Mystery Cargo

On May 10, Paraguayan prosecutor Marcelo Pecci was murdered on a Colombian beach by hired assassins. As a high-profile member of the Office of Public Prosecution, he led Paraguay’s antinarcotics, corruption, organized crime, and terrorism finance investigations, prosecuting the most powerful criminal networks in his country. That included Hezbollah networks, which made him a target for the terror group as well as the powerful crime syndicates he sought to dismantle.

Three day later, a Boeing 747 cargo plane registered with Venezuelan airline Emtrasur made its way from Caracas to Ciudad Del Este, Paraguay, in the Tri-Border Area (TBA) of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. There was no cargo on board, but the 18-member crew of seven Iranians and 11 Venezuelans included Gholamreza Ghasemi, a board member, shareholder, and manager of the U.S. sanctioned Iranian airline Fars Air Qeshm, the former chairman of Iran Naft Air (later renamed Karun Airlines) and, reportedly, a senior member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC. Ghasemi is a regime stalwart, not just a seasoned pilot, and since 2017, his airline, Fars Air Qeshm has been ferrying weapons and other military equipment to Damascus on behalf of the IRGC’s Quds Force. That a senior member of the IRGC in charge of such a sensitive logistical operation would be suddenly tasked to fly an empty cargo across the world is odd. What was he doing in Ciudad Del Este?

Before we answer that question, some background on Iran’s involvement in Latin America is helpful. Exporting the Islamic revolution has been a key goal of the Iranian regime ever since it toppled the shah in 1979. Latin America became an early target because Iran’s clerical leadership viewed the region as a fertile ground for the spread of anti-American ideology. During the past four decades, Iran has patiently pursued the goal of spreading its message across the Western Hemisphere and leveraged the resulting support in pursuit of its political goals.

To expand its influence, Iran has developed a dual track based on soft and hard power. Its soft power approach relies on a missionary network built on mosques, cultural centers, educational institutions, media outlets, and publishing houses, which it has sustained with both itinerant and resident clerics either from Iran or trained in Iran. This network has run in parallel with official diplomatic relations managed through embassies and other bilateral contacts, including intelligence and military cooperation. It has thrived both in countries whose governments, like the Maduro regime in Venezuela, are allies of Iran, and in places like Colombia where the government is closely aligned with the United States. But it is thanks to Venezuela in particular, that Iran has achieved staying power. The two countries, on the strength of a shared antagonism against the United States and the Western, liberal, rule-based international order, have deepened their cooperation over the past two decades, with their goals of turning Washington’s regional allies into adversaries at the forefront of their efforts. These efforts have included an air bridge between the two countries—outwardly, an innocuous air link for passengers and cargo to travel, but in fact a way to evade sanctions and to ferry intelligence officials, senior regime members, weapons and illicitly mined gold. These flights rarely if ever have a commercial logic. They are instrumentalities of the state to advance the two regimes’ goals of gaining influence in the region at the expense of the U.S. and its allies.

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Comments (14)
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  • Looks like the WSJ Opinion page picked up this story today, citing the author and the Dispatch…. Well done!

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  • Great reporting! I knew nothing about this, and I’m sure most Americans don’t. Iran needs to be stopped, and we sure don’t need them getting this close.

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  • Let's see: imagination need not run rampant to envision Madura and the Tehran mullahs working together to aid and abet mayhem. And to have Sra. Kirchner involved - la de votas invisibles - is just too rich. Kudos for great investigational work and to TD for publishing!

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  • If the Iran nuclear deal were still in effect there would probably be a higher US profile regarding these flights. Instead we are busy trying to reconstruct the deal that may, in fact, been completely destroyed by an agent of a foreign power.

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  • Fascinating and concerning piece. Hat tip to TD for putting this information out there.

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  • I of course know not what to make of these mysterious, and seemingly sinister, events. I appreciate TD’s publishing this informative report.

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  • Thank you for a good explanation of a confusing situation and drawing our attention to this.
    South America does not always welcome too much overt US intervention, or even the perception of it.
    If this event is seen as unwelcome outside intervention by Iran, and is in their news, showing their own government officials taking care of the problem, could that actually be advantageous from a PR standpoint? The US becoming overtly involved seems like it could change the dynamic.
    Also, it would seem like a possibility our intelligence services are already gaining information quietly in the background.

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  • Sounds like some Iranian aircraft need to start having sudden, and unfortunately fatal, technical difficulties while at sea. I actually have some professional background in this area (or had, a number of years ago), and yet Iran never fails to astonish me with the scope of its heinous activities. It is a moral and intellectual outrage Democrats continue to be hellbent on pursuing deals with Iran that favor the regime. Genuinely, is there any good reason IRGC-affiliated agents aren't instantly incinerated once they've departed Iranian airspace?

    It may be time for a substantial and aggressive revival of the Monroe Doctrine.

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    1. You suggest the US government enact a policy of serious criminal action in international airspace—essentially open murder—then accuse skeptics of being the ones taking the morally and intellectually outrageous position of opposition to such policies?

      Do you even have rule-of-law on your planet?

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      1. I happily affirm that covert sabotage activities against murderous hostile states are very much on the table, but only because I live in reality.

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        1. I see, so you don’t oppose the Iranian government because it murders people. You’re just envious and want the US government to be more like them.

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  • I suppose the US government doesn't want to upset its JCPOA revival!

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