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    US Military Commander Warns of Iran-Hezbollah Influence in Latin America

    The commander of U.S. forces in Latin America says the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah is involved in drug trafficking in Colombia.  The admiral is worried about increased Iranian and Hezbollah activities throughout the region. 

    At Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday Admiral James Stavridis accused Hezbollah of involvement in the drug trade.

    "We have seen in Colombia a direct connection between Hezbollah activity and the narco-trafficking activity," he said.

    The admiral's comment came in response to a question from a senator seeking more information about concerns first raised by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates before the same committee in January.  The secretary accused Iran of engaging in what he called "subversive" activity in several places in Latin America.  He called newly-opened Iranian offices in Central and South America "fronts" for interfering in local affairs.

    Admiral Stavridis, who heads U.S. Southern Command, noted what he called "an increase in a wide level of activity by the Iranian government," including the opening of six new embassies in Latin America during the last five years, and what he called "proselytizing and working with Islamic activities throughout the region."

    "That is of concern principally because of the connections between the government of Iran, which is a state sponsor of terrorism, and Hezbollah," he said.  "We see a great deal of Hezbollah activity throughout South America, in particular.  [The] tri-border of Brazil is a particular concern, as in Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, as well as [other] parts of Brazil and in the Caribbean Basin."

    Admiral Stavridis said the United States has good cooperation with the tri-border countries and that it receives what he called a "reasonable level" of information about what goes on there.  But, he said, there are no U.S. military personnel in the area.

    The admiral also spoke about Venezuela during his testimony.  He said the United States does not have a good understanding of what the government of President Hugo Chavez intends to do with his growing military and strong relationship with Russia.  But Stavridis said reduced revenues from the fall in the price of oil will affect Venezuela's ability to continue its high level of arms purchases from Russia, and to maintain and operate its new, expensive weapons systems.  

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