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Monday, December 3, 2012

Iran and Hezbollah in Latin America: A new House subcommittee report on threats to the southwest border

On November 15, the House Homeland Security Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management released a report that examines "the increased presence and influence of Iran and Hezbollah in Latin America and their relationship with drug cartels." It also looks at the turf wars between Mexican drug cartels and the threat they pose to the Southwest border.

The 50-page document, titled “A Line in the Sand: Countering Crime, Violence and Terror at the Southwest Border,” determines that "While Latin American bases serve as a finance mechanism for Hezbollah, it is believed the ability exists to turn operational if the need arises. There is no doubt that the enemy is at our doorstep and we must do something about it now."

While cited evidence from congressional reports, experts and news articles supports some of the report's findings regarding increasing Iranian presence in the region, the subcommittee's broader claims about established links between Mexican drug cartels and Hezbollah/Iran posing an imminent threat are largely unsubstantiated.

Several previous government statements and investigations on transnational crime take note of Iran and Hezbollah's engagement in the region, indicating it is something officials are aware of and monitoring, but show no solid transnational links between the groups or an immediate threat to homeland security.

"A Line in the Sand" details Iranian political and economic involvement in Venezuela and other Latin American countries, funding sources for Hezbollah in the region, incidences of criminal links between Hezbollah-supporting individuals and/or Colombian and Mexican drug trafficking organizations, and a failed 2011 Iranian assassination attempt on the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S.

With regards to Iran, much of the report relays what several other government sources and analysts have found:

  • Hezbollah receives funding from individuals, primarily within the large Lebanese population in the region and especially those in the tri-border area between Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, who support the group, providing a large portion of its extra-state financing.
    • Of note on this matter is that according to the State Department, this has been occurring since the mid 1980s. However, Iran is Hezbollah’s primary funding source, donating at least $200 million in 2008, with income from criminal enterprises in general only representing a sliver of the group's financing.

  • Individuals who support Hezbollah are involved with criminal networks and illicit activities.
    • An important note to this point is that while the cases of individuals arrested for drug trafficking and human smuggling highlighted in the report were linked to Hezbollah, the document did not identify any of them as actual members of the group.

  • Iran has increased its cultural and political presence in the hemisphere and now has 11 embassies in the region.
  • Iran has been able to circumvent sanctions because of its economic partnership with a few countries in the region, most notably Venezuela. It is either economically involved or looking to become economically involved with several countries in Latin America.
  • Iran has strengthened ties with Venezuela, with which it is ideologically aligned. According to testimony from analyst Douglas Farah, a 2011 Univision documentary showed Hezbollah training Venezuelan troops.
    • A testimony from Ambassador Roger Noriega, visiting fellow from the American Enterprise Institute, claims Hezbollah cells and Sinaloa cartel members are operating together in Venezuela, but cites unnamed sources and fails to footnote this part of the testimony.

  • In 2011 Iran attempted to hire an alleged member of the Mexican Zeta cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States in Washington D.C. for a fee of $1.5 million. The Zeta operative turned out to be a DEA informant and the plot was foiled.

Aside from more detailed expansion on these points, the report in many cases uses these findings t make overreaching conclusions are often not sourced, cite the same subcommittee's previous report or cite individual's previous testimonies with unchecked sources.

In his opening statement to present the report, subcommittee Chairman Michael McCaul sets the stage for the report, claiming "Iran’s strategic migration and its relationships in Latin America are a clear and present danger to American national security" and that it "is also attempting to lay the foundation for military and covert operations within the U.S. by partnering with Mexican drug cartels."

Nowhere in the report are either of these statements corroborated. As security analyst Steven Dudley from Insight Crime and Samuel Logan from Southern Pulse both contend, Mexican criminal groups are not likely to commit acts of political violence in the U.S., much less involve foreign governments.

The document goes on to state, “Iran and Hezbollah have been involved in the underworld of Latin America long enough to become intimately familiar with all of its inhabitants and capitalize on their capabilities.”

It substantiates this claim with a testimony from former DEA executive Michael Braun, who says, "If you want to visualize ungoverned space or a permissive environment, I tell people to simply think of the bar scene in the first Star Wars movie. Operatives from FTOs (foreign terrorist organizations) and DTOs (drug trafficking organizations) are frequenting the same shady bars, the same seedy hotels and the same sweaty brothels in a growing number of areas around the world. Based upon over 37 years in the law enforcement and security sectors, you can mark my word that they are most assuredly talking business and sharing lessons learned."

According to the report, the 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador was the result of these links established in "shady bars." The incident is the strongest established connection between Iran and Mexican drug cartels that the report examines.

While the plot was real and revealed developments to which policymakers should pay attention, many analysts and major media were skeptical of the details and whether the incident truly denotes Iranian-Zeta links. As Adam Isacson pointed out on border fact check blog, there was no evidence that the Zeta organization knew about the plan.

Insight Crime looked at the details of the case and concluded the failed plot served to show the lack of intimate contact and knowledge between Iran and the Mexican cartels, which many analysts have said are "not interested in committing acts of political violence on U.S. soil." Analyst James Bosworth also examines the case on his blog, saying "the clearly amateurish nature of Iran's involvement here shows that we have less to fear. The fact that an Iranian Qods-linked official is poking around the border looking for Zetas sicarios and ends up with the DEA informant suggests that Iran and Hezbollah have far less ties to the Mexican organized crime scene than some analysts would want you to believe."

In the "2012 Terrorism and Transnational Crime Report," Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said "It remains to be seen whether this alleged plot is indicative of greater crime-terrorism cooperation or a one-time departure from conventional IRGC-QF tactics." He did however note that the plot indicates some Iranian officials are more willing to conduct an attack in the U.S., but said nothing about established links to Mexican cartels.

Other government reports and statements acknowledge Iran and Hezbollah's presence as a potential threat, but not as an imminent danger. Similarly none of the security reports note any direct transnational connection between terrorist organizations and Mexican drug cartels, or highlight Iran's involvement in Venezuela as a threat to national security.

In the "World Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community" Clapper acknowledges the potential for links, but admits that the extent of connection between the groups is unclear. There is no discussion of Venezuelan-Iranian ties as a threat.

The State Department's 2010 "Country Report on Terrorism," published in August 2011, denied the existence of transnational terrorist groups actively operating in the country, saying, "There were no known operational cells of either al-Qaida- or Hezbollah-related groups in the hemisphere."

Similarly, the 2011 "Country Report on Terrorism" indicates no threat of a transnational terrorist attack in the Western Hemisphere and discovered "No known international terrorist organization had an operational presence in Mexico and no terrorist group targeted U.S. citizens in or from Mexican territory." It found "no evidence of signs of ties between Mexican criminal organizations and terrorist groups."

The findings from the House's Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012, passed by the body in September, follows the general trend of government statements by recognizing Hezbollah presence, funding sources and some involvement in illegal activity, but states no known operational links between Hezbollah and Mexican drug cartels, other than the assassination plot and a money laundering scheme between the Zetas and Lebanese Canadian bank, which has since been shut down.

"A Line in the Sand" also concludes that "the FARC is operating with Iran and Hezbollah in Venezuela, and the Venezuelan Government is complicit in these operations." For this reason, the subcommittee gives the recommendation that "the U.S. government should consider designating Venezuela a state sponsor of terrorism."

In an interview with Polifact, Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution, who testified in 2009 for the House subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs on illicit economies, organized crime, and their impact on U.S. and global security, said, "Allegations of al-Qaida, Hamas, and Hezbollah contacts with the FARC or these groups' penetration of the Latin American drug trade have not proven robust."

Kevin Casas-Zamora, former vice president of Costa Rica, added, "If Venezuela was indeed harboring a serious Hezbollah operation we would surely know it by now. The U.S. has had for years an official policy of toning down the confrontation with Chavez, but a serious terrorist threat is the one thing that the U.S. would not countenance."

When asked directly about Iran's involvement in the hemisphere during testimony to the Senate in March, former Southern Command leader General Doug Fraser highlighted the continued financial support the organizations receive from the region, saying, “Our concern remains their traditional connections with Hezbollah and Hamas, who do have organizations in Latin America. Those organizations are primarily focused on financial support to organizations back in the Middle East, but they are involved in illicit activity."

As far as the threat of these groups to U.S. security, he did comment on the connection between these groups and illicit activities in the region and said it is something SOUTHCOM will "continue to look for as we watch in the future, that connection between the illicit activity and the potential pathway into the United States," echoing the watchful caution presented in SOUTHCOM's 2012 posture statement.

Towards the end of the section on Iran, “A Line in the Sand” says "it is believed the ability exists to turn operational if the need arises. There is no doubt that the enemy is at our doorstep and we must do something about it now.”

The 2010 "International Terrorism and Transnational Crime: Security Threats, U.S. Policy, and Considerations for Congress," along with other government reports, supports this statement to a degree, noting the potential of Hezbollah supporters in the region to become more involved. It says, “If the organization decided to attack U.S. or Israeli interests in West Africa or South America, it is possible that these sympathizers could play a concrete role.” However no reports give the sense that "the enemy is at our doorstep."

The United States government, along with several security experts, has conducted many investigations into this issue. The overall conclusion seems to be that while the threat of Hezbollah in the hemisphere is there, it is relatively small and something that is being monitored.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Politics behind Argentina's diplomacy

In a provocative article published yesterday in the Argentine newspaper La Nación, Carlos Pagni analyzes political and power interests behind diplomatic relations in South America. The article highlights the “new” role Argentina is playing in the Western Hemisphere’s political scene.

Argentina has been criticized, since Nestor Kirchner’s administration and continuing through Cristina Kirchner’s government as well, for not having a coherent foreign policy. However, events from the past week provide evidence of the contrary. The role played by Nestor Kirchner as UNASUR’s Secretary General during the conflict between Colombia and Venezuela and last week’s joint press conference by Secretary Clinton and Argentina’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Hector Timerman, reveal that Argentina is playing a more active role in hemispheric politics. Drawing on these two episodes, the Argentine journalist reveals a network of relationships and motives underlying the mere fact of Argentina’s desire to have a more predominant role.

Argentina, Brazil, U.S. and Iran

The meeting between Clinton and Timerman and the subsequent press conference have deeper political implications than just strengthening ties between the United States and Argentina.

The origins of the Clinton-Timerman meeting go back to the Global Nuclear Summit in Washington, in May of 2010. Back then, Timerman, then Argentine Ambassador to the United States, was negotiating to get a photo opportunity for President Cristina Kirchner with President Obama.

General James Jones, Obama’s national security advisor, explained to Timerman the importance to the United States of restricting Iran’s illicit enrichment of uranium. Argentina’s support against Iran was not difficult to obtain. Argentina holds an international dispute with Iran over a 1994 terrorist attack against a Jewish Society building in Buenos Aires. In 2007, the Argentine government issued a request for the arrest of a group of Iranians, among which was the current defense minister of Iran. Timerman therefore suggested to Jones that it would be good for Obama to mention this to Cristina Kirchner at the Summit. This made Cristina and Obama’s picture finally possible.

In light of this, Timerman’s recent meeting with Secretary Clinton seems to confirm the tie between these two countries and the Argentine support for U.S. demands against Iran. This goes against Brazil’s posture on the issue, even though Argentina and Brazil are regional allies. However, in retrospect, Argentina’s and Brazil’s history of disputes and competition over regional leadership could indicate that Argentina has something to gain also from aligning with the United States in opposition to Brazil’s softer position toward Iran. In this sense, Argentina could regain some leverage over its ally and also more influence over regional issues.

The United States knows that Argentina’s support could also work as leverage over Brazil’s relationship with Iran. Brazil’s tie with Iran, sealed this year with the Brazil-Iran-Turkey negotiation agreement, was viewed with skepticism and mistrust by the Obama administration.

From Brazil’s perspective, its relationship with Iran is part of a bigger plan. Brazil wants to be a global player and a rule maker. To achieve this, Brazil knows that it has to get a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. This has been a longstanding objective of Itamaraty, Brazil’s Foreign Affairs Ministry. In addition, Brazil’s traditional stance in foreign policy has been one of neutrality and independence: Brazil will never be to the US either the type of ally that Colombia is or the type of opponent Venezuela currently is. Brazil’s link with Iran has to be viewed in light of this.

Lula’s political game with Iran puts Brazil at the center of international attention. Lula received Ahmadinejad in Brasilia in November 2009, and in May 2010 Brazil allied with Turkey to propose the suspension of sanctions against Iran in exchange for a nuclear fuel swap deal in Turkish territory. This strategic maneuvering, in which Brazil advocated against sanctions against Iran, placed it in an independent position and in a defiant role against the United States. But it also allowed Brazil to be seen as a mediator trying to bring Iran to improve relations with the western world by suggesting a solution to the problem, something the UN had tried before without success. In addition, Brazil has other motives in supporting Iran’s nuclear program: Brazil has one of the largest uranium deposits in the world and seeks to exploit this resource. In the end, the Security Council issued sanctions against Iran because the Brazil-Turkey-Iran agreement did not include an Iranian commitment to suspend its nuclear program.

Argentina, Colombia and Venezuela

Nestor Kirchner’s role in the agreement between President Santos and President Chavez was based on a series of off-the-record negotiations initiated from Buenos Aires to enhance relations, specifically with Colombia. On June 24, Alvaro García Jiménez, Colombia’s Ambassador to Argentina, invited Nestor Kirchner to a lunch with ambassadors from other Latin American countries. It was an intelligent move, according to the Argentine journalist, since it would not make the outgoing government of Uribe uncomfortable about getting together with a close friend of Chavez.

After Santos’ triumph in the presidential elections, the designation of María Angela Holguín, who until then had been Representative for the Andean Development Corporation in Argentina, was another step forward. The Kirchners sympathized with her, in part due to her friendship to one of Nestor Kirchner’s advisors, Juan Manuel Abal Medina.

Holguín and García Jiménez convinced Santos to include Buenos Aires in his tour around the region after his election. Santos and Kirchner met on July 26 at the Colombian ambassador’s residency, together with Kirchner’s advisors in UNASUR, Abal Medina y Rafael Follonier. They discussed Uribe’s accusation against Venezuela at the OAS.

Kirchner understood Uribe’s accusations, as many others did, to be a message sent to incoming President Santos of what future Colombian foreign policy should be. However, Venezuela chose to await Uribe’s exit to ease the tension between Venezuela and Colombia and avoid armed conflict. Carlos Pagni writes that Kirchner had several telephone conversations with Chavez in which he confirmed these concerns. Kirchner later traveled to Caracas and from there to Bogotá, where he met both presidents, during a five day tour. The August 10 Santa Marta meeting between Santos and Chávez, at which Colombia and Venezuela agreed to improve their relationship, followed shortly afterward. As a gesture, Santos named José Fernando Bautista, one of his main advisors during his campaign, as Ambassador to Venezuela. Chavez demanded that the FARC abandon their fight, when only six months before he had asked to grant them belligerent status.

Friday, April 30, 2010

General Fraser's update on Southcom

Last week, the Pentagon submitted a report to Congress on Iran's military power. This "12-page analysis of Tehran's current and future military strategy" made little mention of Latin America. However, the few sentences that did mention Latin America have been the subject of many news stories.

The report points to the growing presence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' elite Qods force in Latin America, especially Venezuela:

[The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF)] is well established in the Middle East and north Africa and recent years have witnessed an increased presence in Latin America, particularly Venezuela.... If US involvement in conflict in these regions deepens, contact with the IRGC-QF, directly or through extremist groups it supports, will be more frequent and consequential.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez immediately responded on Monday, saying that the Pentagon report was "absolutely false." "Look what they are saying," President Chávez continued, "If the U.S. applies sanctions to Iran, these forces that are here -- something that is absolutely false -- could then attack U.S. territory or U.S. interests with terrorist acts. ... Tell me this isn't an open threat by the government of the United States against Venezuela once again using infamy and lies."

General Douglas Fraser, Commander of U.S. Southern Command, responded to many reporters' questions about the Pentagon report at a breakfast meeting in Washington on Tuesday. "I don't see any arms or indications of arms coming from Iran," Fraser told the reporters. "What I see is that Iran has had, from a diplomatic and a commercial standpoint, a growing interest in Latin America. ... Our concern is their connection to Hizbollah, Hamas." He continued to note that "I haven't seen evidence of [an Iranian] military presence," however, "I'm a skeptic, and so we're watching for that. To date, we have not seen that kind of support."

On Wednesday, General Fraser held another press briefing, where he was to give an update on U.S. Southern Command's operations. Again, reporters asked for clarification about Iran's presence in Venezuela, and General Fraser's responses were almost identical to those he made on Tuesday.

What we see is a growing relationship between Iran and Venezuela. And it has been a diplomatic and a commercial activity, and that's what we see. ... My concern in the relationship with Iran in the region is their historic connection with Hamas and Hezbollah, which we define as terrorist organizations. ... I don't see any of that activity right now. But I'm a skeptical person. I'm paid to be skeptical. So I'll continue to watch.

General Fraser also noted that his views and the Pentagon's views are not different positions, explaining that "there is ... a growing relationship between Iran and Venezuela. And so when you hear that report, that is a report that talks about presence: There is a growing relationship and presence of Iran in the relationship with Venezuela. And so that's what we see. So they are the same. And so I'd ask you just not to misinterpret the 'presence' word, if you will. So we see a growing relationship."

One statement he made did seem to differ from what he was reported to say on Tuesday - and that is regarding arms. On Tuesday, as noted above, General Fraser said "I don't see any arms or indications of arms coming from Iran." However, on Wednesday General Fraser said, "There is a military connection, just from the arms sales to Venezuela. There is unmanned air vehicle capacity that Irana (sic) is supporting within Venezuela. So that is the military connection that I see between Iran and Venezuela. It's just arms -- support for arms."

The topic of Iran's presence in Venezuela definitely made up almost 50 percent of journalists' questions to General Fraser on Wednesday. But he did talk about other topics in the region important to Southcom, such as illicit trafficking -- which is Southcom's main focus in the region -- drug interdiction, the U.S. military's efforts in Haiti, and back to Venezuela on U.S.-Venezuelan relations. Below are excerpts from his statements on those topics. The full transcript and a video of the press briefing are available on Southcom's website.

Southcom's focus in the region

Our focus continues to be, support the security, stability within the region, build our partnerships with our companion militaries within the region. And that effort continues as our focus throughout the year.
...
That's our sole mission within this. The reason I pay as much attention to it as I do is because of the destabilizing impact that it has potentially within countries in which drug trafficking organizations and also gangs are coming into.

And I don't want it to become a military issue. And so the way to address that is to address it now, while we still can cooperate and work between all our partner agencies.

Next steps in Haiti

In the June time frame, we will plan to disestablish the Joint Task Force-Haiti. And we will then have some medical readiness training opportunities there, 10 of those throughout the hurricane season.

We will also have an exercise that provides humanitarian assistance -- roofs on schools, other medical facilities -- and just providing infrastructure support, not focused in Port-au-Prince but in the Gonaives areas where we're going to focus throughout the hurricane season.

We'll also have a ship, an amphibious ship that will be in the region, in the Caribbean during the entire hurricane season, that will be closer in case there is a hurricane that strikes Haiti; with all the numbers of displaced people who are there now, that we have an ability to respond quickly to whatever situation is there.

Illicit Trafficking

We had a very successful year last year countering illicit traffic. We were able to disrupt or seize over 229 metric tons of cocaine. We estimate that's roughly about 25 percent of the cocaine that's transiting through the maritime environments.

...

We estimate that there's somewhere between 1,200 to 1,400 metric tons of cocaine that are trafficked from the northern part of South America to various parts of the world. Roughly 60 percent of that is destined for the United States, but a growing number of that, 30-some percent, is headed to Europe, a lot of it through western Africa, and then to markets also in the Middle East.

So -- it's well financed. And so as we try to stop and disrupt traffic in the maritime environments, the traffickers adjust their tactics also. We have been very successful and Colombia has been very successful at denying the air transit out of Colombia into the Caribbean, and the traffickers have just shifted to the east. And so we see more traffic emanating out of Venezuela now than we do out of Colombia.

If you look at the maritime environment, we see it coming out of both coasts, the Caribbean coast, the north coast of Colombia, the western coast, as well as further south. But they tend to now intercept in the Central American isthmus earlier and then now traffic up through the Pan American Highway through the countries in Central America in through Mexico to the United States.

Venezuelan-U.S. relations

At Joint Interagency Task Force-South in Key West, there is a liaison position that remains available for Venezuela to fill. There are 13 other nations who have liaison officers there, both from a military standpoint as well as law enforcement.

We continue to look for those opportunities. We invite the armed forces of Venezuela to conferences, to attend education opportunities. And it has been their choice not to attend those. It has not been our desire to restrict them.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

2010 Posture Statement

Every year, the commander of U.S. Southern Command presents a "Posture Statement" (PDF) to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees explaining how the regional unified command views threats in the region and how it plans to address them. On March 11th, General Douglas Fraser, Commander of U.S. Southern Command, presented his first annual Posture Statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee. He did the same in the House on Thursday.

General Fraser's written testimony included a lengthy section about Southcom's relief efforts in Haiti. The topic was not a point of focus during the question and answer periods of the House and Senate hearings. Instead, Iran's and Hezbollah's influence in the region, violence in Mexico, and the Venezuelan government's alleged links to the FARC came up repeatedly during both hearings.

Here are some excerpts from the Q&A portions of both the Senate and House of Representatives hearings. Testifying alongside General Fraser was General Victor Renuart, commander of U.S. Northern Command, who answered many of the questions on Mexico.

The webcasts of both hearings are available online: Senate | House

Venezuela:

Senate hearing:

Exchange between Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and General Fraser:

Senator McCain: "How do you assess the threat of the cooperation between Iran and Venezuela.... As you know last week Spain's High Court said the Venezuelan government facilitated contacts between the FARC and ETA to plan the assassination of Colombian officials visiting Spain, including President Uribe. Do you have any information on that? And other activities on the part of the Venezuelan government?"

General Fraser: "I do not have any direct information on that. We have continued to watch very closely for any connections between illicit and terrorist organization activity within the region. We have not seen any connections specifically that I can verify that there has been direct government to terrorist connection. We are concerned about it. I'm skeptical. I continue to watch for it."

Senator McCain: "You have seen evidence of relationship between the FARC and the Venezuelan government. That's been published many times."

General Fraser: "I know that there is evidence of FARC (McCain interrupts: "I mean they got the hard drives when they raided the FARC camp..."). There has been some old evidence, but I don't see that evidence and I can't tell you specifically whether that continues or not."

Exchange between Senator George LeMieux (R-FL) and General Fraser:

Senator LeMieux: "Do you consider Venezuela to be the biggest destabilizing factor in region in terms of our national security interests?"

General Fraser: "I wouldn't take it as far as the biggest destabilizing factor. They are continuing the pursuit of reducing U.S. influence in the region, and they are working with various countries and entities to try to enable that."

House hearing:

Chairman Ike Skelton (D-MO) "To your knowledge is helping assistance from Venezuela coming to the FARC in Colombia? There is a group known as FARC in Colombia, are they receiving help and assistance from anyone in or out of the government in Venezuela?"

General Fraser: "We do see a long-term relationship that exists between the government of Venezuela and the FARC. That has been evidenced if we go back and look at the computer records that came out of ... the capture of that computer. That continues on. There is safe haven, there is financial logistics support, there is safe haven for the FARC provided and ... all the evidence that I have says that continues. The evidence that I have doesn't explicitly say that it is continuing, but I can't say it is explicitly not continuing... So, based on evidence up to date I would say that support still continues."

General Fraser: Venezuela "continues to have a very anti-U.S. stance and looks to try and restrict U.S. activity wherever they have the opportunity to do that. They are continuing to engage with the region, if you will, and continuing to pursue their Bolivarian socialist agenda. That continues to be a concern and they remain a destabilizing force in the region."

Iran & Hezbollah:

Senate hearing:

Senator LeMieux: "What's your focus... and the plan going forward to combat this narco-drug trafficking and do you have any concerns that with the projection of influence of Iran in the region, the idea that we know Hezbollah and Hamas have set up shop in the region, that there could be a combination between those groups and the narcotraffickers?"

General Fraser: "From a destabilizing standpoint the biggest concern I have in the region is illicit trafficking. I think it is growing as a regional issue ... and spreading to other parts of the region. Brazil is now the second largest cocaine user in the world. It is the criminal element of that, the illicit trafficking that really is my biggest concern... We are looking at illicit trafficking as a regional enterprise, not just what is effecting each individual country ... to try to understand that enterprise as a regional enterprise ... and to see if we can start squeezing that balloon effectively down."

House hearing:

Q: Is there any evidence ... that say Hezbollah has been engaged in the drug trafficking business to raise money for some of its operations in the Middle East?... Are there any reports to that effect?

General Fraser: "There have been some reports within the southern command region ... of Hezbollah starting to get engaged with illegal trafficking area, so I have that indication. It is primarily right now a focus on logistics support, financial support to their parent organizations in the Mid East."

Q: Iran being involved in Nicaragua? Building a mosque..., but sponsored by Iranian government?

General Fraser: "Iran has been engaging on a political and commercial level throughout much of Latin America. Over the last 3 to 4 years they have increased embassies from 7 to 11, going to another one this year. They have engaged very directly with Venezuela. They are also engaging consistently with Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, ... and also with now Brazil. So they are actually working across the region to engage in both a political and commercial endeavor. Our concerns are just watching to understand what those relationships are and . I don't see any evidence that they are beyond that right now. But we are very skeptical and watching that closely."

Mexico

Senate hearing:

Senator McCain: "Could you describe to me, ... in terms the American people can understand, just how dangerous is our situation on our southern border vis a vis drug cartels...and the possibility that that violence can spill over the border?"

General Renuart: "President Calderón has courageously put his military in the field to take this on where local law enforcement officials have been corrupted or intimidated.... That is not the traditional role of the Mexican military and it does put some strain on them.... As you know, the violence in places like Juárez has been substantial. I think we are close to 7,000 murders that occurred 2009....I must say, drug related murders generally were cartel on cartel, but as you know that spills over into the general public."

"I know we have had people involved who we have trained in the past and were corrupted.... I'm cautious when we talk about level of threat to the Mexican government. I think Calderón is strong and he enjoys support, ... and he is growing an interagency team that can tackle this."

Senator McCain asked General Renuart to provide for the record recommendations for what more we need to do for, including the success and failures of, the Mérida Initiative. General Renuart replied, there will be a "good news story" on law enforcement cooperation along the border."

General Renaurt: "Mérida shouldn't just be a one or two year event, but should be a cooperation over time."

House hearing:

General Renault: "One of my concerns is that Mérida was a term limited set of money... We need to expand that beyond the term limits. We request the help of Congress as we move forward... Whatever the 'son of Merida' may be, this is really an 8 to 10 year problem."

Colombia

Senate hearing

Senator Carl Levin (D-MI): Uribe is not running for a 3rd term. "Has there been a fallout from that? Is there enough time to have an appropriate election...?"

General Fraser: "There is adequate time and a number of candidates are actively running, so I am confident Colombia will be able to run a fair and equitable election."

House hearing:

General Fraser: "Our relations with Colombia are very good and they continue to grow on a continual basis. There has been over the last eight years, since 2002, roughly $5 billion of United States money invested in the fight to help support Colombia in their fight against the FARC as well as illicit trafficking.... Overall, I see our relations with Colombia as strong and I see them continuing to grow."

Cuba

Senate Hearing:

Senator McCain: "Is there any doubt that Raul Castro and Fidel Castro have been more oppressive in past year or two than they have in the past?"

General Fraser: They "I think they have continued to remain fairly strict on the populous, but I cannot quantify whether that has been more constrictive than in the past few years."

(Senator McCain proceeds to advise General Fraser to read the recent reports and testimony from various human rights organizations).