Members of the Basij volunteer militia established by revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini wave Hezbollah and Iran's national flags as they attend a rally on Al-Quds day (Jerusalem Day) in Tehran, Iran on September 27, 2008. Jerusalem Day, an annual day of protest decreed in 1979 by Khomeini saw people across the Middle East demand that the holy city be returned to Palestinian control. (UPI Photo/Mohammad Kheirkhah) | License Photo
BEIRUT, Lebanon, Nov. 25 (UPI) -- U.S. authorities have indicted several Lebanese and others on charges of plotting to smuggle weapons and funds to the Iranian-backed organization in Lebanon, amid persistent allegations that it has links with Latin American drugs cartels that bankroll its operations.
Hezbollah, founded in 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon, has been branded a terrorist organization by the United States. But it is also a powerful welfare and political organization that now has ministers in the new Lebanese government.
There has been speculation Hezbollah has stepped up its fundraising activity because Tehran has had to reduce its annual funding of the regime's main surrogate in the Middle East, estimated at $100 million a year.
There has been no firm evidence of that, and indeed it is not likely considering that Tehran needs Hezbollah as Iran seeks to expand its influence across the region and to bombard Israel if it ever launched an attack on the Islamic Republic's nuclear program.
Hezbollah has repeatedly denied it gets any funds from abroad, except donations from Tehran.
But over the years, there has been ample evidence that Hezbollah has a global reach and uses its connections to raise funds and to provide smuggled military equipment to supplement what it gets from Iran and Syria.
In October 2008, U.S. and Colombian law enforcement authorities broke up what they said was a Hezbollah cocaine-smuggling ring funding the group's armed wing through banks from Panama to Hong Kong to Beirut.
According to the U.S. Treasury Department, the ring was headed by Shukri Mahmoud Harb, a money launderer, who was arrested with 130 associates.
In June 2008 the Treasury Department froze the U.S. assets of two Venezuelans with strong family ties to Lebanon who officials said were Hezbollah activists.
Officials said Ghazi Nasr al Din, a Venezuelan diplomat who had been charge d'affaires in Damascus, was president of a Caracas-based Shiite Islamic center that funneled financial support to Hezbollah.
The Treasury said Lebanese-born Fawzi Kenaan used two travel agencies he owned in Caracas, Biblos and Hilal, to channel funds to Lebanon, where he allegedly met senior Hezbollah figures "to discuss operational issues."
Given the hostility of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to the United States and his mushrooming relations with Iran, Washington suspects Hezbollah is putting down roots in that country.
In December 2006, nine Hezbollah activists were rounded up for operating a financial network in the so-called triborder zone, a semi-lawless region where the borders of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet.
Thousands of Lebanese live there and the region is considered a haven for Hezbollah and other organizations that run money-laundering and arms smuggling rings there.
In June 2005, security authorities in Ecuador broke up a drug-trafficking network that officials said had a "direct relationship with … Hezbollah."
The operation, codenamed "Damascus," also involved Colombian, Brazilian and U.S. law enforcement agencies. The gang's alleged leader, identified as Lebanese-born Radi Zaiter, was arrested in Bogota. Several other Lebanese were also rounded up.
In June 2002, Lebanese-born brothers Mohammad and Shawki Hammoud were convicted by a U.S. court of providing material support for a "terrorist group" after federal investigators broke up their fundraising cell.
According to prosecutors, their group based in Charlotte, N.C., was part of a network responsible for raising money for Hezbollah and procuring dual-use technology for its armed wing.
The Hammouds ran a multimillion-dollar-a-year interstate contraband cigarette operation, as have other Hezbollah support groups in the United States. One such group operating out of Dearborn, Mich., and one in Canada was broken up in 2006.
In July 2007, the U.S. Treasury Department said it cut off a Hezbollah financing operation by banning all transactions with the Tehran-based Martyrs Foundation and the al-Qard al-Hassan finance company of Beirut.
That included a Dearborn fundraising office set up by the Martyrs Foundation under the name of the Goodwill Charitable Organization.
The Treasury Department said Goodwill "is a front organization that reports directly to the leadership of the Martyrs Foundation in Lebanon."
Hezbollah is also believed to profit considerably from funds provided by Lebanese Shiite immigrants who have dominated the diamond business in West Africa since the precious stones were discovered in Sierra Leone in 1930.