Suspicions Gather Where 3 Nations Converge
Geraldo Pereira has heard the rumors before, the whispers that cast a shadow on the reputation of this border town. So a bit of exasperation tinges his tone when the questions surface again.
“There is no evidence of terrorism or the presence of terrorists in this region,” insisted Pereira, chief of the federal police’s local outpost. “This is folklore.”
It is a cloud of suspicion that authorities here in southern Brazil have fought to dispel with increasing frequency in recent years as fighting terrorism has risen to the top of the global agenda.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the area around Foz do Iguacu, a freewheeling region where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay converge, has been constantly suspected of harboring terrorists or their sympathizers. Intelligence experts often cite the rugged area with lax border controls, often unpatrollable terrain and a sizable Muslim community as a prime breeding ground for Islamic radicals.
Those concerns emerged again last month when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, meeting with some of his Latin American counterparts in Ecuador, warned of terrorists taking advantage of porous borders in the region to regroup and organize. Last year, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers, called the triple border area a focal point of “Islamic terrorist-supported activities,” although defense officials admit they have no proof of any active plotting.
Brazil’s press has fed the speculation, including a story last year by one of the country’s most influential newsmagazines claiming that Osama bin Laden had visited a mosque in Foz do Iguacu in 1995. The report touched off concern that Al Qaeda might have found a haven here, which authorities categorically deny.
“There’s no evidence so far of the existence of cells and training camps of terrorist organizations in the region,” Mauro Marcelo de Lima e Silva, the head of Brazil’s intelligence agency, told The Los Angeles Times. “There’s also no evidence of the presence of any member of Al Qaeda in the region.”
He noted that a joint security group consisting of the U.S., Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay had issued a statement last year saying, “No operational activities linked to terrorism have been detected in the tri-border region by radicalized groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Al Qaeda.”
Mindful of Washington’s keen interest in the area, “the Brazilian authorities, the Paraguayan authorities, and the Argentine authorities are all sniffing like crazy for that sort of thing,” a U.S. security official in the region said.
Yet the rumors of terrorist links persist, and it is not hard to see why.
Even Brazilian officials eager to quash accusations about extremist activity acknowledge that the border between Foz do Iguacu and its sister city in Paraguay, Ciudad del Este, is an unsupervised frontier traversed by thousands of people every day, sometimes on multiple trips, without any documents.
That has led to billions of dollars’ worth in trade of contraband goods, encompassing electronics, toys, cigarettes, drugs and weapons, often delivered -- no questions asked -- by one of the many couriers-for-hire who hang around the border.
Buying a gun in Ciudad del Este and bringing it back to Foz do Iguacu requires only as much time and effort as it takes to cross the traffic-choked Friendship Bridge that connects the two cities. Few vehicles or pedestrians get stopped by anyone in uniform.
Factor in the 12,000 Arabs who live in the region -- most of whom are merchants -- and the flow of contraband becomes a potential source of funding for militant Muslim organizations, U.S. officials say.
The Arabs in the area, most of them Lebanese immigrants or their descendants, say they’re the victims of unfair racial profiling by the U.S. They acknowledge sending millions of dollars back to the Middle East, but say the money goes to support relatives in a country left in ruins by a civil war the immigrants were lucky enough to escape.
“I have parents in Lebanon who are over 60 years old. In Lebanon, there are no pensions,” said Zaki Moussa, 40, a travel agent who came to Brazil 17 years ago. “I also have a sister who is separated with six children. Don’t I have the right to send them money to help out?”
To avoid bank fees as high as 20%, Moussa asks friends traveling back to Lebanon to hand-carry the money, a hassle-free option because no customs declarations are necessary for anyone leaving Brazil with less than 10,000 reais, or about $3,650.
Such remittances are hard to track, and have raised concerns that some of the money coming out of the tri-border area is diverted to unsavory hands.
Washington believes that Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based militant group that the U.S. considers a terrorist organization, is one of the main beneficiaries. In June, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that Assad Ahmad Barakat, a local businessman arrested by Brazil two years ago, was a “key terrorist financier” with close ties to the Hezbollah leadership. The U.S. alleges that Barakat engaged in counterfeiting and extortion to raise funds for Hezbollah. He is now in a Paraguayan prison serving time for tax evasion.
It is difficult to prove a link between money sent from the Foz do Iguacu region and terrorist acts.
“Can anybody say that the dollar that was made off the chopped-up PlayStation [and then sent to] Lebanon, did that finance bullets that killed an Israeli?” the U.S. security official said. “That’s a tough one.
“Right now the only thing that anybody can say is that just like in the United States, [where] we have remittances that very naturally go back to Mexico, in the tri-border area you have a huge Middle Eastern population ... and they naturally send their remittances back to their parents and Grandpa and Grandma.”
To complicate matters, Brazil regards Hezbollah as a legitimate political party, and so donations to the group would not run afoul of the law here.
Other arrests in Foz do Iguacu have drawn unwanted attention to this corner of South America. In April 2002, at Egypt’s request, Brazil arrested Mohammed Ibrahim Soliman, an alleged member of an Islamic terrorist group blamed for the 1997 massacre of 58 tourists in the Egyptian resort of Luxor.
And a new lead suggests a possible connection between the triple border and the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people. In the days leading up to the bombing, someone using a cellphone registered in Foz do Iguacu made calls from the Argentine capital to numbers in Lebanon, Iran, Germany, New York and the tri-border area.
An Argentine judge came to Foz do Iguacu recently to make follow-up inquiries, which Pereira, the chief of the federal police here, said were all answered without gleaning “anything positive about the presence of terrorists here in the region.”
Pereira leads an outpost of 14 officers and a cadre of field agents responsible for many of the duties that in the U.S. get divided between such bodies as the FBI, Border Patrol, Customs Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration. He says he would need triple the staff to mount the kind of border supervision he would like to see, and no one on his force speaks Arabic. But Brazil’s federal police are chronically underfunded.
Pereira also heads the Tripartite Command, a joint security effort by Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. Collaboration is hampered by territoriality laws and by what one law-enforcement source described as a lack of trust among the parties.
Pereira’s top priority is suppressing contraband, not chasing what officials insist is the phantom of terrorist activity in the area. The Islam preached and practiced here is a moderate one, contrary to some assumptions, he and residents say.
“Three or four months ago, a TV crew came to interview me, and they were surprised I didn’t have a beard or traditional clothes,” said Moussa, the immigrant from Lebanon.
“Our community has been here for over 50 years, and we have always condemned the barbarity committed in other parts of the world, be it by Muslims or not,” he said. “At the mosque, our sheik makes daily speeches and reminds us of our Muslim values, of a humble life. We don’t see extremism here.”