The presidential campaign has featured plenty of talk about terrorism in the Middle East, but one lawmaker is warning that the federal government is ignoring a growing Hezbollah presence in Mexico, with the Lebanese terror group increasingly joining forces with drug cartels.
One report shows hundreds of thousands of Middle Easterners living in Mexico, and a small percentage of them may be radicals using routes established by drug networks to sneak into the U.S.
The ties linking Mexico to Islamic terrorism were underscored earlier this year when an alleged Iranian operative plotted to assassinate a Saudi diplomat in Washington using a hired gun on loan from a Mexican drug cartel. Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) says the mounting evidence of a Hezbollah presence in Mexico is being ignored by the Department of Homeland Security.
"I don't have a lot of faith in the Department of Homeland Security," said Myrick. "They should be looking at these groups in Mexico much more closely."
The incidents fueling Myrick's frustration include the Oct. 17 guilty plea in Manhattan Federal Court of a suspect plotting to pay $1.5 million to a suspected hitman for the Los Zetas Cartel, who was actually a DEA informant, to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the U.S. by bombing a busy Washington, D.C., restaurant the ambassador frequents.
Mansour Arbabsiar, 58, a naturalized U.S. citizen holding both Iranian and U.S. passports, was arrested on Sept. 29, 2011, at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. He faces a maximum potential sentence of 25 years in prison.
"A little more than a year after his arrest, Mansour Arbabsiar has admitted to his role in a deadly plot approved by members of the Iranian military to assassinate a sitting foreign ambassador on U.S. soil,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a press release.
Holder said the plot was hatched by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and their covert operation group, the Qods. The Qods Force conducts sensitive covert operations, including terrorist attacks, assassinations and kidnappings, and is believed to have sponsored attacks against Coalition Forces in Iraq. In October 2007, the U.S. Treasury Department designated the Qods Force under Executive Order 13224 for providing material support to the Taliban and other terrorist organizations.
“The dangerous connection between drug trafficking and terrorism cannot be overstated, and this case is yet another example of DEA’s unique role in identifying potentially deadly networks that wish to harm innocent Americans and our allies worldwide," said DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart following Arbabsiar’s court appearance. “Using DEA’s elaborate and sophisticated investigative expertise to infiltrate violent drug and terror organizations globally, we successfully identified this threat and worked closely with the FBI to prevent a potentially deadly outcome.”
Speculation of these groups operating in Mexico eventually became more tangible in the fall of 2010, when the Tucson Police Department published an International Terrorism Situational Awareness for Hezbollah in Mexico citing the arrest of Jameel Nasar in Tijuana in July 2010, who attempted to establish a Hezbollah network in Mexico and South America.
The previous year, Jamal Yousef was arrested in New York City, where it was learned that 100 M16 rifles, 100 AR15 rifles, 200 hand grenades, C4 explosive and anti-tank ammunition were stolen from Iraq by his cousin, an alleged Hezbollah member, and stored in Mexico.
The Diario de Quinatana Roo newspaper said it has uncovered information from Wikileaks that, as far back as 2009, Hezbollah cells were using drug trafficking routes to reach the U.S.
Myrick fired off a letter to Secretary of Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, requesting DHS create a task force solely to watch Islamic extremist groups in Mexico. Napolitano said there was no need, saying current intelligence resources were adequate.
Napolitano did admit to Myrick that Hezbollah has a decades-long presence in the tri-border region between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, and, "ties to individuals involved in illicit activities in the region." Taking care not to specifically say Mexican drug cartels.
On Sept. 8, the Yucatan Times reported three individuals, one with dual American-Lebanese citizenship, with alleged ties to Hezbollah, were arrested in the Yucatan Peninsula city of Merida in an alleged effort to raise funds to release Hezbollah agents in U.S. custody.
U.S. officials have yet to identify the suspects as Hezbollah sympathizers or members.
Merida, Mexico, has had a large Lebanese population for generations, which the suspects hoped to blend into. There are more than 200,000 people of Lebanese and Syrian descent living in Mexico, according to a study by Georgetown University that was referenced in the Tucson Police Department report.
These incidents leave little ambiguity said a spokesman for Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.
"The Arizona Department of Homeland Security has indicated there are elements of Middle Eastern Islamic extremist groups operating in Mexico," said Matthew Benson, Director of Communications for Gov. Brewer. "From the governor's standpoint, it is critical to have a secure border for criminal elements who would take advantage of a porous border, especially like the one we have in Arizona."
Myrick said she is concerned about the hyperbole of the candidates and even the mainstream media solely discussing what is occurring in the Middle East without mentioning potential threats that may be as close as Mexico.
Marsha Catron, spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, continued to echo the department’s two-year position that they have no credible intelligence identifying Hezbollah as operating in Mexico. She did not respond to queries after the Merida arrests.
“Given the evidence available, it only makes sense that DHS should, at the very least, investigate the presence of Hezbollah along our Southern border, regardless of who is in office,” Myrick said.
Joseph J. Kolb is a freelance journalist in New Mexico.