According to Rep. Matt Gaetz, Iran funds more than 100 "cultural centers" in Latin America, which he believes could be breeding grounds for home-grown terrorists.

PENSACOLA — Islamic extremists gaining a foothold in Latin America are already behind some drug trafficking and human trafficking in the United States, and could pose a serious security risk to this country if left unchecked, according to testimony at a "field hearing" convened Monday by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.

Gaetz, who represents Northwest Florida in Congress, brought a number of local officials together with the executive director of a conservative national security think tank, the director of the Gulf Coast High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (a multi-jurisdictional drug interdiction initiative) and a retired Army command sergeant major to talk about a potential terror threat in Latin America: the presence of the Islamic extremist group Hezbollah.

Hezbollah is a political party and militant group based in Lebanon that also has significant ties to Iran.

"Iran views Latin America as a strategic platform" both for enriching Hezbollah through participation in illicit drug trade, and as a staging area for potential terrorist action in the United States, Gaetz said Monday.

The session came days after Gaetz signed on as a co-sponsor of legislation that would require President Trump to determine whether Hezbollah should be designated as "a significant foreign narcotics trafficker or a transnational criminal organization." At the hearing, Gaetz speculated that former President Barack Obama failed to take that step for fear of endangering a deal curtailing Iran's controversial nuclear program.

Hezbollah is "the gold standard in the crime-terror nexus," Joseph Humire, executive director of the Center for a Secure Free Society, said at Monday's hearing, bolstering Gaetz's point that the organization has infiltrated Latin America to help fund future terrorism.

The local officials at Monday's hearing included Okaloosa County Commission Chairman Graham Fountain, Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward, Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson, Santa Rosa County Commissioner Bob Cole, Escambia County Commissioner Jeff Bergosh, Capt. Shane Tucker of the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office and Chief Deputy Chip Simmons of the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office.

They heard Monday that Hezbollah sees the United States as a "cash cow," providing a ready market for illegal drugs that would generate funding for terrorist activities. Providing the local officials with an idea of the amount of money that can be made in illegal drugs, Tim Valenti of the federal Gulf Coast High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area initiative, which covers parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, said HIDTA has confiscated $759 million in drugs and $34 million in cash in its interdiction efforts across the four states.

Today, Hezbollah is helping to open up corridors to facilitate the flow of drugs from Latin America into the United States, according to the officials assembled by Gaetz, which included retired Army Command Sergeant Major Joseph J. Callahan III.

The experts also told Gaetz and the local officials that Venezuela ought to be of particular concern to the United States in the immediate future. They claimed that the vice president of the country, who could be in line for the presidency, is affiliated with Hezbollah. And according to Gaetz, Iran funds more than 100 "cultural centers" in Latin America, which he believes could be breeding grounds for home-grown terrorists.

At the end of Monday's hearing, Gaetz said he would be looking into the possibility of getting F-16 fighter jets to Colombia — America's staunchest Latin American ally — as a counter to Venezuela's F-16s. Additionally, the congressman said he would like to see foreign aid to Latin America conditioned on those countries' work to root out Hezbollah influence.

He'd also like to see the creation of a "fusion center," where various agencies could collect and compare notes on situations developing in Latin America, he said.

Gaetz also said he'd like to see local officials' expertise actively sought in connection with detecting evidence of any threats that Hezbollah operations might pose on American soil, and he also expressed an interest in finding out how "cryptocurrency" — digital currency like Bitcoin — might be keeping Hezbollah activities below the radar.

"I continue to believe we are at risk of looking past Latin America," Gaetz said.