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Rubio Questions Biden Administration Officials on Tren De Aragua and Hezbollah’s Influence on Chile

Apr 11, 2024 | Press Releases

U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Ranking Member Marco Rubio (R-FL) questioned Biden Administration officials on the vicious Venezuelan gang Tren de Aragua and Hezbollah’s influence on Chile under the Boric Administration.

Last month, Rubio and Congresswoman María Elvira Salazar (R-FL) led a bicameral letter to President Joe Biden urging him to designate Tren de Aragua as a Transnational Criminal Organization. 

Witnesses:

  • Mark Wells, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, U.S. Department of State
  • Chris Landberg, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, U.S. Department of State

Click here for video and read a transcript below:

RUBIO: Mr. Wells, I’m pleased to see in the written testimony that you and Mr. Lamberg both have labeled Tren de Aragua as a Transnational Criminal Organization [TCO]. I sent a letter, along with 21 other members of Congress, both House and Senate, requesting that they be labeled as such. Do we have any update on whether that’s going to happen?

LANDBERG: Sir, we’re closely tracking Tren De Aragua and have similar concerns to you. We understand you sent that letter. We’re working very closely on the internal process. We don’t want to discuss the details of our internal deliberations on sanctions or designations, but I will be working very closely with your staff to give them regular updates. 

RUBIO: The sanctions will be tough. I don’t know what we would sanction. But a designation opens up the ability to, in an organized fashion, confront not just what they’re potentially going to do in the United States if elements continue to come in, but what they are already doing in some of these other countries where they’ve been an enormous challenge. Brazil in particular has had some horrifying instances that are tied to them. 

One of the things I don’t think gets enough attention is how long Hezbollah has had a presence in our hemisphere. They generate revenue from the tri-border area. They’ve been operating there as a revenue source. I don’t think it’s a big leap to say they could at some point have the aspiration of operationalizing their presence, or at least having that as an asymmetric capability to conduct attacks against U.S. targets in case of a broader conflict around the world. But we know for a fact that they’ve been here making money to send back to the organization.

One place in particular where that’s been going on for a while is Chile. We’ve seen multiple instances of these TCOs partnering with foreign terrorist organizations in our hemisphere. Colombia has had this issue. Paraguay has had this issue. But Chile has had it in particular. I think the reason why that’s concerning to me is that, under President Gabriel Boric, the Chileans have had pretty harsh rhetoric about Israel. 

They refused to accept the credentials of Israel’s ambassador. In fact, under Boric, Chile has been one of the leading anti-Israel voices in Latin America, even before October 7th. I think there’s reason to be concerned that they’re not doing enough to crack down on these financial networks from the Chilean side, despite our sanctions and others identifying Hezbollah for what it is. 

We have, I believe, sanctions on Chile-based Hezbollah-run companies. But Chile has refrained from designating Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Is it our view that they are doing enough to crack down on Hezbollah operations in the country? And what are we doing? What are we communicating to them about what we hope they will do?

WELLS: Senator, thank you for the question. President Boric has been a strong advocate on human rights issues around the world. He has a rather large Muslim population there that does speak out with regard to issues on Israel. We have been working both behind the scenes and publicly with the Israelis and the Chileans to encourage them to find a way to cooperate. 

We certainly do have cooperation with Chilean law enforcement across the full spectrum. A lot of that is in building capacity, as well as sharing information with regard to investigations of Hezbollah and Tren de Aragua. We are very concerned about the operation of Hezbollah throughout the region, as well as in Chile.

RUBIO: Let me be clear about my question. I don’t agree with some of the stances President Boric has taken on Israel. But my question is whether that rhetoric translates to a lack of willingness to confront Hezbollah as a foreign terrorist organization and the threat it poses in the region and, ultimately, internationally. 

I strongly disagree with everything President Boric has said, and I hope that we are expressing that disagreement. I don’t care what his internal politics may be with regards to that. I don’t agree with his rhetoric on Israel. But my question is, are the Chileans making Hezbollah a priority? They haven’t designated them as a terrorist organization. Are they a willing and cooperative government when it comes to confronting Hezbollah and Hezbollah-run companies in their own country?

WELLS: I understand. You asked about the messaging that they’re getting from us. We’re unequivocal about our opposition to Hezbollah. They do cooperate with us on all cases of international terrorism. Most countries don’t have a foreign terrorist organization designation in their law. But we do work with them. We consider them an important partner in all counterterrorism activities. 

I came from the Counterterrorism Bureau. I don’t speak for them anymore. But I was very involved in all of our extensive counter-Hezbollah activities worldwide. We have a specific focus on the law enforcement side, which is looking at attacking, in a coordinated law enforcement approach, their illicit proceeds from all their illegal activities. 

A number of countries in Latin America are part of this overall effort that we have globally. I’m not specifically sure about Chile, and we’ll have to go back and find that out, but I know many countries in Latin America are working very closely with this global effort to counter Hezbollah.