Experts explain Hezbollah’s presence on the triple border: ‘There is a related group, but very small and of little influence’

Operation of the Federal Police brings the most forceful accusation ever made about possible terrorist activity in Brazil, say researchers

Operation Trapiche of the Federal Police (PF), which arrested two men accused of being part of Hezbollah and planning attacks on synagogues in Brazil, ignited the warning about possible terrorist activities in the country, mainly in Paraná, in the triple border region with Paraguay and Argentina, where there are many Arab communities established. But experts explain that despite the seriousness of the current investigation, the most important thing ever made, there has never been concrete evidence in the past accusations that these sites are of special interest to the terrorist groups in the Middle East. Still, due to Hezbollah’s relevance as Lebanon’s political organization, it is not difficult to find residents of cities like Foz do Iguaçu and Ciudad Del Leste that have some connection with the group.

“The speech ends up being too pendulating, or saying it is all (the accusations) invention of the US, while others make alarm that there would be Hezbollah terrorist cell hidden in the Iguazu Falls. There is a related group, but very small and of little influence, interested in other things,” explains Fernando Brancoli, professor of International Relations at UFRJ, who points out that the main evidence of criminal activities of these people are smuggling and money laundering. Hezbollah would gain very little from an attack in Brazil, which resists classifying the organization as a terrorist group, including. Then they would arrange a new enemy if they made an attack.

In addition to the PF, U.S. intelligence agencies have been investigating the presence of the terrorist group on the triple border for more than 30 years. According to the current investigation of Operation Trapiche, the criminals were raising information about synagogues and Jewish centers that could become the target of retaliation for Israel’s offensives in the Gaza Strip.

Due to the various exchanges and the strong flow of goods that cross the customs of the three countries, among them illegal ones, such as drugs and weapons, the triple border would be an attractive region for terrorist organizations. There has never been an attack in Brazil, but in 2018 Lebanese Assad Ahmad Barakat was arrested in Foz do Iguaçu, accused of laundering money for Hezbollah through casinos in Argentina.

Migration mainly of Syrians and Lebanese

The migration of Arabs to Brazil is born at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, at first in the main urban centers, such as Rio and São Paulo, says Brancoli. Over time, especially for economic reasons, the groups, mostly descendants of Syrians and Lebanese, moved to other regions and many immigrants settled in Foz do Iguaçu and Ciudad Del Este.

The milestone for accusations of terrorist activities was the attacks in 1992 and 1994 on the Israeli embassy and the Israeli-Argentine Mutual Association (Amia) in Buenos Aires, which left more than 100 dead. And after 9/11, the U.S. government definitely placed the triple border as a “hotspot” of possible terrorist nuclei. Reports from the U.S. Department of Security often associate these communities with criminal money laundering, smuggling and drug trafficking. The money raised would serve to fund the activities of organizations like Hezbollah, according to the U.S., but that funding has never been properly proven or detailed, Brancoli said.

“Today Hezbollah is the most powerful political group in Lebanon, not just an armed group. In general, according to even people from Abin with whom I have already talked, what exists in Brazil are very specific actors in smuggling and a little money laundering, without great acting capacity.

Operation Trapiche is the first that brings such a serious degree of accusation in a direct relationship with Hezbollah. However, Brancoli recalls that the facts are not yet properly clarified. The connection with Hezzbolah, for example, was initially announced by the Israeli government, before any official confirmation from the PF. The Israeli statements even generated criticism from Minister Flavio Dino.

I do not look as an invention (the operation), but there can be overvaluation. Eduardo Bolsonaro, for example, spoke repeatedly about Hezbollah in Brazil, and from close proximity to trafficking faction in Brazil, which has never been proven, says the professor of UFRJ. “There is a monopoly of a Brazilian criminal faction on the triple border, which attracts many smugglers. So it’s inevitable that someone will end up working for both sides

The main link of the Lebanese organization with a large Brazilian criminal faction would be in prison, in 2018, on the triple border, of Elton Leonel Ruminich da Silva, the “Galã”, who would work for the two groups. But experts say that would mean more individual acting than an alliance.

‘Region little relevant to the conflict scenario’ explains expert

Researcher of the Research Center on International Relations of USP and the Unila’s Triple Border Research Group, Isabelle Somma de Castro says that accusations of terrorist activities in the region always arise in the wake of the escalation of conflicts in the Middle East.

“There has been a lot of accusations against the local community that Osama bin Laden traveled there, that terrorists would have training camps. There has never been evidence of terrorists in the region. In addition to lack of solid and credible evidence, there is no clear motivation for Palestinian and Lebanese nationalist groups such as those cited to act in the region. From the point of view of these groups, there is no point in investing resources, quite scarce today, in order to keep associates in Brazil to promote attacks in a region that is not relevant to the conflict scenario.

Somma also says it is common for immigrants to send money to family and friends residing in Lebanon or Palestinian territories. These remittances would motivate part of the accusations of financing terrorist activities, he explains.

“In the field surveys I did in the region, many federal police officers told me that the community usually warns about the occurrence of facts or suspicious people. After all, if something happens there, as an act of violence, who will be harmed are the residents and the local economy, says Isabelle Somma.

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