Hizbullah-linked operatives have been arrested on drug trafficking charges in a number of countries in recent years, global media outlets report, exposing a large revenue-generating network that has provided funding to the party.
Reports detailing these sting operations, which often involve more than one country, reveal the Iran-backed party has used millions of dollars in revenue from the illegal drug trade to purchase weapons to support its activities in Syria.
"There is ample confirmed evidence of Hizbullah’s involvement in the drug trade and other illegal activities around the world," said political researcher Abdul Nabi Bakkar, a professor at Al-Azhar University’s faculty of sharia and law.
These activities began to surface years ago, he told Al-Mashareq, after members of these networks were arrested in countries around the world and their direct link to money transfers to Hizbullah in Lebanon was confirmed.
A long history of drug trafficking
In October, three men linked with Hizbullah who are suspected of laundering cocaine money for the Colombian cartel were busted by US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents , the Miami Herald reported.
Agents said the three men illegally moved $500,000 into Miami banks through a series of complicated financial transactions stretching from Australia to Europe.
In February of this year, Bakkar said, the DEA announced it had apprehended a large drug trade and smuggling network run by Hizbullah following a year-long investigation involving seven countries.
The network had been working with South American drug cartels to facilitate the movement of cocaine to the US and Europe, the DEA said, using the millions of dollars this generated to purchase weapons for its activities in Syria.
In 2012, two brothers of Lebanese MP Hussein al-Musawi, a member of Hizbullah, were implicated when Lebanese customs seized two machines used in the manufacture of amphetamine pills, Lebanese media reported.
In 2008, US and Colombian authorities broke up a Hizbullah cocaine smuggling ring headed by Shukri Mahmoud Harb that was funding the party through banks from Panama to Hong Kong to Beirut, United Press International reported.
In December 2006, nine Hizbullah activists were rounded up for operating a financial network in the region where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet, where the party and others run money-laundering and arms smuggling rings.
And in June 2005, authorities in Ecuador broke up a drug-trafficking network that officials said had a "direct relationship" with Hizbullah, arresting Lebanese-born Radi Zaiter in Bogota along with several other Lebanese.
Colombian, Brazilian and US law agencies also were involved in that operation.
An insider speaks out
Mustafa Ismail, who asked to use a pseudonym out of fear for his safety, spoke with Al-Mashareq about his brush with Hizbullah's illegal drug trade.
In 1998, he said, after graduating from the Lebanese University's faculty of law, he could not find work that earned him enough money to pay off his family’s debts, which had accumulated when his father’s business faltered.
Around that time, he said, his cousin, Hassan Ismail (also using a pseudonym), showed unusual interest in helping him, and invited him to travel and work with him in what he described as "the apparel trade" in Paraguay.
He obtained a passport, he said, and they traveled together to Paraguay, where he began working in some apparel shops owned by his cousin.
However, he said, he noticed his cousin’s expenditures and money transfers to Lebanon were incommensurate with the volume of sales they were doing.
He also noticed money transfers were conducted at varying times, to multiple people and for irregular amounts, and that the recipients had no connection to their work.
"After a short period of time, my cousin told me the truth about my work in drug smuggling in the region known as the tri-border area, that connects Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina, or 'Triple Frontier', as well as other deals that go to Europe and some Arab countries," he said.
According to his cousin, Ismail said, the main funding came from Hizbullah, and his involvement netted a commission of up to 20%, in addition to cash from other deals shipping counterfeit products to Lebanon from various countries.
After learning the truth about these unlawful dealings, Ismail said, he refused to stay in Paraguay and returned to Lebanon less than one week later.
Meanwhile, other acquaintances and relatives his cousin had recruited to work with him started showing signs of sudden wealth, he said.
His cousin has been back in Lebanon for close to a year, he said, where he has opened a trading company with a Hizbullah military official, through which they import and export goods to Romania.
He continues to direct his business in Paraguay by communicating daily with the employees he recruited and installed there from Lebanon, Ismail said.
Roots of the drug trade
Hizbullah’s involvement in the drug trade has its roots in its Bekaa Valley stronghold, said Cairo University doctoral student Sheyar Turko, who has been researching the financing of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
The remote rural area is known for being an active producer of hashish and opium, he said.
Hizbullah began to exploit these crops for its own gain, he said, and as the use of these substances became widespread, it "became one of the biggest operators of drug trade and smuggling networks in the region and the world".
"Hizbullah’s involvement in drug smuggling and trade does not stop at drugs," he said, but extends to other crimes, such as money laundering, which it engages in to finance its activities, develop its infrastructure and pay its fighters .
Salah Mansour, who asked to use a pseudonym out of fear for his safety, said he is related to a prominent former Hizbullah official and was close to the party's leadership in the Bekaa Valley.
By virtue of his previous relationships, he told Al-Mashareq, he came to realise "the party attaches great importance to the cultivation of drugs in Lebanon, as it is a key source of its income".
Income is collected "through the imposition of an annual tax on farmers who cultivate opium and hashish in exchange for protecting them, particularly in the relatively remote barren areas", Mansour said.
Additionally, he said, the party "puts its hand legally and illegally on vast tracts of land by leasing them from their owners or seizing them outright to cultivate drugs for its direct benefit".
The party also takes control of many heroin and cocaine producing factories, he said, where raw material is imported from Brazil and Paraguay. In this way, he said, it controls the domestic and international export of the finished product.
A number of close associates of the party recently turned to the manufacture and distribution of amphetamine pills, known as Captagon, Mansour said.
"Hizbullah takes advantage of the dire conditions farmers in the Bekaa region are facing due to the halt of export to some countries and decline in [sales] in local markets to entice [farmers] with money and protection and persuade them to cultivate hashish and opium on their lands," he said.