Terrorist Threat in the Tri-Border Area:
Myth or Reality?
Latin America's Tri-Border Area (TBA), bounded
by Puerto Iguazu, Argentina; Ciudad del Este, Paraguay; and Foz
do Iguacu, Brazil, is an ideal breeding ground for terrorist groups.
The TBA is a lawless area of illicit activities that generate billions
of dollars annually in money laundering, arms and drug trafficking,
counterfeiting, document falsification, and piracy. The TBA offers
terrorists potential financing; access to illegal
weapons and advanced technologies; easy movement and concealment;
and a sympathetic population from which to recruit new members and
spread global messages. While the TBA is not currently the center
of gravity in the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), it has an important
place in the strategy for combating terrorism.
The TBA and Global Terrorism
The TBA, South America's busiest contraband
and smuggling center, is home to a large, active Arab and Muslim
community consisting of a Shi'a majority, a Sunni minority, and
a small population of Christians who emigrated from Lebanon, Syria,
Egypt, and the Palestinian territories about 50 years ago. Most
of these Arab immigrants are involved in commerce in Ciudad del
Este but live in Foz do Iguacu on the Brazilian side of the Iguacu
According to international terrorism expert
John Price, "The economy of Ciudad del Este is dominated by
illegal activity focused on smuggling contraband products, pirating
software and music, and money laundering of cocaine production revenue."1
Even though it has a population of only 300,000, Ciudad del Este
has approximately 55 different banks and foreign exchange shops.
The United States estimates that $6 billion a year in illegal funds
are laundered there, an amount equivalent to 50 percent of the official
gross domestic product of Paraguay. Carlos Altemberger, chief of
Paraguay's antiterrorist unit, says terrorists partly finance their
operations by remitting dollars from Ciudad del Este to the Middle
Ambassador Philip Wilcox, former Department
of State (DOS) Coordinator for Counterterrorism, testified before
the International Relations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives
that Hezbollah activities in the TBA have involved narcotics, smuggling,
and terrorism. Many believe the TBS's Arab and Muslim community
contains hardcore terrorist sympathizers with direct ties to Hezbollah,
the pro- Iranian, Lebanese Shiite terrorist group; Hamas, the Palestinian
fundamentalist group; the Egyptian group Islamic Jihad; and even
al-Qaeda.3 However, Arab and Muslim
TBA leaders claim their community members are moderates who have
lived in harmony with the rest of the population for many years
and have rejected extremist views and terrorism. Most of the TBA's
20,000 Arabs and Muslims say it would be impossible for terrorists
to hide in their midst and deny remittances sent abroad go to Hezbollah.
A minority of Arabs and Muslims, however, make no secret about their
sympathy and financial support for Hezbollah, which they say is
a legitimate Lebanese political party.
Argentine officials believe Hezbollah is active
in the TBA. They attribute the detonation of a car bomb outside
Israel's embassy in Buenos Aires on 17 March 1992 to Hezbollah extremists.
Officials also maintain that with Iran's assistance, Hezbollah carried
out a car-bomb attack on the main building of the Jewish Community
Center (AMIA) in Buenos Aires on 18 July 1994 in protest of the
Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement that year.4
In May 2003, Argentine prosecutors linked Ciudad
del Este and Foz do Iguacu to the AMIA bombing and issued arrest
warrants for two Lebanese citizens in Ciudad del Este. An Iranian
intelligence officer who defected to Germany told Argentine prosecutors
that Imad Mugniyah was the principal suspect in the Buenos Aires
bombings.5 U.S. officials consider Mugniyah
the mastermind of the 1983 suicide bombing of the U.S. Embassy in
Beirut, which suggests he has direct ties to Hezbollah and Iran.6
Argentine Jews (and many non-Jews) reportedly feel former Argentine
President Carlos Saul Menem, of Syrian ancestry, accepted a bribe
to conceal Iran's role in the bombings. 7
Although we cannot confirm the growing radicalization of Islamic
communities in the TBA, we must take the possibility into account
and closely monitor the situation.
Al-Qaeda is a network of terrorist groups scattered
all over the world with a presence in practically every country.
Are Osama bin-Laden's operatives also present in the TBA? Local
and international media have written about al-Qaeda and other Islamist
terrorist groups setting up training camps in the TBA and even having
secret summit meetings in the area, although intelligence and law-enforcement
officials have not corroborated these reports. The governments of
the three TBA countries say terrorism is not a problem in the region
and emphasize that they have never detected terrorist activity or
cells there.8 In December 2002, Argentina,
Brazil, Paraguay, and the United States agreed that "no concrete,
detailed tactical information . . . support[s] the theory that there
are terrorist sleeper cells or al-Qaeda operatives in the TBA."9
Even so, U.S. and regional officials worry
that illegal activity and commerce in the area fund terrorist groups,
primarily Hezbollah and Hamas. Hezbollah relies extensively on Islamic
money through the common Arab community practice of remitting funds
to relatives in the Middle East. In addition, with the complicity
of corrupt local officials, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia
(FARC) paid Brazilian and Paraguayan organized criminal groups to
obtain weapons and equipment in exchange for cocaine.
After 11 September 2001, the TBA attracted
so much attention from local law-enforcement groups, intelligence
agencies, and the international media that many regional experts
believe terrorists moved to less scrutinized locations in Latin
America. This is not to suggest, however, that Argentina, Brazil,
and Paraguay's counterterrorism efforts have eliminated terrorism
in the TBA.
Latin American Links to Global Terrorism
Terrorist groups seek target-rich environments
for financial support, safe haven, and recruitment. Six million
Muslims inhabit Latin American cities, which are ideal centers for
recruiting and hiding terrorists. Ungoverned areas, primarily in
the Amazon regions of Suriname, Guyana, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador,
Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil, present easily exploitable terrain over
which to move people and material. Over-populated Latin American
cities are home to many disenfranchised groups and marginalized
communities capable of supporting terrorist activities or fomenting
homegrown terrorism. The Free Trade Zones of Iquique, Chile; Maicao,
Colombia; and Colon, Panama, can generate undetected financial and
logistical support for terrorist groups. Colombia, Bolivia, and
Peru offer cocaine as a lucrative source of income. In addition,
Cuba and Venezuela have cooperative agreements with Syria, Libya,
Terrorist groups are flexible, patient, and
use globalization to achieve their objectives. Unless its leaders
cooperate with the U.S. National Strategy for Combating Terrorism,
Latin America will remain a lucrative target for terrorist funding,
recruiting, and safe haven.11
Counterterrorism and Regional Cooperation
The Organization of American States (OAS) fosters
international cooperation to counter terrorism. A 1998 Argentine
initiative created the Inter-American Committee to Combat Terrorism,
and shortly after 11 September 2001, the OAS created the Inter-
American Committee Against Terrorism to enhance hemispheric security
through improved regional cooperation. The committee established
financial intelligence units to collect, analyze, and disseminate
information on terrorist offenses and improved border control measures
to detect and prevent movement of terrorists and terrorist-related
materials.12 On 28 September 2001,
the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1373, requiring
states under international law to deny financing, support, and safe
harbor of terrorists.13
Regrettably, a huge gap often exists between
a government's good intentions and its ability or political will
to act. Most countries in Latin America support international counterterrorism
efforts in open fora, but do little to control their porous borders;
crack down on illegal arms shipments and illegal immigration; or
tighten weak financial controls. Full cooperation between and among
nations is quite minimal.
Several Latin American countries do not consider
the GWOT their war and do not actively participate in it. Preoccupied
with pressing social issues like poverty and unemployment, most
Latin American governments are reluctant to support what they perceive
as a politically unpopular cause. Only the Dominican Republic, El
Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua provided troops for Operation
Iraqi Freedom's international stabilization force. Some regional
political leaders even denounced preemptive U.S. military action
against suspected terrorist threats, although many high-ranking
military officers privately expressed their support of and willingness
to provide troops for Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.
Many Latin American governments do not have
the legal infrastructure to counter transnational threats or the
law-enforcement, intelligence, or military capabilities to assert
effective control over their territories. Economic interdependence
among TBA nations further complicates matters. For example, each
day, 30,000 people cross the International Friendship Bridge that
connects Brazil and Paraguay. Tight security measures and better
enforcement of the laws on contraband hurt commerce and anger tourists,
consumers, and business people.
Representatives from Mercosur (the Latin American
common market) have discussed ways to increase security and facilitate
the movement of people and commerce between member countries.14
In 2002, the Mercosur countries signed an agreement making it easier
for their citizens to travel and obtain resident visas. The agreement
also permits inspection-free transportation of commercial containers.
Such open borders make the region inviting for terrorists and make
an already difficult law-enforcement situation worse.
Regional Capabilities to Combat Terrorism
Latin America must use the economic, political,
intelligence-gathering, and military elements of national power
to cut off terrorism's life-blood-financing and state support. However,
most countries in the region cannot afford to control their borders,
deny terrorists safe haven in ungoverned territories, eliminate
money laundering, or restrict terrorists' abilities to operate.
Resource needs are great, fiscal challenges
severe, and available funding insufficient. Latin American militaries
and law-enforcement agencies are not suitably organized for or adequately
used to confront terrorist networks. The constitutions of many Latin
American countries prohibit using military forces for internal security.
Memories of the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s have
not been forgotten, and the people are afraid such dictatorships
might return if the military's role expands. Lawenforcement agencies
are not well funded and trained and are notoriously corrupt. Distrust
between the military and law-enforcement institutions impedes routine
U.S. policymakers have not attacked the conditions
that attract people to terrorism. The United States and its allies
can win spectacular military victories; freeze terrorists' bank
accounts and cut off their weapons supplies; and capture or kill
terrorist masterminds, but such triumphs are not enough to eliminate
an entire generation of brainwashed extremists who have a profound
hatred of the West and a determination to attack it.15
To get at the source of terrorism, the United States and its allies
must ensure their counterterrorism policies and strategies are balanced
and clearly articulated.
The National Strategy for Combating Terrorism
aims to identify and eliminate terrorist threats before they reach
U.S. borders. The document states, "The intent of this strategy
is to stop terrorist attacks against the United States, its citizens,
its interests, and its allies and, ultimately, to create an international
environment inhospitable to terrorists and those who support them."16
To accomplish these tasks, the United States and its allies must
• Defeat terrorists and their organizations
by using all elements of national power: diplomatic, economic, information,
law enforcement, military, and intelligence.
• Deny terrorists the sponsorship,
support, and sanctuary that enable them to exist, gain strength,
train, plan, and execute their attacks, and cut off their access
to territory, funds, equipment, training, technology, and unimpeded
• Reduce the underlying conditions that
terrorists seek to exploit, such as poverty, deprivation, social
disenfranchisement, and unresolved political and regional disputes.
• Defend U.S. sovereignty, territory,
and national interests at home and abroad.17
U.S. counterterrorism strategy toward Latin
America has essentially adopted the rollback approach the Reagan
Administration used against leftists and communists. The strategy
does not adequately address the underlying conditions that terrorists
exploit. This preemptive, zero-tolerance strategy calls on regional
leaders to adopt U.S. security interests as their own.18
From a military perspective, the most important
responsibility is executing the GWOT Strategic Campaign Plan. Through
combatant commanders' theater security cooperation plans, military-to-military
contacts foster bilateral and multilateral cooperation to promote
U.S. security interests.
The United States has worked with Colombia
to protect the latter's strategically important oil fields from
FARC sabotage, but the U.S has no long-term plans to work with Latin
American militaries. By and large, the United States does not consider
Latin American militaries to be key players on the world scene,
although some participated in the Persian Gulf war, United Nations
peacekeeping operations, and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Although the
DOS has concluded that Latin America has suffered nearly 40 percent
of all terrorist attacks in the Western Hemisphere, Latin America
(except for Colombia) remains a low priority in the U.S. counterterrorism
The world is confronting a new brand of terrorism
based on religious-sectarian-nationalist convictions. 19
While terrorist movements have had hundreds or even thousands of
members in the past, these new terrorist groups have only a few
The new terrorism is more radical, irrational,
and difficult to detect. Clear dividing lines once separated terrorists
from guerrillas or criminals and homegrown terrorists from state-sponsored
terrorists, but these lines have become blurred.20
Terrorist groups like al- Qaeda now likely have access to weapons
of mass destruction and use extreme methods, as observed during
attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Economically marginalized and disenfranchised
groups are made-to-order for terrorists to exploit. The piqueteros
(picketers) in Argentina, cocaleros (cocaine dealers) in Bolivia,
Movimento Sem Terra (Movement of Those Without Land) in Brazil,
and the Pachakutik indigenous peoples in Ecuador, the Bolivarian
Circles in Venezuela, and peasants' groups in Paraguay are ethnically
and economically op- pressed groups whose destabilizing power is
growing, whose leaders are gaining political prominence, and who
could be susceptible to terrorism's appeals.
The TBA's exact role in attracting terrorist
groups is not entirely clear, but Ciudad del Este's Arab and Muslim
community has raised funds through money laundering, illicit drug
and weapons trafficking, smuggling, and piracy, with some of the
funds reportedly going to Hezbollah and Hamas to support terrorist
acts against Israel. The FARC also reportedly maintains a fundraising
presence in the TBA. This extensive terrorist financial network
also stretches to Margarita Island, Panama, and the Caribbean.
The TBA's dangerous combination of vast ungoverned
areas, poverty, illicit activity, disenfranchised groups, ill-equipped
law-enforcement agencies and militaries, and fragile democracies
is an open invitation to terrorists and their supporters. Undeterred
criminal activity, economic inequality, and the rise of disenfranchised
groups with the potential to collaborate with terrorists present
a daunting challenge.
Terrorism today is transnational and decentralized.
International support of a multidimensional counterterrorism strategy
is necessary to defeat it. Colombia's less-than-successful counternarcotics
strategy demonstrates that unilateral action does not necessarily
eradicate or eliminate drug trafficking. The same is true of terrorism.
Unilateral action in Afghanistan has not eliminated the global terrorist
threat. Without multilateral, cooperative deterrence, terrorist
organizations will simply migrate across porous borders to less
scrutinized areas. As long as terrorism does not directly affect
them, nations in the TBA will place economic considerations ahead
of security concerns, seek economic prosperity, and remain reluctant
to tighten border controls or place new restrictions on commerce
The potential for terrorism in the TBA and
elsewhere in Latin America is clearly no myth. The TBA and several
other tri-border areas in Latin America will emerge as ideal breeding
grounds for terrorists and those groups that support them, unless
countries in the region make changes in their judicial systems,
improve their law-enforcement and military capabilities, take effective
anticorruption measures, and cooperate with each other. The potential
for Middle East terrorists to operate in the TBA and elsewhere in
Latin America warrants closer scrutiny.
The United States can only win the GWOT if
it has regional partners ready and willing to take preemptive action
and not just wait for the United States to act. Closing down charities
that fund terrorism, rounding up suspected terrorists, and denouncing
terrorism is in the regional partners' selfinterest. 21
Only effective diplomacy can bring this to pass. According to Ambassador
J. Cofer Black, DOS Coordinator for Counterterrorism, "[Diplomacy]
is the instrument of power that builds political will and strengthens
international cooperation. Through diplomatic exchanges, we promote
counterterrorism cooperation with friendly nations, enhance the
capabilities of our allies, take the war to the terrorists, and
ultimately cut off the resources they depend on to survive."22
1. John Price, "International
Terrorism in Latin America, a Broad and Costly Security Risk,"
InfoAmericas, October 2001, on-line at <http://tendencias.infoamericas.com/
article_archive/ 2001/1001/1001_regional_trends.htm>, accessed
2 August 2004.
2. Rex Hudson, Terrorist and Organized Crime
Groups in the Tri-Border Area (TBA) of South America, Federal Research
Division, The Library of Congress (Washington, DC: Government Printing
Office [GPO], July 2003), 53.
3. Anthony Faiola, "U.S. Terrorist Search
Reaches Paraguay: Black Market Border Hub Called Key Finance Center
for Middle East Extremists," Washington Post, 13 October 2001,
4. Mario Daniel Montoya, "Israel Takes
Special Interest in Triple Border Area," Jane's Intelligence
Review 13, December 2001, 13-14.
5. Mike Boettcher, "South America's
Tri-Border Back on Terrorism Radar," CNN, 8 November 2002,
on-line at <www.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/americas/11/07/terror. triborder/>,
accessed 2 August 2004.
7. Chris Moss, "Latin America's First
Mega-Mosque Opens Eyes to Islam," on-line at <http://hispanicmuslims.com/articles/other/openseyes.html>,
accessed 16 August 2004.
8. Horacio Verbitsky, Pagina 12, Buenos Aires,
Argentina, 26 January 2003, 124, Internet version. (No other publishing
9. J. Cofer Black, Department of State Coordinator
for Counterterrorism, Testimony to the Committee on International
Relations, Subcommittee on International Terrorism, Nonproliferation,
and Human Rights, U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, D.C.,
26 March 2003, on-line at <wwwc.house.gov/international_relations/108/blac0326.htm>,
accessed 16 August 2004.
10. Martin Arostegui, "Chavez Plans
for Terrorist Regime," Insight, 24 December 2002, on-line at
accessed 2 August 2004.
11. The White House, National Strategy
for Combating Terrorism, February 2003, online at <www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/02/counter_terrorism/counter_
terrorism_strategy.pdf>, accessed 2 August 2004.
12. Department of State (DOS), Office of
the Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism, "Latin American Overview,"
Patterns of Global Terrorism 2000 (Washington, DC: GPO, 2001).
13. DOS, Fact Sheet on Inter-American Convention
Against Terrorism, Washington, D.C., 31 May 2002, on-line at <http://usinfo.state.gov/is/Archive_Index/Inter-Ameri
can_Convention.html>, accessed 2 August 2004.
14. Mercosur, the Common Market of South
America, has four permanent members (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay,
and Uruguay) and three associate members (Bolivia, Chile, and Peru).
15. Dore Gold, Hatred's Kingdom: How Saudi
Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism (Washington, DC: Regnery
Publishing, 2003), 184.
16. National Strategy for Combating Terrorism.
18. Charles Knight, "Essential Elements
Missing in the National Security Strategy of 2002," Commonwealth
Institute, Project on Defense Alternatives Commentary, Cambridge,
MA, November 2002, on-line at <www.comw.org/qdr/0210knight.html>,
accessed 16 August 2004.
20. Walter Laqueur, The New Terrorism:
Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction (London: Oxford University
Press, 2000), 251.
21. Thomas Friedman, Longitudes and Attitudes:
The World in the Age of Terrorism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf), 236.
22. Merle D. Kellerhals, Jr., "Foreign
Terrorist List Vital in Global War on Terrorism," DOS, 5 January
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