service, political, and military wings.
In spite of reports linking Hezbollah to the crime ring in Curacao, no details regarding the exact nature of Hezbollah’s alleged involvement in the drug smuggling and money laundering operation were provided by Curacaon authorities or by the other parties involved in the investigation. In a similar incident, U.S. and Colombian authorities took down a major drug trafficking ring headed by Lebanese nationals in Colombia in October 2008 that was accused of maintaining ties to Colombian drug cartels and right-wing paramilitaries. The suspects detained in Colombia were alleged to have channeled part of their funds back to Hezbollah’s coffers (El Espectador [Bogota], March 9). Similarly, details to explain the precise Hezbollah link to that criminal enterprise failed to emerge. In another case, Colombian and Ecuadorian officials collaborated in June 2005 to take down a drug smuggling ring with global reach that was said to be linked to Hezbollah. According to Ecuadorian officials, the suspects, who included Lebanese, Syrians, Ecuadorians, Colombians, Algerians, Nigerians and Turks, are reported to have transferred 70% of their profits to Hezbollah. The ringleader of the group, Rady Zaiter (a.k.a. David Assi Alvarez and Almawla Fares), was a Lebanese national wanted on drug trafficking charges in France (CRE Satelital [Guayaquil], June 21, 2005). Zaiter’s arrest and extradition to France led to further arrests of alleged accomplices involved in his drug operation in Brazil and the United States (Le Temps [Switzerland] June 27, 2005). As in the previous cases, no concrete details explaining the exact Hezbollah link to Zaiter’s criminal activities ever emerged. Not surprisingly, Hezbollah has denied any involvement in the drug trade. Hezbollah describes attempts to link the group to the drug trade as an effort by its enemies to tarnish the reputation it has cultivated as a Lebanese nationalist movement and a legitimate player in Lebanese politics (Al-Manar TV [Beirut], October 23, 2008).
Hezbollah is also implicated in the drug trade in the Middle East, including the trade inside the borders of its archenemy Israel, one of the region’s largest markets for recreational drugs. During the July 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, Israeli activists went so far as to call for hashish smokers in Israel to boycott the product based on the premise that proceeds from the sale of hashish on Israeli streets funded Hezbollah (The Forward [New York City], August 11, 2006). In addition to profiting from Israeli drug consumption, Hezbollah is also alleged to have used the drug trade to infiltrate the Israeli defense and security establishment by luring corrupt military, police, and intelligence officers into profitable drug trafficking schemes in exchange for intelligence information. While most reports of Hezbollah’s intelligence activities in Israel point to the group’s ties to members of Israel’s Arab minority and Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, Hezbollah successfully recruited a Lieutenant Colonel in the Israeli army who directed his own drug operation in Israel; Hezbollah operatives supplied the Israeli officer with hashish and heroin in exchange for intelligence information. And there are more cases like this one (Haaretz [Tel Aviv], April 1, 2008; Christian Science Monitor, April 15).
Lebanese Organized Crime
In light of reports linking Hezbollah to the drug trade in the Americas and beyond, observers concerned with this topic should also consider the role of Lebanese organized crime networks in Latin America and the Caribbean. Indeed, the situation on the ground in Lebanon as it relates to the relationship between Hezbollah and organized crime networks and drug trafficking suggests that a more complex dynamic is at work (The National, April 14; Christian Science Monitor, April 15).
Lebanese organized crime networks that traffic drugs and engage in other illicit activities have international connections that extend to the substantial Lebanese diaspora in the Americas and to other ethnic-based criminal organizations. Likewise, drug gangs based in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, including networks led by powerful Shi’a clans, are routinely linked to Hezbollah. Lebanon’s impoverished Bekaa Valley, a region where Hezbollah has traditionally drawn strong support, has long been a center for the cultivation of cannabis for the production of hashish, the drug of choice for most recreational drug users in the Middle East. Drug gangs in the Bekaa Valley also cultivate poppy crops used to produce opium and heroin. According to some sources, upwards of 50 heavily-armed drug kingpins, each with their own stake in the drug trade, operate in the Bekaa Valley alone (AFP, October 4, 2008). Beirut and Hezbollah have traditionally turned a blind eye to the drug trade and other illicit activities in the Bekaa Valley to ensure the loyalty of the powerful Shi’a clans in the region who derive their livelihoods from the drug trade (al-Jazeera [Doha], April 14). Shi’a-led clans, however, are not the only groups involved in the global drug trade. When the Syrian army controlled most of Lebanon, Syrian officers regularly engaged in drug trafficking and other illicit activities for both monetary and political gains. Many of these networks remain in place in some form. During the Lebanese Civil War, Christian, Sunni, Palestinian and Leftist militias smuggled narcotics and engaged in other illicit activities on a global scale to the tune of tens of billions of dollars.  Following the conflict, many militias eventually morphed into full-fledged criminal organizations spanning the globe. The outward emigration of Lebanese and other Arab communities fleeing the conflict in the Levant to Latin America and the Caribbean provided Lebanese organized criminal networks with an opportunity to make international inroads in a manner analogous to the methods other ethnic-based organized criminal networks use to establish themselves among their kin across the globe.
A spate of recent incidents in Lebanon help shed light on the complex interplay between Hezbollah, Lebanese-based organized crime groups in the Bekaa Valley, and allegations that implicate Hezbollah in a series of major drug cases in the Americas, including the recent case in Curacao. While Hezbollah has often turned a blind eye to drug and criminal activities in areas under its control, a marked expansion of the drug trade, a rash of car thefts, and bold attacks against Lebanese security services by Shi’a crime networks in recent months have raised tensions in the Bekaa Valley and have placed Hezbollah in a precarious position (al-Jazeera April 14). Tensions escalated further when thieves linked to local organized crime networks attacked the son of the late Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh and then stole his car near a small village in the Bekaa Valley. When the son of the revered Hezbollah commander mentioned to his assailants who he was and that he himself was an active member of the group, the thieves continued with their assault and took his car anyway. In response to this affront, Hezbollah gave Beirut the go-ahead to deploy security forces in the Bekaa Valley to crack down on Shi’a gangs that are accustomed to operating unhindered (The National, April 14; Christian Science Monitor, April 15). These events are telling; the recent tensions between the organized crime networks and Hezbollah are indicative of the strength and influence of criminal gangs in Lebanon. Most importantly, these incidents also demonstrate the independence of these groups and their willingness to challenge Hezbollah (and the state) through violence when they see their interests being threatened.
Detailed evidence regarding Hezbollah’s supposed involvement in the Curacao drug case has yet to emerge. The nature of Hezbollah’s alleged connection to the detainees in the Curacao drug case may eventually surface, but in the meantime, serious researchers concerned with these issues should factor in the potential role of Lebanese organized crime networks that may be linked to Hezbollah through their contacts and connections in the Bekaa Valley, but who are motivated by profits, not politics. It is also possible that independent members of Lebanese organized crime networks operating in the Americas and elsewhere are contributing portions of their proceeds to Hezbollah out of sympathy for the group. Hezbollah, after all, remains popular among many Lebanese, particularly the Shi’a, but also among other sects within the Lebanese diaspora. Political motivations intended to harm Hezbollah’s standing in Lebanese politics may be behind many of these accusations. At the very least, the recent events in the Bekaa Valley indicate that Hezbollah’s connection to the drug trade in Lebanon and beyond is far more complex than is often reflected in the sweeping generalizations characteristic of much of the media coverage of the topic.
1. Elizabeth Picard, Lebanon: A Shattered Country (New York: Holmes & Meier, 2002), p. 138, 143; also see Georges Corm, “The War System: Militia Hegemony and Reestablishment of the State” in Deirdre Collings (ed.), Peace for Lebanon: From War to Reconstruction (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1994), 217-18.