Iran's growing presence and influence in Latin America is sparking security concerns across the region and in the United States, as Iran becomes more open about its presence in Venezuela and other countries, officials meeting in Florida said this week.
"It is troubling in some of the briefings we get, particularly on the classified side, to see Iranian influence in Latin America," Florida Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis, a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, told The Washington Free Beacon
"A lot of these [Latin American officials] share the concern," he said.
Several members of Congress, along with 20 lawmakers from 14 different Latin American countries, met at a Florida summit organized by the Israel Allies Foundation, where they discussed Iran's presence in such countries as Argentina, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia.
Officials said Iran is investing more resources in its Latin American operations, and also provides its officials with passports issued in Venezuela and other countries that gives them the ability to travel freely throughout South America.
Uruguayan Senator Luis Heber said that Iranian agents, including some suspected of being in the country's Revolutionary Guard Corps, have been in his country with Venezuelan passports, and that there is "a clear penetration of Iran in our country."
"We've also seen Venezuelan passports in the hands of Iranians," he said at the summit. "The penetration of Venezuela by Iran is clear. There is overwhelming information on this."
At least 10 Iranians have been seen with such passports, which allow them and others "to enter anywhere in Latin America because the passports are legal."
The goal, said Florida GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, is to establish deep ties in Latin America and influence them against the United States, Israel, and other allies.
"The threat level has increased, it's more open," said Ros-Lehtinen, the vice chairwoman of the House's Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.
She said the threat from Iran isn't coming so much from spies, but instead through its influence on the ideologies of Latin American nations.
"That's what they're aiming for and penetrating [these countries], so they have a presence in Latin America right at the foothold of the U.S.," she said.
Iranian consulates in those countries are used as bases for espionage and other covert activities, Ros-Lehtinen said.
"How is it they have Iranian consulates in Latin America?" she asked. "It's ridiculous to think all of sudden Latin Americans want to travel to Iran. They're not using it to issue their visas. Something is happening that Iran is penetrating the Western Hemisphere and it's not for cultural exchanges or approval of travel docs."
"This makes no sense … other than espionage, subterfuge, and illicit activities," Ros-Lehtinen said.
Iran's activities in Latin America have been increasing, said Arizona Republican Rep. Matt Salmon, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"There's no question we're seeing an uptick in Iranian influence in the Western Hemisphere," Salmon said during a meeting with the Latin American leaders at the summit. "Unfortunately, the U.S. administration, our administration, seems to be willing to turn a blind eye towards what's happening."
He further said that there have been instances in which Iranian agents have come across the U.S. border, referring to reports of Hezbollah members
being arrested in the past.
In addition to the threat from Iran, the Islamic State is operating a camp in northern Mexico just a few miles from El Paso, Texas, Judicial Watch
reported in April, citing sources that include a Mexican Army field grade officer and a Mexican Federal Police inspector.
Iran hosts 80 cultural centers in Latin America and has doubled the number of embassies it operates there since 2005, it was revealed at the summit.
"Now they're in the open, above board, advertising and letting the world know, 'we're right in your front and backyard,' " Ros-Lehtinen said.
Sandy Fitzgerald has more than three decades in journalism and serves as a general assignment writer for Newsmax covering news, media, and politics.
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