Authorities in Paraguay have increased surveillance of the country's Arab immigrants. And there have been charges that police are extorting large sums of money from some merchants in return for not detaining them. Paraguay's increased vigilance over its Arab community has come in response to the September 11 attacks in the United States.
Syrian-born shopkeeper Mates Vihatib says many Arabs in Ciudad del Este, the city on Paraguay's border with Brazil where many Arab immigrants have their businesses, like elsewhere in the world, feel they are under pressure because of what happened in the United States on September 11. But he says in his case he has not been approached by police demanding money. "For my part," he says, "no one has come to ask anything of me, to blackmail me, or anything. I am very far removed from that."
But other merchants, speaking privately, say they have heard of cases of extortion. The head of the Arab-Paraguayan Chamber of Commerce, Armando Khalil Chams, fled Ciudad del Este last week after accusing police anti-terrorist agents of demanding large payoffs in return for not detaining him.
In the wake of the attacks in the United States, Paraguayan police have stepped up their surveillance of the Arab community. About 25,000 Arab immigrants live and work in the tri-border area of Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina. A U.S. State Department report on world terrorism earlier this year described the triple border region as, in its words, a focal point for Islamic extremism in Latin America.
Late last month, Paraguayan anti-terrorist agents detained more than a dozen Arab immigrants who were carrying false identity papers. However, until now, no one has been charged with having direct links to those who carried out the September 11 attacks.
The publisher of Ciudad del Este's Vanguardia newspaper, Hector Guerin, says flatly there are no terrorists among the Arab community. "I've lived and worked here for the past 18 years, and I have never come across any evidence of terrorism," he said. "I will retire, he said, if I find a terrorist. Instead, he says his newspaper has found evidence that police have been extorting money from Arab businessmen, going around the city with a list of names and demanding sums ranging from $5 to $20,000.
The U.S. ambassador to Paraguay, David Greenlee, says he has seen the blackmail accusations, but has no evidence to know whether they are true are not. However, if true, Mr. Greenlee says the United States would be concerned. "If that were the case that would be of great concern because the effort to gain control of the situation in Ciudad del Este should not be in any way associated with shakedowns and things of that nature," he said. "The important thing is that Paraguayan law be implemented and if people are illegally documented or falsely documented, they should be brought to book and the people who provided the documentation should also be brought to book, but shakedowns would certainly be something that would be of great concern to us and we certainly wouldn't support it."
Paraguayan Interior Minister Julio Cesar Fanego says he is aware of the reports. He tells VOA if these accusations of blackmail are true, his ministry will prosecute those responsible. "We do not condone this, he says, nor does the police receive orders from their superiors to do this kind of thing," he said. "If we find these accusations are true, he says, those guilty will be processed, put on trial, and dismissed from the force. However, Mr. Fanego added that if this practice has been going on for some time, the blackmail victims should have filed a complaint long ago."
Late last week, the head of Paraguay's anti-terrorist unit, Joaquin Pereira, was removed from his post pending an investigation into the extortion accusations. Mr. Pereira has strongly denied the accusations.