THERE has been a long-standing belief that the southern Lebanese Islamic militant group, Hezbollah, has established training camps located in or around the Isla de Margarita island off the northern coast of Venezuela, northwest Brazil, and in the Paraguayan-Brazilian-Argentine tri-border region in South America. While it has never been firmly established that these training camps exist, Hezbollah cell activity in Isla de Margarita and the town of Ciudad del Este in the tri-border region in Paraguay has been documented. More recently, the focus has been on Ciudad del Este, as Venezuela has been able to significantly reduce the activities of Hezbollah cells within its borders
Of course, since then, things have happened in Venezuela too. It is not really likely that President Chavez reduced the influence of Hezbollah there. That is not why he was elected.
By Juan Castro Olivera
MIAMI (AFP) — Iran's growing influence in Latin America is a "potential risk" to the region, the newly-appointed head of the US Southern Command, General Douglas Fraser has warned.
Fraser, who on Thursday takes charge of US military operations in 31 countries across Latin America and the Caribbean, expressed "real concern" about the Islamic Republic's links with "extremist organizations" in the region.
"The real concern is not a nation-to-nation interaction, it is the connection that Iran has with extremist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah and the potential risk that that could bring to this region," Fraser told journalists ahead of taking up the post.
Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has forged close ties with several leftist Latin American leaders in recent years, most notably Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuban leader Raul Castro.
Commenting on Iran's ties to extremist groups in the region, Fraser said: "it is a concern, and it is an issue we will continue to monitor for any increasing activity."
He cited Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which has links to Iran and is accused of being behind a suicide bombing that killed 200 US marines in Beirut in 1983 and the 1996 bombing of the Khobar towers in Saudi Arabia, which killed more than 20 people.
The group has denied playing a role in those attacks and the bombing of Israeli and Jewish targets in Buenos Aires.
Fraser, who was Deputy Commander at US Pacific Command, said the illicit trade in arms drugs and people was worrying, and indicated it would be the focus of his work.
"The major concern is the illicit trafficking and the impact that that is having in the security and the stability especially through the northern part of South America through Central America and the Caribbean and through Mexico and the United States."
He added the US needed to ensure links between narco-terrorism and illicit trafficking do not become more pronounced.
Fraser played down talk of a conventional threat in the hemisphere, but said Venezuela's military stance was concerning.
"I'm concern with the military build-up in Venezuela because I don't understand the threat that they see," he said.
"I don't see a conventional military threat in the region. So I don't see why they see a need to build their military to the point that they are pursuing."
Fraser, who lived in Colombia for three years as a teenager, said Southern Command would continue to help that country combat leftist guerillas like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- the FARC -- and nacro-terrorist groups.
"The FARC is not defeated and we need to continue that effort. That's been a focus for a very specific reason," he said.
"But Southern Command has been engaged with all the militaries within the region, with the exception of Cuba," he said.
"My intent is not to focus on one nation or the other because it is together that we build that capacity."
Fraser is the first US Air Force officer to take the helm of the Southern Command.
He replaces Admiral James Stavridis, who has been tapped to become the NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.
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