Collaboration between Latin American drug cartels and groups such as Iran's Quds Force and the Islamic terror group Hezbollah is growing "far faster than most policymakers in Washington, D.C., choose to admit," a former U.S. intelligence official testified Tuesday.
Michael A. Braun, former chief of operations and intelligence for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), told lawmakers that the operational capability of such groups is being "strengthened by the close relations that they are working hard to develop with very powerful organized criminal organizations in our neighborhood and throughout Latin America."
The ultraviolent Los Zetas Mexican drug cartel and others "allow them to operate freely in our neighborhood, and they're getting closer to our doorstep," he said during a hearing by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"If we don't do something about it and really get serious about it, I think there's gonna be hell to pay at some date in the probably not too distant future," said Mr. Braun, who retired from the DEA in 2008 and is a managing partner at the international drug law enforcement consulting group Spectre International.
The committee's chairwoman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, asserted that Iran's ongoing diplomatic alliance with several Latin American leaders could be giving the Islamic republic's intelligence forces and proxy groups "a platform in the region to carry out attacks against the United States."
"Some may question the congressional focus on the Iran-Latin America nexus because they wrongly believe that Iran's influence in the region is exaggerated," said Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican.
She called for the hearing amid mounting international concern over Iran's nuclear program and on the heels of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent tour through Latin America.
Many policy analysts and Democrats have expressed skepticism over the extent to which a foothold has been gained in the region by Iranian intelligence elements, including the elite Quds Force, part of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
"Several allegations have been made about Iran's current activities in Latin America," said Michael Shifter, who heads the nonpartisan inter-American Dialogue think tank and appeared alongside Mr. Braun at the hearing.
Mr. Shifter said that while some have made claims of Iranian agents sponsoring terror training camps and of Iranian support for prospecting uranium in Venezuela and Ecuador, such "charges have not, however, been substantiated."
"There is no convincing evidence that such activities are taking place," he said. "More plausible are repeated accusations of money laundering through the region's banks, to help finance Hezbollah's activities."
Hezbollah, which is a key part of Lebanon's government, has long enjoyed material and spiritual support from Iran's Shiite-led regime.
But with the Iranian nuclear threat dominating headlines in recent weeks, Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen and others referred to Tuesday's remarks by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper. He told the Senate Intelligence Committee that if Iran feels threatened, it could seek to launch terrorist attacks against targets inside the United States.
Mr. Clapper cited the charges filed in October by the Justice Department, which revealed a failed plot by Iranian officials to hire a Los Zetas assassin to kill a Saudi diplomat in Washington.
Mr. Braun pointed to the alleged plot as a legitimate example of Iranian ties to drug cartels: "We have the greatest system of justice in the world in our federal courts system, and it's not an easy thing to get evidence admitted."
Mr. Braun went on to reveal details about the secret 2008 DEA campaign Operation Titan, in which agents broke up a cocaine-smuggling and money-laundering ring believed to have been channeling funds to Hezbollah.
The operation, he said, resulted in the discovery of a "very close associate and affiliate of Hezbollah" who apparently was responsible for getting cocaine shipments from Latin America to West Africa and "ultimately responsible for collecting massive amounts of bulk cash."
"Part of that operation involved the delivery of part of that money laundered to a DEA undercover operative, an agent that spoke fluent Arabic," he said. "The agent actually took a delivery of $20 million dollars in cash as part of that investigation."
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