AUSTIN, Texas — Ex-associates called Manssor Arbabsiar a joke, a floundering businessman who smoked too much, drank too much and often solicited prostitutes. His Texas neighbors knew him as a rude and unfriendly recluse.
But on Oct. 17 in a New York courtroom, the former car salesman and restaurateur pleaded guilty to participating in a scheme to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States. The plot: Arbabsiar _ working for Iran’s Quds Force _ hired a hit man he thought was a member of the Zetas Mexican drug cartel. The assassin was actually a paid informant of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The case has captured international headlines for its soap opera twist and unlikely protagonist. Now, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, is pointing to it as the latest example of a growing link — disputed by some experts — between Mideast terrorist groups and organized crime in Mexico.
In an interview last month, McCaul said Iran and Mideast militant groups, such as Hezbollah, have long had money laundering and fundraising hubs across Latin America. The assassination attempt involving the Quds Force took those associations a step further because it was “the first time we have seen that financial relationship become potentially operational — and that is the kind of thing we want to stop and make sure does not happen in the United States,” he said.
As the new chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, McCaul said his priorities include drawing attention to the threat of those emerging partnerships and keeping narco-terrorist operatives from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
A U.S. House report he released in November documents what he describes as the increasing influence of Iran and Hezbollah in Latin America. “A Line in the Sand: Countering Crime, Violence and Terror at the Southwest Border” cites professional and media publications, congressional testimony and insight from a congressional delegation visit to South America that included McCaul.
The area near the shared borders of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina has become one of the largest bases of operations for the illicit financial activities of Hezbollah, the report says. The Islamic militant group’s collaboration with Mexican drug organizations dates back as early as 2005, when Ayman “Junior” Joumaa, a Lebanese citizen and Hezbollah supporter, shipped thousands of kilograms of Colombian cocaine to the United States through Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, according to federal court records.
But some academic and law enforcement critics say it is a leap to claim deeper connections between drug networks and Islamic militant groups that have vastly different agendas — and that might not have any objectives in common other than making money. Individual cases like that of Joumaa or Arbabsiar, they said, don’t add up to a systematic partnership.
There is no telling whether an actual Zetas member would have agreed to carry out a political assassination, said Cecilia Balli, a freelance writer and University of Texas anthropology professor. “For the groups to work together, they would both need something to gain,” she said. “What is a Mexican drug trafficking organization going to get out of killing a Saudi ambassador?”
Tony Payan, a drug war analyst and University of Texas at El Paso political science professor, said Mideast terrorist groups and Mexican criminal organizations have distinct objectives.
“It is a very sexy thing to begin to conflate terrorism and drug trafficking,” he said. “I am not saying there is no danger. The narco-terrorism threat could exist, but I question the motivation behind this purposeful attempt to link one to the other. The allegations seem to arise out of a need for imperialistic bureaucracies and agencies to justify their budgets, prestige and existence.”
McCaul first suggested a narco-terrorism connection when he introduced legislation last year to label four Mexican drug cartels as “foreign terrorist organizations.”
Had it been adopted, the proposal would have allowed prosecutors to seek higher penalties and fines for convictions, a facet that some law enforcement officials called another tool in the arsenal against organized crime.
In pushing for the legislation, McCaul said Mexican drug enterprises might not have the religious ideology that fuels groups like al-Qaida or Hezbollah, but they use similar methods to acquire political and economic influence, such as assassinations and attacks on civilian targets.
“It is not a real stretch of the imagination that these groups could work together operationally if they already have a financial relationship,” he told the Austin American-Statesman last month. “Mexican cartels don’t want to get into the terrorism business, and I think to a large extent that may be true, but I think the lesson of 9/11 was to connect the dots.”
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Law enforcement officials and border experts said they don’t dispute Hezbollah’s financial enterprises in Latin America. All criminal groups to some extent have evolved into transnational networks in recent years. And Mexican drug trafficking groups have diversified their portfolios to include not only drug smuggling but also other businesses, such as extortion, kidnapping and human trafficking.
“Although the U.S. intelligence community may possess specific information, the Texas Department of Public Safety is not aware of any direct collaboration between the Mexican cartels and Hezbollah at this time,” said Steve McCraw, director of the state law-enforcement agency. “However, the Mexican cartels are ruthless for-profit organizations, and they have demonstrated a willingness to collaborate with other criminal organizations to carry out their business _ for instance, transnational gangs.” Their relationships to all terrorist groups are important to monitor, McCraw said.
But some say the problem is in definition. Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, chairwoman of the government department of the University of Texas at Brownsville, said Mexican criminal groups have drastically escalated the brutality of their tactics, but the violence isn’t a political phenomenon.
“It is an economic phenomenon,” she said. “Mexican drug organizations are damaging the Mexican state, damaging Mexican society, but they are not manifesting themselves against the United States.”