“Lack of reliable government in the region means more leeway for jihadist groups to spread.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is now on the back end of his Latin America tour. Since before his trip began, the primary focus has been on the issue of Venezuela and Tillerson’s push to consolidate regional support for containing that country’s crisis.
However, there is another equally, if not more important element that the Secretary has addressed during his time in Central and South America. The latest reports on Tillerson’s trip, surprisingly not yet picked up by the majority of Western media, have revealed the planned collaboration between the United States and Argentina on combating jihadism in the Western Hemisphere.
The threat of jihadist groups operating in America’s backyard is not altogether new. This danger has been quietly growing for years. The presence of militant organizations in the region was recently given a boost of exposure when it became known that the Obama administration had sidelined a major federal investigation into the operations of these groups.
Indeed, the Western Hemisphere has been offering growingly enticing opportunities for jihadist groups to expand their logistical and financial infrastructure. In November representatives from several nations, including the United States, participated in a conference on the terror-drug cartel network that has been steadily growing in Latin America. The conference was aimed at laying out the dangers posed by this increasingly robust network and sought to garner regional support for combating these threats.
This unlikely collaboration between Middle East based terror groups and Latin American drug cartels has developed due to a number of factors. First off, the criminal world of drug trafficking is a major source of funding for terror groups. It helps them increase their procurement of weapons and equipment and aids their online and real-world recruitment. Many Latin American drug lords have been more than happy to work with these militant groups, as they are often excellent resources in assisting with smuggling and other illicit activities.
Right now Tillerson is focused on addressing a third element with his counterparts in Buenos Aires. South America is home to a large Middle Eastern population. Argentina alone has approximately 1.5 million Lebanese people living within its borders. Assimilation amongst the Lebanese population in Argentina is high, however, there are still substantial enclaves of ethnic Lebanese in the country, enclaves that jihadist groups like the Lebanese based Hezbollah could take advantage of to set up operations and collect logistical and financial support.
From this perspective, the concern of jihadists taking root in the Western Hemisphere goes beyond the partnering of Islamists and drug traffickers. The risk in fact extends to the establishment of terror groups amongst the general population in countries like Argentina and other regional states with large Muslim populations, such as El Salvador and Brazil.
Tillerson summed up the situation when he addressed reporters after a meeting with Argentina’s foreign minister, Jorge Faurie: “we [covered] in our discussion about all of the region … how we must all jointly go after these transnational criminal organizations – narcotics trafficking, human trafficking, smuggling, money laundering – because we see the connections to terrorist financing organizations as well.” Later in his comments, Tillerson went so far as mention Hezbollah by name: “we did specifically discuss the presence of Lebanese Hezbollah in this hemisphere, which is raising funds, obviously, to support its terrorist activities.”
Zooming out to a broader context perspective, understanding the threat of jihadism spreading in Latin America sheds new light on why it’s important to America that the region remains stable. When the policymakers in Washington observe a nation spiraling out of control, such as the current situation in Venezuela for instance, they see more than a local political and humanitarian crisis. Lack of reliable government in the region means more leeway for jihadist groups to spread. This will be a consideration lingering in the background for U.S. diplomats and policymakers when addressing Latin American issues for the foreseeable future.