NORIEGA: Kerry’s first task is a firm stand on Venezuela

A narco-terrorist state must be brought to justice

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“Depending on what happens in Venezuela, there may really be an opportunity for a transition there,” incoming U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told a Senate hearing Thursday, alluding to the expectation that Hugo Chavez may soon lose his bout with cancer. Unfortunately, at this very moment, Mr. Chavez’s cronies are doing whatever is necessary to hold on to power indefinitely. The most Mr. Kerry may be able to do is convince Mr. Chavez’s successors to end the dangerous alliances with drug traffickers, Iran and Hezbollah that pose a growing threat to U.S. security.

Until now, most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment has ignored the growing body of evidence that homegrown narco-traffickers in Colombia, Central America and Mexico have teamed up with Hezbollah to conduct criminal operations on our doorstep. What’s worse, this narco-terrorist alliance is aided and abetted by the governments of Venezuela and Iran. To put it bluntly, this is not mere criminal activity — it is asymmetrical warfare.

For example, just over a year ago, senior Iranian officials sanctioned a plot to commit a massive terrorist bombing in our nation’s capital, with the support of a man they thought was associated with the Mexican drug syndicate Los Zetas. Although that plan was thwarted, Hezbollah continues to conspire with drug trafficking networks in Mexico and in Central and South America as a means of raising funds, sharing tactics and “reaching out and touching” U.S. territory.

U.S. authorities indicted Lebanese drug lord Ayman Joumaa in November 2011 for a cocaine-smuggling and money-laundering scheme that raised millions for Hezbollah. His network, which was uncovered by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and sanctioned by the Treasury Department, involved cocaine kingpins, criminal associates and corrupt banks in Colombia, the United States, Mexico, Panama, Venezuela, Lebanon, Europe and Africa.

The more traditional threats persist, as well. In recent years, Mexico has arrested numerous individuals associated with Hezbollah engaging in criminal activities, including smuggling of persons across the U.S. southwest border. Just in September, Mexicans intercepted Lebanese-born U.S. citizen Rafic Mohammad Labboun Allaboun, who was convicted in 2010 for channeling $100,000 to Hezbollah. He is also suspected of working with Hezbollah operatives in Central America.

In Venezuela, in addition to drug-smuggling and fundraising, Hezbollah has conducted terror training on Margarita Island for recruits from Venezuela and other Latin American countries. According to reliable sources, the world’s most powerful cocaine smuggler and head of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, Joaquin Archivaldo “El Chapo” Guzman, conducted his business from Venezuela for much of 2010 while living in a suburb of Caracas and on Margarita Island under Mr. Chavez’s protection.

Venezuela is a base of operations from which two terrorist networks proselytize, fundraise, recruit and train operatives on behalf of Iran and Hezbollah throughout Latin America. Hezbollah operatives and their co-conspirators hold senior positions in the Venezuelan government and provide travel documents, weapons and logistical support to terrorist operatives and cocaine smugglers.

Mr. Chavez was able to broker ties between Hezbollah and narco-traffickers because his regime is itself a narco-state. To be precise, U.S. officials have fresh, compelling information implicating Mr. Chavez, his National Assembly president, his former minister of defense, his army chief, his newly appointed deputy minister of interior and dozens of other senior military officials in cocaine-smuggling and money-laundering. These Venezuelan officials help transport tons of cocaine to Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean, the United States, West Africa and Europe. They also do business, in part, through Hezbollah front companies.

Mr. Chavez also is a key ally of the Islamic Republic of Iran, helping it launder at least $30 billion to evade international sanctions. Seventy Iranian companies — some of which have been sanctioned by Western authorities for their support for Iran’s illicit nuclear program — operate suspicious industrial facilities in Venezuela.

Mr. Kerry’s new team should demand a better understanding and response to these neglected threats. Indeed, that’s the law: In late December, President Obama signed rare bipartisan legislation requiring the executive branch to produce a strategy to confront Iran’s offensive in the Americas. Once the administration proposes a plan, Congress should follow through by providing national security, law enforcement and intelligence agencies the resources required to respond urgently and effectively.

As an immediate measure, the complicity in drug-trafficking and terrorism of the most senior Venezuelan officials and biggest state-run companies must be exposed and punished. Administrative sanctions are a start, but they are no substitute for long-overdue judicial indictments and public prosecutions. In the meantime, the Senate should tell Mr. Kerry that exchanging ambassadors with a narco-terrorist state is a non-starter.

Mr. Chavez may soon be history. However, soon-to-be Secretary Kerry and his colleagues will still have their hands full dismantling the ticking time bombs he will leave behind.

Roger F. Noriega, former assistant secretary of state under President George W. Bush, is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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