The Terrorism Stigma
By Dialogo January 01, 2011I know a lot of people on the triple border and most of them are Lebanese and Arabs from a variety of regions. I dare state with absolute certainty that they are not there to finance terrorism in any way. They, like us, have the opportunity to build a better life in any part of the world.
The second-floor balcony of the Acaray Casino in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay,
has an impressive view of the Parana River, rich with vegetation on both the
Brazilian and Paraguayan sides. While its slow-moving waters ripple below, the
Friendship Bridge is packed with the people, motorcycles, cars, taxis and trucks
that represent the trade between the two economies. In this city of dichotomies,
below the bridge lies another economy, hidden from view. There, and all along the
shared border, are clandestine ports for the trafficking of goods, drugs and arms in
a criminal network that makes this seemingly peaceful city one of the region’s most
Caught between the visible and the invisible in the Tri-Border region is also
the murky threat of terrorism and terror financing. The U.S. has targeted people in
the region for financing a terrorist organization, and suspects in two Buenos Aires
bombings in the 1990s are believed to have traveled from the area.
The hotel, like much of the city and its neighbors in Brazil and Argentina,
accepts five currencies: guarani, pesos, reais, dollars and euros. Its staff speaks
at least as many languages. A few blocks from the leafy environs of the hotel and
nearby parks is the city’s heart, seven blocks of honking horns, exhaust fumes and
bargaining below plastic tarps and tables set up snugly along the streets. As
drivers wait to cross the bridge, street vendors walk car to car in hopes of
peddling everything from questionably branded cigarettes to potato chips as visitors
leave Paraguay’s second-largest city.
The faces of Ciudad del Este reflect Guarani Indian, Paraguayan, Brazilian,
Braziguayo (the name for thousands of Brazilians living in Paraguay), Taiwanese,
Argentine, Chilean, Peruvian, Bolivian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Iranian heritage.
Since the city’s early days, Syrian and Lebanese immigrants have also called the
region home and have become some of its leading traders. Today, some 75 percent of
the 3,400 businesses in the city center are owned and operated by citizens of
Lebanese origin, according to 2010 Chamber of Commerce figures.
The Tri-Border region is young compared with other border cities, but it has
gained an unwanted international reputation. Ciudad del Este was founded in 1957,
and the Friendship Bridge was constructed in 1965, creating a boon for international
trade across the borders. In the rapid development and immigration of subsequent
decades, the region has become known for crime and porous borders. Daily news
stories chronicle the trafficking of drugs, contraband, arms and people. Persistent
rumors and claims in the international press about the existence of terrorist cells,
training camps and terrorism financing are also prevalent, but many in the region
say the reports lack proof.
Myths and Truths
Across the Friendship Bridge on the Brazilian side, multiculturalism is a
point of pride for inhabitants. In late 2010, holiday street signs greeted those
arriving in more than a dozen languages from Arabic and Chinese to Hindi and Korean.
In the south of the city, along Rua Meca, the Islamic cultural center welcomes
thousands of Muslims. On November 27, 2010, more than 100 visiting journalists
attending the first International Meeting of Tri-Border Journalists met with
religious leader Imam Mohsen El Hassani, who answered questions about terrorism and
terrorism financing and defended his community from accusations of sponsoring
Outside the white mosque, against a piercing blue sky in the Jardim Central
part of the city, Ali Farhat described the anger that prompted him to team up with
Brazilian researcher Fernanda Regina da Cunha Giulian to write the book Terrorismo
por Encomenda (Custom-Made Terrorism.) Farhat, who migrated to Brazil 12 years ago
from Lebanon to work in the import-export business, thought that the accusations
against members of his community were an injustice. In the book, Farhat analyzes
government documents and media reports pertaining to the Lebanese Brazilians accused
of terrorism and finds that government documents do not implicate those accused, but
the international press did.
“Everybody knows that there are no terrorist cells here,” he told Diálogo.
“Here, there is contraband, yes. There are drugs, yes. There is arms trafficking,
yes. But up to today, there is no proof of a single terrorist act. Not one act.”
Responding to the claim of terrorism financing, Farhat voiced a plea repeated
by many in the region who have family ties across the Arab world. “I want to send
money for my family, for example … to my mother, to my brother,” he said. “The press
does not understand this in this way.” Instead, he explained, news reports say the
region funnels money to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups.
Arthur Bernardes do Amaral, political scientist at the Catholic University in
Rio de Janiero and author of the book A Tríplice Fronteira e a Guerra ao Terror (The
Triple Frontier and the War on Terror), explained that the label of terrorist haven
was first given to the region in the 1990s, when it was discovered that some of the
suspects accused in two bombings in Buenos Aires had entered through the Tri-Border.
Since then, a stigma has been created that associated terrorism with the local
“There’s a problem of security here. … But the principal personage of this
stigmatization is the Arab and Muslim community. If there’s an Arab community and if
there are descendents of Arabs, there is terrorism. No!” he told a gathering of
journalists at the Dynamic University of the Waterfalls-Foz do Iguaçu.
Ricardo Arrúa, president of a journalism association in the border province
of Misiones, Argentina, spoke to more than 200 colleagues during a panel discussion
titled “Myths and Truths” at the opening of the conference.
He said the region is no paradise, but he disputed claims about terrorism
cells and training camps, calling on journalists to investigate rather than
reproduce international reports: “We have to explain right now what the region
Alert to the potential for terrorism
A tranquil park now graces the plot of land where the Israeli Embassy once
stood at Suipacha and Arroyo Streets in downtown Buenos Aires. The outline of the
embassy is still clear on the adjacent building nearly two decades after it was
destroyed by a car bomb. Two years later, in 1994, the Argentine Israelite Mutual
Association community center in Buenos Aires was also destroyed by a bomb. Together,
the bombings killed 114 and injured hundreds.
Damián Setton, an Argentine sociologist who wrote his thesis on the Orthodox
Jewish community in Buenos Aires, told Diálogo that the attacks remain unsolved.
Setton said this leaves a fear for some in Buenos Aires’ Jewish community that
attackers, who they believe originate in the Tri-Border, may strike again. He added
that “the memory of the attack is more alive” for Jews passing through heightened
security measures adopted in religious and cultural centers around the city since
Scott Stewart, a former U.S. State Department investigator who led a team of
State Department investigators to Buenos Aires after the embassy bombing, believes
Hezbollah is still conducting surveillance in the Tri-Border region. Stewart told
Diálogo that Hezbollah operatives come in under the guise of traders and
businessmen, opening Islamic centers and integrating into local
“They don’t come in wearing Hezbollah armbands and carrying AK-47s,” said
Stewart, now with the global intelligence firm Stratfor. “They employ people.”
Stewart explained in an e-mail that Hezbollah operatives and supporters own
businesses, and they are open about their allegiance to the terrorist organization.
“Visit the Tri-Border region and look around and you will quickly see the HZ
[Hezbollah] flag and photos of [Hezbollah leaders Hassan] Nasrallah, [Imad] Mugniyah
and [Muhammad Hussein] Fadlallah.”
In February 2011, Moussa Ali Hamdan, a Lebanese national suspected of
transferring money from the region to Hezbollah, was extradited to the U.S. to face
charges. In 2006, the U.S. Treasury Department similarly targeted nine individuals
and two businesses in the Tri-Border area as part of a Hezbollah financing network.
The individuals were accused of hosting fundraisers and acting as couriers of cash,
and the businesses were alleged to have paid a percentage of their profits to the
For local federal authorities in the Tri-Border area who have conducted
nearly a decade of investigation, often in close cooperation with U.S. intelligence,
there is not enough proof to label the region a terrorism haven. Instead, they
remain vigilant and share intelligence to target the many known threats in the
“Until now we have made it a priority; we have not discovered evidence of the
existence of terrorist activity,” Paraguayan anticorruption prosecuting attorney
Arnaldo Giuzzio told Diálogo. Giuzzio acknowledged that Paraguay has assisted the
United States in prosecuting certain Lebanese business owners for illegal financing,
but not for terrorism.
Rudi Rigo Burkle, coordinator of the Special Action Group for Combating
Organized Crime, a state agency with an office in Foz do Iguaçu, also spoke to
Diálogo about the search for proof of terrorism and terrorism financing in the
“The information systems of Brazil and other countries, like the United
States, are constantly looking for information about terrorism in the Tri-Border,
always looking to gather facts about acts that may have the characteristics of
terrorism or of support for this activity,” he said.
In the seven years since his office began operating in Foz do Iguaçu, Rigo
Burkle said, its analysts have not detected activities of terrorist groups in the
region. However, he acknowledged that many immigrants have ties to the Middle East.
“A good portion of these foreigners send remittances to these regions,” he
said. “However, that in itself is not enough to affirm that those resources are or
may be used by terrorist groups.”
The Tri-Border region of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina is one of dozens of
border areas in South America and one of nine tri-borders along Brazil alone, yet it
remains the only tri-border referred to in capital letters in the Latin American
press. Countries of the Tri- Border share intelligence to counter the crimes that
plague the border cities. Meanwhile, they also work hard to promote tourism to the
nearby Iguazu Falls and the tax-free shops in the border countries.
“Tell me one country on this continent, at least in South America, that has
its border completely controlled and that is sure that bin Laden in makeup cannot
pass,” Liz Cramer, tourism minister of Paraguay, told a group of journalists. “Then,
what happens to the voice of truth when this truth is not exactly what sells?”
Bernardes do Amaral, the Brazilian political scientist, told journalists that
international cooperation could benefit the security of the Tri-Border and should be
“The fact that there is no proof up until now does not mean that there will
not be in the future,” he said of accusations of terrorism. “Clearly, the search
must continue and, yes, try to discover if someone crosses the Tri-Border; we have
to announce it to the world even if the consequences are not the best.”