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Hizbollah in South America

By Blanca Madani

Havens for contraband and money laundering, possibly linked to the Lebanese islamist Shi'a movement Hizbollah, the "Triple Border" and the "Free Zone" of Iquique, both in the Americas' southern hemisphere, have been a focus of interest, not only for their respective governments, but more recently for the United States, which launched a campaign to cut the channels of financing of 22 specified groups, among which Hizbollah is included. This article reviews activities in these localities, particularly in connection with Assad Ahmad Mohamed Barakat and Ali Khalil Merhi, both of Lebanese origin and with alleged ties to Hizbollah.

The Setting

The Triple Border is the junction of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil, joined at the cities of Ciudad del Este, Puerto Iguazu, and Foz de Iguazu, respectively. In this triple-border zone, the so-called "Tripartite Command," agents of the antiterrorist departments of the respective national security police, work jointly to exert strict control of foreign nationals, mainly Lebanese citizens, in the area. The Arab population of the Zone is believed to number over 20,000 (about one in every 30 residents), most of whom are Muslim Lebanese. The Triple Border is considered by US authorities as a "haven for drug and arms traffickers, smugglers and counterfeiters," and in the US State Department's April 2001 report on global terrorism, it depicted the area as a "focal point for Islamic extremism in Latin America."

The Triple Border zone also has a high rate of illegal immigration. An investigation by the National Direction of Civil Aeronatics (DINAC) sustains that 16 foreigners enter Paraguay illegally on a weekly basis via the airport of Ciudad del Este, paying some $5,000 (925,000 pesetas) in advance. But many more probably enter by land. Until September 14 of this year, border controls were almost non-existent on Puente de la Amistad (Bridge of Friendship), over the Parana river, which unites Foz de Iguazu with Ciudad del Este. The narrow bridge is 500 meters long, where cars line up for miles, while hundreds of Brazilians cross on foot daily to work in the import businesses of Ciudad del Este. So-called "moto-taxis" (motorcycles) will also take people across for a dollar to avoid the long wait in traffic.

Ciudad del Este (formerly Puerto Stroessner) was a tiny village until 1967. Then, construction began on the dam of Itaipu, one of the largest hydroelectric power plants in the world and a favorite tourist site, transforming the former village into Paraguay's second largest city, its population now around 220,000, and an enterprise zone of imported products, many of them tied to contraband, which sprout like mushrooms. It is estimated that there are around 7,500 retailers in the area of Arab origin, mostly Lebanese, and another 6,500 originating from Asia (China and South Korea).

Construction on the dam, which is shared with Brazil, also increased the population of the latter's triple-border city, Foz de Iguazu, reaching presently some 350,000 inhabitants, while Puerto Iguazu on the Argentine side, has a population of a little under 35,000.

Control of the border was also lacking on the Brazilian side in Foz de Iguazu, both at the frontier with Paraguay and with Argentia via Tancredo Neves Bridge, as Agence France Presse was able to establish in mid September.

On the Argentine side, controls were reinforced after the attack on the United States, but the comparatively greater security in the area in relation to its neighbors began with the terrorist attacks against the Israeli embassy in 1992 and two years later against AMIA (Israeli-Argentine Mutual Association), both in the country's capital, Buenos Aires.

The commercial center of Zofri, better known as the Free Zone of Iquique, is located on Chile's coast, in the northwest. At 240 hectares, it is the largest duty-free zone in South America. It is a center of warehouses and malls for the sale of smaller products, such as electronic devices, cigarettes, perfumes, etc. Its beaches, lined with casinos, restaurants, and discothèques, are highly popular tourist attractions.

The Link: Assad Ahmad Mohamed Barakat

Barakat is a focus of international interest as the presumed chief of an alleged Hizbollah cell in the Triple Border. The Brazilian resident of Lebanese origin remains a fugitive, out of reach of the authorities who have been trying to capture him for months, and whose business affairs are under careful scrutiny. Joaquim Mesquita, head of the Federal Police bureau in Foz de Iguazu, recently stated that he has not received an arrest order for Barakat, who is reported to be living in the Brazilian Triple Border city with his Brazilian wife and children.

Barakat arrived as a teenager in Paraguay in 1985, along with his father. Other family members followed, and, according to a news source, "today the Barakat family numbers about 90" in the country, all of them "devout Shi'ite Muslims." The fugitive businessman claims that the accusations against him are due to a rival Lebanese merchant who aims at grabbing Barakat's exclusive rights to distribute a video game made in Hong Kong, and that Paraguayan police are pursuing him for purposes of extortion, with the excuse of seeking terrorists. But according to officials, the Lebanese businessman, who operated a farm in the outskirts of Foz de Iguazu, created a "business-screen" in Ciudad del Este.

Barakat left his former residency in Paraguay shortly after the Paraguayan authorities commenced operations in Ciudad del Este in December 1999, working with its neighbor cities in a search for suspected anti-Israeli terrorists. Nevertheless, Commissioner Andres Nuñez, who was then head of the Paraguayan branch of Interpol, said that they suspected Barakat was still in the Zone "reason for the order to search and capture" him specifically in areas where he could be, "Ciudad del Este as much as Puerto Iguazu and Foz de Iguazu." The authorities also noted that their target could be in the Zone under an alias.

On June 6 of this year, Khalil Saleh, a Paraguayan of Arab origin, registered a business, Saleh Trading Limited, in the Free Zone of Iquique, with a capital of $50,000, of which Saleh contributed $49,000, Barakat contributed $1,000, and a Paraguayan attorney from Iquique, Juan Eduardo Lecaros, contributed the remaining $500. The next day, Barakat Limited was registered with a capital of $20,000, of which Barakat contributed $19,800 and Lecaros the remaining $200. Barakat Limited has not yet initiated operations, but Saleh Trading Limited is an import mercantile business, dealing in various goods, from clothes to electronic devices. It is managed by another Lebanese citizen, Arafat Ismail, who was arrested in November.

The Iquiquian lawyer's presence was a necessity to fulfill the requirements of opening a business in this city, which demands that a Chilean citizen and resident of Iquique be involved in the initiation proceedings, and the proposed business be announced in the official newspaper. Both of these requirements were fulfilled.

The lawyer has maintained that there was nothing in the initial activities to awaken any suspicions regarding the presence of Barakat and Saleh, and that they had acted in agreement with the norms of the Free Zone to operate a business. He emphatically states that he had no knowledge of an order of international arrest on Barakat, who is alleged to be financing terrorist activities associated with Hizbollah by means of established businesses in the Free Zone. The latter remained in Iquique only two days, renting "Department 902" of the Arricefe building, located on Cavancha beach, according to the address he gave at the time the business was registered.

Judge Juan Manuel Muñoz was appointed head magistrate by the Court of Appeals of Santiago (Chile), in charge of investigating the alleged connection in Chile of a financial network of Hizbollah, and thus, specifically, the Barakat case, under the Antiterrorist Law of the Department of the Interior, established on November 10 in the framework of the campaign launched by the United States to sever the financial pathways of the 22 groups specified by the Department of State, Hizbollah included. Muñoz issued orders to the headquarters of Police Intelligence of Investigations (JIPOL), authorizing it to do whatever was necessary and giving JIPOL ample powers to perform their tasks. However, on November 30, his office announced it had not been able to establish any economic links between Hizbollah and businessmen of Lebanese origin in the Free Zone. At this point, the Court of Appeals needs to determine whether a new magistrate should be appointed to investigate the Barakat case.

Other Lebanese citizens also under investigation are Arafat Ismail and Mohamed Ali, who worked with Khalil Saleh, Barakat's partner. Neither Ismail or Ali will be able to leave Chile for 30 days from the middle of November, when Muñoz issued the arraignment order against them. Ismail's lawyer asserts that his client, who arrived in Chile around August of this year, has nothing to do with the case under investigation other than working with Saleh. Nevertheless, on October 21, Lecaros and Barakat formed a new business in the Free Zone, Saltex Imports and Exports, Ltd., in which Lecaros acts as minority partner in his capacity as lawyer. Among the majority shareholders are Arafat Ismail and his son.

In Paraguay, the court holds a letter from the head of Hizbollah thanking Barakat for his donations. In the letter, Hizbollah's leader, Hassan Nassrallaham, is reported to have said that he "is one of the most thankful for the contribution Assad Ahmad Barakat has sent from the Triple Border." While the ambassador of Lebanon for Argentina and Paraguay, Hicham Salim Hamdam, confirmed the remittance of money that could reach $50 million since 1995, he stressed that it was intended for "humanitarian aid for orphans of Muslims killed in action." Recently, Barakat informed the media in Curitiba (Brazil), where he was reported living with his family since presumably fleeing his former residence in the triple-border city of Foz de Iguazu, that "he didn't trust the Paraguayan justice system." He also admitted that he was a "sympathizer" of Hizbollah, "but that does not mean that I support terrorism or terrorists. Hizbollah is a freedom fighter," and then also reminded the media that it was a legally recognized party in Lebanon.

The police of Paraguay and Chile are working closely on the case, per Carlos Cálcena, Asuncion's public prosecutor against crimes of drug trafficking and terrorism. The Chilean authorities had been investigating Barakat for allegedly funneling, to Hizbollah, funds, which sources close to the investigation say come from Ciudad del Este, where most of his commercial ventures are located. However, since the September 11 attacks on the United States, Barakat has been included on the US State Department's list of "suspected terrorists," presenting a different dimension to the investigation. Three arrest warrants have been filed against him with Interpol. He is suspected of heading a Hizbollah cell in the Triple Border zone and recruiting volunteers for the Lebanese movement from among the large Arab community in the area.

Cálcena announced to the Associated Press in November that his office has wanted to question Barakat since a raid on his store in early October uncovered documents, videotapes and other material allegedly promoting Hizbollah. Cálcena said the tapes "encouraged young men to join Hizbollah's war against Israel and become suicide bombers." However, in a recent interview, Barakat stated that the tapes, which had been sent by relatives in Lebanon six years ago, are "common in the community," and that they are no longer needed "because we get our information from Al-Manar," the Hizbollah satellite channel, now available in the area.

At the beginning of December 2001, the United States consulate in Paraguay announced that Barakat's visa was revoked. They sent a message to the airlines that operate from Asuncion and Ciudad del Este flying toward the United States, indicating that the State Department revoked "any and all non-immigrant visas" on behalf of Barakat, who holds a Paraguayan passport.

Ali Khalil Merhi

Merhi was arraigned on October 25, 2000. According to the police, a CD confiscated from his store in the Triple Zone during a search in February 2000 contained images of "terrorist propaganda of the extremist group Al Muqawama," a hard-line wing of Hizbollah. The CD was titled "Industry of Blood," according to the translation given by a report in Agence France Presse. Cálcena revealed that the CD showed images of islamist combatants, attacks and messages "against America and the West," to whom they declare war, and incite Muslims "to fight with arms," especially against the United States and Israel. Among the documents, according to Cálcena, there were also included, "various fund raising card envelopes destined for an organization in the Middle East named Al Shahid, dedicated to the protection of families of martyrs and prisoners," and documents of money transfers to Canada, Chile, the United States and Lebanon of more than $700,000 (130 million pesetas).

Merhi had originally been arrested during the operation in February 2000, but after obtaining a conditional freedom, fled the country in late summer of that year. He is believed to be currently back in Beirut, where Interpol has no influence. While in the Tacumbu penitenciary in Asuncion in February 2000, 32-year-old Merhi married Laia Hijazi, daughter of a Beiruti potentate. All 1700 inmates were invited to the luncheon.

Merhi holds the rights for the registration of the Japanese-American trademark, Play Station. Before he left the country, he declared, through his lawyer, that the accusations against him were related to the multinational Sony's interest in snatching his registry in the country, which was inscribed in the Ministry of Industry and Commerce. He related his fear of being assassinated by the police by order of the US embassy and Sony. He also stated that the audio-visuals found in his store in Ciudad del Este belonged to another Lebanese retailer, who was not identified, but may have been Barakat.

Esteban Aquino, adviser to the Secretary of Prevention and Investigation of Terrorism, stated in a press conference that the institution agreed with the arraignment: "This secretariat has contributed all the necessary data to the courts so they can act on the basis of the presumptions that we have, although many have tried to smear the work of the investigation that we have realized."

Ciudad del Este (Paraguay)

Paraguay, which depends on US aid, had been under pressure since the September 11 attack in the United States to uncover alleged "sleeper cells" in the triple-border city of Ciudad del Este. The population of the city's Arab community, according to one report, totals, together with its neighbor, Foz do Iguazu (Brazil), at least 10,000. Another report, citing police sources, stated that about 10,000 Arabs, mostly Lebanese, live in Ciudad del Este alone, while another large (unspecified) number resides in Foz de Iguazu, most of the latter having businesses on the Paraguayan side of the border ; a third reports lists the figure for Cuidad del Este at 12,000.

While the area is infamous for money-laundering, passport forgery, and contraband, as well as corruption among police and border officials, Paraguayan anti-terrorist forces state there is no evidence of terrorist activity in the area.

On October 16, a Paraguayan government official admitted to the possibility of sleeper cells in the country's territory. Minister of the Interior Julio Cesar Fanego, in a press conference at the government's palace, said, "I believe that there are some terrorists who come to find refuge or to hide; they are sleeper cells" that use the country as a kind of "dormitory." However, Fanego stressed that he was speaking personally and not "institutionally." He explained that the investigations initiated after the attack on the United States pointed to that possibility, and he was determined to confirm the identify of those that had been detained, referring to some 20 citizens of Arab origin, most of them Lebanese businessmen, arrested in September in Ciudad del Este and Encarnacion, cities bordering Argentina and Brazil respectively. Almost all those detained were freed, one was deported, one remains in detention having obtained his residency permit "irregularly," and two others are in jail for alleged complicity in remitting funds to Hizbollah. The anti-terrorist police of Paraguay is searching for at least another twelve foreigners of Lebanese origin for interrogation related to their entry visas.

Fanego has since tried to minimize the extent of his words, explaining that he has his "doubts, and it is necessary to investigate."

The minister of the exterior, Jose Antonio Moreno Ruffinelli, informed the press that the government had received information from the United States regarding remittances of money sent from Paraguay to Arab countries. He said there was an open investigation with the collaboration of the local Banco Central (Central Bank). He also stated that there was no indication of sleeper cells, but added that "there could be a question of money laundering destined to finance terrorist plans," and revealed that the financial investigations are keeping an eye on at least 46 accounts of Arab origin in Ciudad del Este.

The head of the anti-terrorist police, assistant commissary Carlos Altemburger, has been focusing his unit's efforts on the commercial activities of Ahmad Barakat and his connections to Hizbollah. Barakat is the department's "principle suspect" in the alleged coordination of "terrorist groups" in the Paraguayan-Brazilian frontier.

After the September 11 attack, the US government gave Paraguay a list of chronological observations regarding the activities of alleged cells of Hizbollah in the region, some of which were published by Agence France Presse on September 21 :

May 3, 2001: Then Paraguayan Vice-Minister of the Interior Mario Sapriza affirms that the Triple Border Zone "is a base of operations of sleeper cells" of Islamic extremists of Hizbollah..."which rest while they plan actions." He admitted to the difficulties "so much protested by the United States, Canada and Argentina" in the Department of Immigration.

May 3 and 4: In a meeting of heads of the ministries of the interior and justice, North American authorities warned Paraguay that 400 foreigners, especially of Arab origin, had each paid $3,000 in bribes in order to obtain permanent residency in Paraguay.

May 6: A report of the US State Department, sent to the Paraguayan Secretary of Investigation and Prevention of Terrorism, says that "a Lebanese, a Colombian, and a Palestinian," captured in 2000 were freed. The first was "one of the principle members in the Triple Border of the pro-Irani Hizbollah." (This account refers to Ali Khalil Merhi, mentioned above.)

May 22: The consulates of the United States, Argentina and Uruguay met with the Paraguayan director of immigration, Mateo Estigarribia, to coordinate the "dynamic" migratory movement in the Triple Border.

May 31: The Paraguayan consul in Miami (US) was removed from his post after the US government informed the Paraguayan chancery that he had granted some 180 illegal visas to foreigners that were never on US soil. An audit is demanded.

June 2: The US ambassador in Asuncion, David Greenle, visits the National Anti-Drugs Secretary and says that "we have a permanent interest in the subject of illegal immigration" because "it is a phenomena...that can affect the security" of his country. "Above all, the Triple Border zone is a concern."

June 25: A report from the Paraguayan chancery given to the general district attorney's office noted that a powerful organization operates in Paraguay, which falsifies passports and visas, especially of Taiwan and the United States, at the cost of $20,000.

July 14: The general district attorney's office confirmed that at least 18 irregular visas were granted to citizens of Arab origin from the Paraguayan consulate in Miami, and that three of them are considered terrorists by the United States.

August 19: The general district attorney's office reveals that it concludes that 169 irregular visas were expedited in 1999 in the various Paraguayan consulates, and 145 were granted in 2000.

September 11: Attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in the United States.

September 12: Minister of the Interior Julio Fanego admits that in the Triple Border "not only are there sleeper cells" but people who "come to take refuge" after making attacks.

September 12: Paraguay decrees a militarization of Ciudad del Este, its side of the triple border, including in its considerations a major control of illegal immigrant traffic in the zone. It deploys 500 troops, and cancels tourist visits to Itaipu Dam, the largest in the world, to avoid attacks.

September 21: Sixteen Lebanese and one Bangladeshi are stopped at border zones and transferred to Asuncion.

The sixteen Lebanese businessmen detained on September 21 were held on suspicion of having terrorist ties. However, the seven who were not freed immediately were under investigation for forging identification papers and not for suspicion of terrorist activities or ties.

Military troops were originally deployed in the Paraguayan tri-border zone to collaborate with the police of the city, which was paralyzed for 48 hours by businessmen and other sectors that demanded an economic reactivation. Clashes between demonstrators and security forces resulted in 20 injured. At first, the minister of the interior, Julio Cesar Fanego, denied that the deployment of the troops was connected with events in the United States, but afterwards, this served to support the operations with anti-terrorist police against "suspicious" elements of Arab origin in the zone.

Nevertheless, the Arab Muslim community vehemently negates any terrorists among them, stating that they would be the ones in the most danger from such individuals. "The extremists are our enemies," declared Munir Fadel, a religious leader in the community. "We are the ones who would be in danger if they live here. If we know that they are among us, we would be the first to advice the police," he affirmed.

In late October, Nelson Maluff, president of the Lebanese Union, addressed the head of the Commission of Constitutional Affairs of the Chamber of Deputies, affirming that "We believe the occurring is a witch-hunt, but we do not think of abandoning the country. Those presently detained want their freedom to continue working in Paraguay." The head of the Commission, Angel Barchini, is also of Arab descent.

On October 2, Lebanese nationals, Mazen Ali Saleh and Saleh Mahmoud Fayed, 26 and 27 years old respectively, were captured in Ciudad del Este. The Secretary of the Prevention of Terrorism found documents that reveal periodic remittances of important sums of money, between $25,000 and $50,000, to Hizbollah, as well as videos and literature of an alleged armed group with the logo of an AK-47 rifle. They were also linked with Barakat, who, while admitting the two men worked for him, rejected the accusations, saying "We are businessmen, not terrorists, and we have business contacts in different parts of the world." Barakat added that as a human being, he had the right to profess a particular religion and join a political organization of his choice.

Last October 3, the Paraguayan anti-terrorism police arrested two other Lebanese shopkeepers, Arafat Ismail and Mohamed Ali, for alleged ties to Hizbollah. Heavily armed officers surrounded a house in Ciudad del Este and captured the men, who were then taken to Asuncion for questioning. According to police sources, the US embassy in the Paraguayan capital believed the men were members of Hizbollah, but journalists in Ciudad del Este said the men were involved in a business dispute with a competitor, who had denounced them as terrorists.

The spokesperson for the US embassy in Paraguay, Mark Davindson, expressed the US government's satisfaction with the security measures taken by Paraguay since the September 11 attack. Ruffinelli, in the face of criticism from the Arab community in the Triple Border, who feel they have been profiled and targeted, stressed that the controls and procedures of the police are not a "fight against Arabs or Islamism but against terrorism..." The statement was made in response to a question on the possibility that the Arab community, described as a "pillar" of commerce in the Triple Border by the South American press, may abandon the region en masse as a result of the threats to their businesses. The Triple Border is of vital economic importance to the country as the largest center of commerce in Paraguay, albeit also a center of illegal activities of all types.

Carlos Calcena Rojas, the Paraguayan prosecuting attorney, has said that the detentions, to date, due to fraudulent documents is only the tip of a large-sized network. This network includes police, officials from consulates and the offices of immigration, who are facilitating the documents for illegal entry to Paraguay of Lebanese, as well as Koreans and Chinese. "With those documents, they can go wherever they want in the world to do who knows what," he told the press in early November.

US embassy spokesperson, Mark Davidson, noted that "it has always been known that Paraguay is a contraband center," but, he added, "in the last years, two new problems have emerged: the trafficking of drugs and the contraband of visas and false passports, which constitute an open door for terrorism." In early November, at the time of Davidson's remark, there were some 20 persons detained, four cases in process, and more than 50 cases of irregular visas. El Pais,S.A. described the consulates as little more than offices for falsifying documents. The cost of these visas depended on the nationality of the buyer: $800 (150,000 pesetas) for Koreans and $900 (167,000 pesetas) for Arabs, according to information gathered by Calcena. Court cases already initiated for alleged production of fraudulent public documents involve, among others, the former consul of Miami, Carlos Weiss and vice-consul Jose Luis Coscia. Weiss is accused of having issued 150 irregular visas, 18 of those to Arab citizens, three of whom are wanted by the US Justice Department, accused of terrorism. Also involved are the former consul of Salta (Argentina), Juana Maidana de Villagra, who is in provisional prison, and an official of the Ministry of the Interior, Juan Lugo. The former consul of Santa Cruz de la Sierra (Bolivia), Tomas Lopez Caballero, has been arraigned for furnishing irregular visas to Korean and Pakistani citizens.

Fanego assured that "intelligence services" (he did not specify from which countries) had been pursuing the steps of Barakat for some time. "When the event in New York occurred, the process was accelerated. We in Paraguay have no definite information or any proof that there are extremist Arab citizens." He also stated that he had no information concerning the presence of FBI agents on Paraguayan territory operating in that capacity. "It is another thing if they are visiting or without identification," he added.

In early and mid November, a number of Lebanese citizens were arrested as suspects connected with Hizbollah's alleged financial network in the Triple Border. In a search for Ali Hassan Abdallah, accused of being a fundraiser for the Lebanese movement, the Paraguayan anti-terrorist police found and arrested his associate, 34-year-old Kassen Hassan Baalbaki, who cut the power cable to his computer as the agents arrived at their business in Ciudad del Este. Abdallah escaped before the officers had arrived. The officers confiscated the computer equipment to search for evidence that it had been used to communicate via Internet with associates in the Middle East.

On November 8, Sobhi Mahmoud Fayad, another Lebanese national, was captured in Cuidad del Este, suspected of membership and financing of Hizbollah. The US embassy in Paraguay affirmed that he was under suspicion due to alleged links to Barakat. Fayad had previously been apprehended in front of the US embassy in Asuncion after soliciting a visa. He was interrogated and set free due to lack of evidence against him. At that time, Fayad affirmed that he had no links to extremist elements, and he was simply a businessman. The recent detention is related to documents of bank accounts found by the police during a search of a shop owned by Barakat. Almost daily transferences by Fayad to Lebanon are alleged to have been detected in the documents.

A week prior to Fayad's arrest, the Lebanese ambassador had protested the treatment of the large Lebanese community from the Paraguayan government since the September 11 attack on the United States. Border authorities from Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil joined the rally for "Prayer for Peace Without Frontiers," which occurred on November 11 of this year in Foz de Iguazu. The rally hoped to renew confidence in the business community of the Triple Border. Business has decreased, and dozens of businesses have shut their doors due to the constant search operations by the Paraguayan police. Alex Hammud, chief coordinator of the Movement for Peace Without Borders, and one of those involved in calling for the prayer rally, explained that "our main objective is to show that in the Three Frontiers, there are no terrorists and much less terrorist acts. People talk too much, and it harms us tremendously, destroying the sources of work with those calumnies..." Hammud, of Lebanese origin and an adherent of the Muslim faith, is an industrialist and resident of the Triple Border area.

The mayor of Foz de Iguazu, Vicente Rorato, one of the principle launchers of the rally, stated that "there could be irregularities and even crimes like in any cosmopolitan city of the world, but terrorism, never." He noted that most residences of the area established themselves in the Zone some thirty years ago, with the construction boom of the hydroelectric dam, Itaipu.

Brazil

Both Argentina and Brazil have implemented high security operations since the September 11 attack on the US in the Triple Border area. According to a press report published in October, Brazilian authorities may have stationed two F-5 fighter planes in the Itaipu dam area, which they believe may be a possible terrorist target. According to the Brazilian minister of justice, Jose Gregori, an anti-terrorist squad was "deployed near Iguazu Falls in the Triple Border to ensure that Islamic radicals have not used the Brazilian territory to seek shelter after the U.S. attacks." However, shortly after the September 11 attacks, the head minister of the cabinet of Institutional Security, General Alberto Carodoso, discarded the possibility that Brazilian citizens, including those of Arab descent, could be implicated in Saudi Osama bin Laden's terrorist movement. On the other hand, Brazil appeared to consider Paraguay a possibility.

Walter Maierovitch, ex-secretary of the Brazilian anti-drug department and expert in money-laundering and international mafias, noted that Bin Laden had wanted to transfer a base of his organization, Al Qawda, to Paraguay, in the Triple Border. "We have well-based suspicions that Bin Laden wanted to transfer a base to Paraguay from Pakistan, which had to disappear because of international pressures, and which was provisionally transferred to Hizb Islami in Afghanistan."

According to Maierovitch, in the latter half of the 1990s, the intelligence services of Argentina and Brazil began to suspect the existence of camps, under the guise of spiritual communities, which were being used to train extremist islamists. He said that in April of this year, the embassies of the United States in Uruguay, Paraguay, and Ecuador closed their doors for three days "out of fear of terrorist attacks." He added that Paraguay does not appear "to have the means of controlling transnational organizations like the mafia and terrorism," and, therefore, Bin Laden's agents became interested in Paraguay after Hizbollah "lost its international strength." He describes Paraguay as "fertile ground" for clandestine operations, where Russian and Chinese mafias have become more and more powerful. He indicated that Bin Laden's terrorist activities are associated with arms contraband, enriched uranium, drug trafficking, and money-laundering, achieved in conjunction with the Russian and Chinese mafias, with whom he has good connections since the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

While pointing the finger at Paraguay and assuring Brazil's solidarity with the United States to combat international terrorism, the country has nevertheless maintained safeguards against US initiatives to send troops to South American countries to combat illicit activities, particularly the drug market, as has occurred in Colombia in the past, stating that these are internal matters, which will be handled by the appropriate department within their own country.

The Triple Border and the Tripartite Command

The tripartite operation was established on December 23, 1999 in the Triple Zone, on the same day that a fake bomb threat caused the police to evacuate the Israeli-Argentine mutual building AMIA in Buenos Aires (Argentina), whose original headquarters was destroyed in a 1994 attack, leaving 86 dead.

On September 13, two days after the attack on US soil, the newspapers reported that Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay had increased their controls and security operations in the Triple Border, allegedly "a hot bed for the suspects of establishments of 'sleeper cells' of pro-islamist groups that returned to the footlight with the attack on the United States." Chief Lieutenant Juan Bautista Barrios, head of Squadron 13 of the Argentine border police, stated that right after the attacks against New York's Twin Towers and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., they "received orders to increase safety measures" at the frontier, and particularly in the high-traffic area of the bridge of Tancredo Neves that links Puerto Iguazu with the Brazlian border city, Foz de Iguazu. Chief Lieutenant Barrios also confirmed at the time that the security forces for the three countries "stay in permanent contact and are in close communication in case it is necessary to employ an operation."

Although the traffic on Tancredo Neves bridge is due mostly to the thousands of tourists (about 600,000, including Argentines, according to Patrimonio Universal of UNESCO) passing through to visit Iguazu Falls, the authorities are focused on possible movements tied to terrorism and frequent operations of contraband and drug trafficking. Barrios admitted that the Triple Border had been transformed into a "sensitive zone" since the attacks against the embassy of Israel in 1992 and AMIA in 1994. The border police chief explained that "there are settlements of ethnic islamist groups, especially in Ciudad del Este and in Foz de Iguazu, some of which have been found to be sectors of Hizbollah," to which the aforementioned attacks of the last decade have been attributed. Thus, Argentina, the United States, and Israel suspect that the perpetrators of the attacks had a point of connection with islamist groups in the Triple Border.

Previously, on April 30 of this year, the US Secretary of State report, "Patterns of Global Terrorism - 2000," warned that Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay "face serious obstacles" to contain islamist groups that converge in the Triple Border zone, attributing those difficulties to their "limited resources, porous frontiers, and corruption."

Conclusion

The Triple Border zone has long been an area of nefarious economic activity. As a border area, and with the high level of corruption, illegal immigration is also facilitated in the zone. Some of those detained and others who have escaped, including Barakat, appear to have links to or sympathies with Hizbollah. In the case of Barakat, he has so admitted, and documents, as well as the testimony of the Lebanese ambassador, indicates that Barakat has sent money to the Lebanese Shi'a movement. However, with proven corruption among officials and police in Paraguay, which makes them part of the Zone's problems, despite the added pressure from the United States, which has resulted in a specific focus on the Lebanese community in the Zone, it is doubtful that the operations will help clean up the area insofar as the illicit activities of money-laundering, drug-trafficking, etc., is concerned.

1. "Paraguan Prosecutor Seeks Suspect," Associated Press (AP) Online, 26 November 2001.

2. "'Comandos' terroristas se refugian en la triple frontera" (Terrorist "commandos" hide in the Triple Border), El Pais Internacional S.A., 9 November 2001.

3. "Argentina, Brasil y Paraguay aumentan controles en caliente Triple Frontera," (Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay increase controls in the hot Triple Border) Agence France Presse (AFP), 13 September 2001.

4. "Triple Frontera: sospechas de 'celulas dormidas' en zona de escasos controles" (Triple Border: suspects of "sleeper cells" in zone of scanty controls), AFP, 28 September 2001.

5.Hizbollah Supporters Materialize on Latin American Tri-Border (NN), 13 December 2001.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. "Paraguay acusa a libanes de ser recaudador para extremistas islamicos" (Paraguay accuses Lebanese of being a taxcollector for Islamic extremists), AFP, 11 October 2001.

9. "Rastrean a fundamentalistas arabes en zona de triple frontera" (Fundamentalist arabs arraigned in Triple Border zone) ABC Color, 23 December 1999, wired by EFE Spanish Newswire Service.

10. "Abogado de los árabes vinculados a Hezbolá dice que firmas son legales", (Lawyer of Arabs tied to Hizbollah says the businesses are legal) in El Mercurio, 9 November 2001, published by EMOL.

11. "Libanés es socio en tres importadoras," (Lebanese is a partner in three import businesses), El Mercurio via EMOL, 10 November 2001.

12. "Juez chileno dicta orden de arraigo contra dos libaneses" (Chilean judge issues arraignment order against two Lebanese), EFE Spanish Newswire Services, 26 November 2001.

13. "Comunidad arabe continua en la mira de organismos de seguridad," (Arab community continues under security surveillance), "Ultima Hora," via EFE Spanish Newswire Services, 13 October 2001.

14."Designan ministro en visita para investigar negocios de comerciante libanés" (Appointed magistrate visiting to investigate affairs of Lebanese businessmen), 10 November 2001, in ORBE via EMOL.

15.NN, 13 December 2001, ibid.

16.Ibid.

17.ORBE, 10 November 2001, ibid.

18. "Chile checks man for links to Hezbollah," United Press International, November 13, 2001.

19.NN, 13 December 2001, ibid.

20."Consulado de EEUU en Asuncion revoco visa a libanes Assad Barakat" (US Consulate in Asuncion revokes visa of Lebanese Assad Barakat), AFP, 2 December 2001.

21. "'Comandos' terroristas se refugian en la triple frontera" (Terrorist "commandos" hide in the Triple Border), El Pais Internacional S.A., 9 November 2001.

22. Ibid.

23. "Procesan a comerciante libanes por supuesta apologia del extremismo islamico" (Lebanese businessman arraigned for alleged connection with islamic extremism), AFP, 25 October 2000.

24. Ibid.

25. "Esta secretaria ha aportado todos los datos necesarios a la justicia para que actue en base a las presunciones que tenemos, a pesar de que muchos han intentado embarrar el trabajo de investigacion que hemos realizado," in "Procesan a comerciante libanes por supuesta apologia del extremismo islamico," AFP, 25 October 25, 2000.

26. A total figure of 10,000 is reported in "Two arrested in Paraguay, suspected of Hezbollah ties," Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 4 October 2001; 12,000 for Ciudad del Este alone is quoted in the 13 November 2001 article in the United Press International.

27. "Paraguay militariza la Triple Frontera con Brasil y Argentina," AFP, 21 September.

28. "Creo que existen algunos terroristas que vienen a refugiarse o esconderse, son celulas dormidas" que usan el pais como una especie de "dormitorio" in "Celulas terroristas 'dormidas' podrian 'esconderse' en Paraguay" ("Sleeping" terrorist cells may be "hidden" in Paraguay), EFE Spanish Newswire Services, 16 October 2001.

29."Tengo mis dudas y hay que investigar," in Ibid.

30. "Lo que podria haber es una cuestion de lavado de dinero destinado a financiar planes terroristas," in Ibid.

31. "Larga lista de advertencias de EEUU a Paraguay sobre terroristas en su frontera," (Large list of observations of the US to Paraguay on terrorists in its border), AFP, 21 September 2001.

32. "Two arrested in Paraguay, suspected of Hezbollah ties," Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 4 October 2001; and "Comunidad arabe continua en la mira de organismos de seguridad," (Arab community continues under security surveillance) EFE Spanish Newswire Services, 13 October 2001.

33. "Paraguay militariza la Triple Frontera con Brasil y Argentina" (Paraguay will militarize the Triple Border with Brazil and Argentina), AFP, 21 September 2001.

34. "Nosotros somos los que estaremos en peligro si ellos vienen aqui. Si sabemos que estan entre nosotros seremos los primeros en avisar a la policia," in ibid.

35. "Creemos que se esta dando una caza de brujas, pero no pensamos abandonar el pais. Los ahora detenidos quieren su libertad para seguir trabajando en Paraguay," in "Comunidad libanesa denuncia persecucion de autoridades paraguayas" (Lebanese community denounce persecution from Paraguayan authorities), EFE Spanish Newswire Services, 24 October 2001.

36. "Comunidad arabe continua en la mira de organismos de seguridad" (Arab community continues under security surveillance), ABC Color via EFE Spanish Newswire Services, 13 October 2001.

37. "Manifestacion en la Triple Frontera por 'una paz sin fronteras' (Demonstration in the Triple Border for 'peace without borders.'), AFP, 10 November 2001.

38. ABC Color, 13 October 2001, ibid.

39. "Two arrested in Paraguay, suspected of Hezbollah ties," Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 4 October 2001.

40. "Tres ministerios controlaran a la emigracion" (Three ministers will control immigration), EFE Spanish Newswire Services, 18 October 2001.

41. "'Comandos' terroristas se refugian en la triple frontera" (Terrorist "commandos" hide in the Triple Border), El Pais Internacional S.A., 9 November 2001.

42. Ibid.

43. Ibid.

44. "Paraguayan police detain suspected Hezbollah member," AFP, Monday, 12 November 2001.

45. "Detienen en Paraguay a presunto nexo de Hezbola" (Alleged link to Hizbollah detained in Paraguay), AFP, 9 November 2001.

46. Ibid.

47. "Manifestacion en la Triple Frontera por 'una paz sin fronteras' (Demonstration in the Triple Border for 'peace without borders.'), AFP, 10 November 2001.

48. Ibid.

49. "Islamic extremists feared in S. America," United Press International, October 11, 2001.

50. Ibid.

51. "Combate al terrorismo: Brasil aboga por una accion multilateral," (Fighting terrorism: Brazil backs a multilateral action) AFP, 18 September 2001.

52. "Tenemos sospechas bien fundamentadas de que bin Laden queria trasladar a Paraguay una base que poseia en Pakistan, que tuvo que desaparecer debido a las presiones internacionales y fue trasladada provisionalmente a Hizbi islami, en Afganistan," in "Bin Laden pretendia trasladar una de sus bases en Paraguay," (Bin Laden attempted to transfer one of his bases to Paraguay) AFP, 19 September 19, 2001.

53. Ibid.

54. "Argentina, Brasil y Paraguay aumentan controles en caliente Triple Frontera," (Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay increase controls in the hot Triple Border) AFP, September 13, 2001.

55. "Patterns of Global Terrorism -2000," released by the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, April 2001. Full text can be viewed at: http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/pgtrpt/2000/index.cfm?docid=2437.