Iran’s Pink Tide Friends in Latin America

Iran’s Pink Tide Friends in Latin America

​​Iran is making moves in the Western Hemisphere, and South America’s dictatorships and “para-dictatorships” are there to help. 

Lebanese Hezbollah has maintained a presence in Latin America for several decades. Its attack on the Jewish social organization Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) in 1994 was, according to a former agent who spied on the Jewish community for the Argentine Federal Police, possible thanks to the Argentine Federal Police giving the terrorists the logistical information and building blueprints that the agent had provided. The Federal Police, although ostensibly a law enforcement agency, has been involved in criminal activities and significant corruption. The same police entity is the one that abandoned the custody of AMIA that day and of former Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who died under suspicious circumstances a day before hearings on the myriad connections between Argentine government officials and Iran were set to begin.

Iran also maintains strong relations with left-wing dictatorships like Nicaragua and Cuba and with what former Bolivian official Carlos Sánchez Berzaín calls “para-dictatorships,” i.e., governments that, although not formal authoritarian regimes themselves, support left-wing autocracies. Examples include Colombia, Brazil, and, to a lesser extent, Mexico. Likewise, according to Nisman, at one point, Iran had a presence in twelve countries in the region, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guyana, Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname, and Uruguay. Iran has sought to increase political ties in the Western Hemisphere, and Venezuela and its allies present many possibilities for Tehran. Iran also sought a strategic position to increase deterring capabilities against the United States. The basis of such an alliance between the Latin American Left and Iran is their enmity and hostility towards the United States and its allies. 

Hezbollah’s presence and local connections have increased in the last two decades since Hugo Chavez took the reins of government in Venezuela. 


According to Spanish journalist Emili Blasco, former Venezuelan finance minister Rafael Isea and then Venezuelan foreign minister (later president) Nicolas Maduro met in Damascus in 2007 with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Isea claimed that on that occasion, the sides agreed to install Hezbollah cells in Venezuela. That agreement enabled Hezbollah’s drug trafficking and money-laundering activities, as well as the supply of arms and the provision of Venezuelan passports to Hezbollah members. 

Ghazi Nassereddine, a Syrian-born former counselor in the Venezuelan embassy in Syria, prepared these passports and visas. Likewise, there were weekly flights between Tehran and Caracas that carried more than three hundred Hezbollah members, among them about a dozen listed terrorists.

According to the Miami Herald, former Venezuelan vice president Tareck El Aissami organized a network that brought Hezbollah members to Venezuela and other countries in Latin America and enabled the Iranian proxy to send illegal funds from Latin America to the Middle East. According to the Center for a Secure Free Society, when El Aissami was minister of the interior, he issued passports and other documents, including birth certificates, to members of radical Islamic organizations. El Aissami also served as the main link between Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and the Venezuelan government. On March 8, 2019, the U.S. government charged him on international drug trafficking grounds and sanctioned him. According to estimates from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Hezbollah made hundreds of millions of dollars from businesses tied up in the Latin American drug trade. 

Hugo Chavez defined the Islamist and Bolivarian revolutions as “sister revolutions.”  Iran has established several networks in the region through Shiite mosques and a propaganda apparatus through a Spanish TV channel (HispanTV), which has given coverage to groups and individuals who promote anti-American and anti-Israel narratives. Likewise, Venezuelan banks helped Iran circumvent international sanctions.


Brazil’s president, Luis Inacio “Lula” Da Silva, has been the primary enabler of the Chavez-Maduro regime in Venezuela. During his first term, Brazil pursued a policy seeking to counterbalance the influence of the United States in Latin America. Thus, he supported the creation of organizations such as Chavez’s Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, which excludes the United States and Canada. 

Globally, Lula has sought to strengthen BRICS+, the multilateral organization founded by Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Its political agenda is focused on opposition to the United States and the West as the focus of global power. As part of this effort, Lula promotes “South-South” relations between Latin American countries and other non-Western powers. 

In February 2023, just a month after Lula regained the presidency, the Brazilian government authorized two Iranian warships to dock in Rio de Janeiro despite American opposition. 

Brazil’s ambassador in Tehran recently said that Israel’s objective for its April 1 attack on a building near the Iranian embassy in Syria was to force Iran into a conflict with the United States. This statement reflects the kind of alliances Brazil is pursuing under Lula in his second term as president. In November 2023, Brazilian police, in cooperation with intelligence help from Mossad, arrested two people for terrorism, a Hezbollah cell that planned attacks against Israeli, Jewish, American, and other Western targets. After Israel publicly thanked the Brazilian police, Brazil’s minister of justice admonished the Israeli government with a hostile statement, reaffirming Brazil’s sovereignty and distancing his government from Israel.

Lula has issued a statement likening Israel’s war in Gaza to the Nazis’ attempt to exterminate the Jewish people during World War II (likening Israel’s policy to that of the Nazis is an example of antisemitism, under the working definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, adopted by over forty countries). Brazil also recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv in protest over Israel’s war in Gaza. 


Until President Gustavo Petro’s rise to power in 2022, Colombia had been on excellent terms with Israel, including trade, technological, and military cooperation. But Petro has joined other leftist leaders in Latin America in blaming Israel for the April 14 Iranian missile attack on the Jewish state. Like Lula, Petro also used the antisemitic comparison of Israel’s actions in Gaza to that of the Nazis, and he joined Bolivia, Belize, Cuba, and Venezuela in suspending diplomatic relations with Israel without withdrawing diplomatic recognition.

Iran’s Latin American Laboratory? 

Hezbollah maintains not only relations with governments but also with criminal groups. Hezbollah has ties with the Brazilian mega gang First Capital Command (PCC). Lebanese traffickers tied to Hezbollah have reportedly helped the PCC purchase weapons by providing them with access to international arms smuggling channels. 

The PCC’s illegal activities have expanded globally. They export cocaine to Europe and have a presence in multiple states in the United States. Likewise, they are responsible for millions of digital crimes and scams. They are also heavily involved in environmental crime, particularly in the illegal gold mining business. They not only help destroy the Amazon rainforest but also operate the mines, practicing slavery and atrocious human rights violations. The Maduro government and Colombian guerilla members are also part of this nefarious endeavor. 

Countries hostile to America and the rest of the West seek alliances with Iran, and Iran’s proxies seek alliances with criminal groups. These illegal groups either directly ally with the state (in the case of Venezuela) or erode the state’s authority. This is a worrying development, considering that organized crime in countries such as Guatemala and Honduras has deeply penetrated and compromised the state. El Salvador has reacted with an assertive fight against criminal gangs. Ecuadorian and Guatemalan governments are trying to resist, but it is unclear how effective they are. In Argentina, criminal gangs have increased their control in places such as Rosario (the third largest city in the country) and in various other provinces where they fund political campaigns of local candidates. The cartels have also reached the few countries on the continent where the rule of law has prevailed, such as Chile and Uruguay

Powerful criminal organizations, present throughout Latin America, could benefit the Islamic Republic, its proxies, camp terrorist attacks, and hostile activities. Right now, the scale of drug trafficking and criminal violence means that Hezbollah, for example, does not constitute a top ten problem in Latin America. However, the potential for criminal and terrorist networks to cooperate does exist. U.S. policymakers should take this scenario into account and develop policies that could help prevent it.

Luis Fleischman, Ph.D., is co-founder of the Palm Beach Center for Democracy & Policy Research, professor of Social Sciences at Palm Beach State College, and the author of the book Latin America in the Post-Chavez Era: The Security Threat to the United States. Follow him on LinkedIn and X: @LuisFleischman

Image: Golden Brown /