Islamist extremism has been present in Latin America since the early 1980s, facilitated by a series of factors, notably: widespread corruption; Islamist-friendly governments; the possibility of exploiting illicit trafficking, especially drugs; money laundering; and the lack of proper counter-terror laws.
The first Islamist organization that set foot in the Hemisphere is Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), finding a base precisely where a lot of these issues intersect in the Tri-Border Area between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. Hezbollah continued operating from there with total impunity even after planning and executing large-scale terrorist attacks on the continent, such as the ones against Jewish and Israeli targets in Argentina in 1992 and 1994.
As if it wasn’t enough, Hezbollah and Iran found a new and loyal ally when Hugo Chavez became president of Venezuela in 1999. His Bolivarian Revolution had some ideological and political common denominators with Khomeinism, the ruling doctrine of the Iranian government to which Hezbollah is loyal, such as anti-Americanism, the struggle against “imperialism”, and support for the Palestinian cause. The two countries have common enemies, and strong mutual economic interests. Therefore, Venezuela soon became Iran’s gateway to Latin America, with all the related consequences.
Other Islamist groups would follow. There has, for example, been a spread of Islamism in Mexico’s poorest state, Chiapas, with six mosques currently active in a city of fewer than 216,000 people. While there is so far no connection between those communities and Islamist terrorism, these communities have attracted the attention of Mexican intelligence because of some alarming developments, most notably the militancy of the founding organization that brought Islam to Mexico.
The first group that brought Islam to San Cristobal de las Casas in 1995, the Spanish Movimiento Mundial Murabitun (Murabitun World Movement or MMM), was at the time specifically interested in an alliance with the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), which, from its base in Selva Lacandona, had launched a violent insurgency in 1994 under the leadership of Rafael Vicente, better known as “Subcomandante Marcos”, against the Mexican central government. It is unclear how far this alliance ever got, but EZLN has adopted a notably anti-Israel stance in recent years.
Since that time, MMM has splintered, which is partly a healthy sign, since this development was motivated by a rejection of MMM’s authoritarian leadership, but it did open up space for Salafi and Tablighi Jamaat activities, which have been reported in at least three of the six Islamic centers currently active in Mexico. These mosques and communities have also attracted the attention of international Islamists. Local families of converts are sending their children abroad to study, reinforcing some of these connections. These organizations fund this, ostensibly to assist needy families with education for their children, but likely to facilitate their indoctrination as well. Given the poverty in Chiapas, and the weakness of the state in the area, the sociological and political conditions provide fertile ground for Islamist extremists.
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