Venezuela’s role in state-sanctioned drug trafficking and its ties to Hezbollah are often neglected given Hezbollah’s concentration near the borders of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, known as the Tri-Border Area (TBA). However, Venezuela’s permissive environment has enabled Hezbollah to set up a base to conduct its regional operations. Venezuela is a critical transshipment hub for cocaine en-route to the U.S. from other Latin American countries such as Colombia.

Hezbollah is politically well-connected in Venezuela, allowing it to conduct illicit trade in narcotics, charcoal, textiles, beef, cigarettes, liquors, and electronics. Hezbollah uses these industries to launder money. Hezbollah’s “Business Affairs Component,” a division identified within the group’s external operations unit and named by the DEA, takes the lead on illicit economic activities. These activities enrich the group and relieve the need for Iranian largess. Therefore, through its proxy, Iran is connected to the Latin American drug trade.

Hezbollah and the Maduro regime have well-established political ties. Hezbollah sympathizers have always occupied high-ranking offices in the Venezuelan government, which allows them to protect Hezbollah’s interests in illicit activities like the drug trade. Moreover, the Secretary-General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, and President Maduro are political allies, with a relationship extending back to Maduro’s travels to the Middle East as foreign minister in the Chávez Administration. According to a 2019 letter from Nasrallah to Maduro, Hezbollah was prepared to offer the regime military and security support in gratitude for his predecessor Chávez’s history of funding the terrorist organization’s activities. While Hezbollah’s brand of radical Shiite Islam, which is based on loyalty to the Supreme Leader of Iran, may be less appealing in Venezuela than plain anti-Americanism. Still, the sizeable Lebanese and Syrian diaspora community serves as a recruitment pool for prospective political operatives, intelligence assets, illicit actors, and donors.

In the mid-1970s, many Lebanese citizens fleeing the Lebanese Civil War emigrated to Venezuela. This population has served as a pool for Hezbollah’s recruitment and infiltration. Today, more than one million Lebanese people live in Venezuela, and more than 10 million reside in South America.  

Hezbollah has operated cells in Venezuela since the 1990s, according to a 2003 U.S. Department of State report, thus predating Chavez’s rise to power in 1998. The U.S. Special Operations Command issued a finding in 1990 that Hezbollah began recruiting in Latin America as early as the mid-1980s. These government agency reports across administrations credibly show that Hezbollah has a long history of ideological influence in the Western Hemisphere. That influence laid the groundwork for an operational presence, manifested in high-profile terror attacks. In the 1990s, Hezbollah carried out two deadly suicide bombings against Jewish targets in Argentina. The Israeli embassy and a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires were attacked in 1992 and 1994, respectively. IRGC operatives and intelligence officials supported the operations.

Prior to 2007, Hezbollah was implicated in the “Aeroterror” drugs-for-arms scheme operated out of Venezuela. According to an exposé in Politico magazine, the Obama Administration sought to derail a DEA task force formed in 2008 when it discovered that Hezbollah was funding terrorism in the Middle East through drug smuggling operations based out of Latin America.

The U.S. administration did not compel the extradition of two major players in the “Aeroterror” operation: Walid Makled, a Syrian-born Venezuelan businessman; and Hugo Carvajal, a retired Venezuelan general and former chief of intelligence. On one hand, Makled was arrested in 2010 in Colombia, a U.S. ally, for allegedly shipping 10 tons of cocaine a month to the U.S., but was extradited to Venezuela instead of the U.S. On the other hand, DEA agent John Kelly described Carvajal as the “main man between Venezuela, Iran, Quds Force, and Hezbollah, and cocaine trafficking.” He was arrested in Aruba and was not extradited. The Obama Administration did not use U.S. leverage to compel these extraditions, which may have appeased Tehran while depriving the U.S. of valuable intelligence on Hezbollah’s networks.

Hezbollah has expanded its presence in Venezuela by working with Venezuelan diplomats in the Middle East and government officials to obtain passports and facilitate travel. In 2008, the U.S. Department of the Treasury designated Ghazi Nassereddine, a high-ranking Venezuelan diplomat first in Syria and then in Lebanon, for facilitating Hezbollah members’ travel to and from Caracas, and his role as the president of a Caracas-based Shia Islamic center used to solicit funds for the terrorist organization. The Nassereddine clan is today believed to be based on Margarita Island, a known Hezbollah safe haven off of Venezuela’s northeastern coast. The island includes training camps and is central to drug trafficking operations.

In 2017, CNN reported on an intelligence document showing that Venezuela’s former Interior Minister, Tareck El Aissami, ordered the issuance of 173 Venezuelan passports out of the Venezuelan embassy in Iraq, including to Hezbollah members. Some of these passports were presumably offered to Iranian operatives as part of the “Aeroterror” scheme. A day prior to the CNN report, the U.S. Department of the Treasury sanctioned El Aissami for, among other things, receiving payment from Venezuelan, Colombian, and Mexican drug lords to use the Venezuelan airbases, ports, and highways over which he had control to transport drugs through Venezuela.

In testimony before the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee in April 2018, illicit finance expert Emmanuele Ottolenghi listed a dozen operatives and facilitators involved in “terror plots, terror finance schemes, weapons and technology procurement, trade-based money laundering, and drug-trafficking on behalf of Hezbollah [who] were a dual national of Lebanon and another country,” underscoring the importance of travel documents. In some cases, the operatives permitted into Venezuela established cells in other countries in the Western Hemisphere, many of which do not require a visa for travel by people holding Venezuelan passports. The U.S. requires a visa but it is believed that, with Venezuelan travel documents, terrorists have set up cells in the United States, including in North Carolina. A total of 26 European Union countries do not require a visa for Venezuelan passport carriers.

Aissami did not only play a role in facilitating travel when he was interior minister; leaked intelligence obtained by the New York Times in 2019 shows that he and his father, a Syrian immigrant, played an active role in recruiting Hezbollah members to expand spying and drug trafficking networks in Latin America. The recruits were sent to training camps in Venezuela, set up by El Aissami to prepare for asymmetric war against the U.S. The leaked documents suggest that El Aissami facilitated business between his brother and a notorious Venezuelan drug lord, the previously-mentioned Walid Makled. El Aissami’s own business operations—managing a financial network of up to 40 front companies in Latin America—allows him to direct funding to the Middle East in support of Hezbollah and Hamas and bring militant Islamists to Venezuela.

Having served in multiple positions in the Maduro regime, including formerly as Oil Minister, El Aissami, who is of Lebanese descent, was one of Maduro's most powerful and trusted confidants. However, El Aissami resigned his office as oil minister in March 2023 amid a corruption probe into PDVSA.

According to national security expert Joseph Humire, “in Venezuela, Hezbollah’s support network operates through compartmentalized, familial clan structures that embed into the Maduro regime-controlled illicit economy and the regime’s political apparatus and bureaucracy.” In 2020, Humire identified three of these clans—the Saleh clan, the Nassereddine clan, and the Rada clan—which he argued operate at the nexus between organized crime and terror.

The Saleh clan is believed to be led by a Shia businessman and Hezbollah operative, Ali Mohamad Saleh. In the past, Ali Saleh controlled trade in drugs, weapons, contraband, bulk-cash smuggling, and money laundering in Maicao, Colombia, close to the border with Venezuela. Cartels under the control of the Maduro family continue to benefit from these cross-border networks that Saleh managed. However, local shopkeepers have reported that Ali Saleh and his brother moved their operations to Maracaibo, Venezuela, after the U.S. Department of the Treasury designated them as terror financiers in 2012.

Ghazi Nassereddine, though not part of Hezbollah’s chain of command, acts as a “fixer” to arrange meetings between Hezbollah officials and members of the Maduro government. The Lebanese-born diplomat served effectively for Maduro, given his ability to bridge cultural and language barriers.