Situated between Argentina and Brazil, the sprawling Iguazu waterfalls are among the most popular tourist destinations in South America, with nearly 2 million visitors flocking annually to witness their extravagant beauty. In recent years, however, the area surrounding the falls has also attracted a far less savory element. In the shadow of the Iguazu lies the “tri-border” region, a lawless zone which has become a magnet for Islamic terrorists.
Located where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet, the area is home to roughly 20,000 Middle Eastern immigrants—mostly from Lebanon and Syria—and has long been a hotbed for terrorist fundraising, arms and drug trafficking, counterfeiting and money laundering. By moving freely through the region’s porous borders, operatives from the terrorist organizations Hizbollah, Hamas, and according to some reports, al-Qaeda, are able to conduct arms-for-drugs deals with secular Latin American terrorist groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Peru’s Sendero Luminosos (Shining Path). All told, U.S. officials believe that between $10 and $12 billion is funneled through the tri-border region each year, with Hizbollah among the prime beneficiaries.
Paraguayan Interior Minister Julio Cesar Fanego has said the group received between $50 and $500 million from the area from 1999 to 2001 alone. Although Hizbollah seeks to create Iranian-style Islamic “republics”—which punish narcotics offenses with flogging, imprisonment and in some cases, death—a large chunk of its tri-border funds are earned in the drug trade. Intelligence officials believe that Hizbollah’s drug profits help pay for “social welfare” programs that have enabled the group to gain popular support in its home base of Lebanon.
Paraguayan authorities have identified Assad Mohammed Barakat as the mastermind behind much of Hizbollah’s tri-border activities. Barakat—who reportedly sent some $50 million to Hizbollah in Lebanon from the region from 1995 up until his arrest by Brazilian police in 2002—allegedly ran an extensive counterfeiting and money laundering operation in the area. He was recently extradited from Brazil to Paraguay to face tax evasion charges.
Other noteworthy Hizbollah militants apprehended in the tri-border region include Ali Khalil Mehri, who allegedly set up a software pirating scheme in the area which enabled him to funnel millions of dollars to Hizbollah in Lebanon; and Sobhi Fayad, an associate of Barakat currently serving a six-and-a-half year prison sentence in Paraguay for tax evasion and criminal association.
There have also been reports that Imad Mugniyah, head of Hizbollah’s security apparatus, has guided some of the group’s activities in the area from his base in the Middle East. Muginyah is the suspected mastermind behind several infamous terrorist attacks, including the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut and the 1992 car bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Argentina.
In order to establish a greater counter-terrorism dialogue, in 2002, the U.S., along with Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, launched the “3 + 1 Group on Tri-Border Area Security.” The participating countries have met three times—most recently in Asuncion, Paraguay, in December 2003—and the U.S. has contributed $1 million to build on the initiative. But results thus far have been mixed.
Both Argentina and Paraguay have hesitated to enact new counter-terrorism laws, due in part to fear of hostile public reaction. Argentina has a history of abuses by military regimes, and in Paraguay—whose Congress has rejected legislation that would establish criminal penalties for activities related to terrorism—some believe that counter-terrorism laws could be manipulated by a corrupt government.
Another potential stumbling block to the U.S.’s tri-border initiative is Brazilian President Lula da Silva. In 1990, da Silva—a Marxist—co-founded the Forum of Sao Paulo, an annual gathering place for anti-American political movements from across the globe. Da Silva also voiced vociferous opposition to the recent U.S. war in Iraq and has established warm relations with Syria, which is listed by the U.S. as a state sponsor of terrorism.
But da Silva’s reticence may be the least of the U.S.’s worries when it comes to the tri-border region. While the State Department has denied on numerous occasions that Al-Qaeda maintains a presence in the area, the Department’s counter-terrorism coordinator, J. Cofer Black, acknowledged in January that during the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, literature on the tri-border region had been found in caves used by Al-Qaeda fighters. The CIA believes that Al-Qaeda does indeed operate in the region, “mostly by laundering money and conducting arms-for-drugs deals with Latin American terrorist organizations,” according to author Rachel Ehrenfeld’s 2003 book, “Funding Evil.” And both Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—Al-Qaeda’s former third in command and the suspected mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks—are said to have spent time in the region during the 1990s. The likely presence of Al-Qaeda only strengthens U.S. Undersecretary for Border & Transportation Security Asa Hutchinson’s assertion that the area is “a haven for Islamic extremists.”
For the U.S., ignoring the tri-border region—and the implications of having a terrorist sanctuary permeating within the Western Hemisphere—is the equivalent of jumping the Iguazu Falls in a barrel. In short, a risk not worth taking.
Erick Stakelbeck is head writer for the Investigative Project, a Washington, D.C.-based counter-terrorism research institute.