The large Arab community in the border area of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina is the focus of tighter surveillance following the September 11 attacks in the United States. So far, no concrete evidence has emerged linking any of the residents to the attacks in the United States. VOA correspondent Bill Rodgers visited the Paraguayan border city of Ciudad del Este where many Arab immigrants work and has this first of two reports.
Its streets are choked with traffic and its sidewalks lined with stores and stalls selling everything from Rolex watches to Nike sneakers: all of them name-brand, and virtually all of them cheap, pirated copies. Ciudad del Este, a bustling town on the Parana river across the Brazilian border, is a smuggler's haven where controls are lax or non-existent.
It is here that Paraguayans, Brazilians and immigrants from the Middle East and Asia make their living, buying and selling goods ranging from high-priced electronics to cheap, plastic toys. Some engage in more nefarious activities: drugs and arms trafficking, smuggling stolen cars and falsifying documents. As one retired police agent put it, everything in Ciudad del Este is for sale and almost everything is contraband.
Paraguayan, Brazilian and Argentine authorities are now trying to reassert control over their common border area, and have stepped up their vigilance on those who travel back and forth across the triple frontier. In the wake of the September 11 attacks on the United States, they are especially focusing on Arab immigrants.
Paraguayan Interior Minister Julio Cesar Fanego says, while no evidence has yet come to light of any links between the Arab community and terrorism, suspicions exist.
He says the suspicions stem from the 1994 bombing in Argentina of the Argentine-Israeli Community Center, which killed more than 80 people. He said the bombers might have received support or shelter from Arab immigrants in the tri-border area. The interior minister went on to add that since September 11, Paraguayan authorities have carried out house-by-house sweeps in Ciudad del Este and other towns, questioning people and checking their identity documents.
Late last month, Paraguayan police detained at least 17 Arab immigrants for having false identity documents, or no documents at all. The ease with which people obtain false documents worries the U.S. ambassador in Paraguay, David Greenlee.
"We've been concerned for a very long time about the informality of documentation in this area," the ambassador explained. "Documents that are obtained fraudulently or documents that are forged or false can be used as a basis for many kinds of transactions, including they can be used to try to seek visas for entry into the United States."
In its annual report on World Terrorism, the U.S. State Department earlier this year described the tri-border area as a "focal point" for Islamic extremism in Latin America. U.S. officials say some members of the Arab community may be providing financial support to groups such as Hezbollah.
But at the green and brown Mosque in downtown Ciudad del Este where devout Muslims come and pray each day, worshippers reject these allegations.
The Mosque's spiritual leader, Lebanese-born Sheik Monir Fadel, says the immigrant community is made up of hard working people who have nothing to do with terrorists.
He says, our people have been here for generations, so it would be impossible for a terrorist to infiltrate this hard working community and plan destructive acts, and that no one would know about it. So extremists do not exist here, he says.
This view prevails among the Arab shopkeepers and businessmen in Ciudad del Este, most of whom return to their homes each night across the border in the Brazilian city of Foz de Iguacu.
Yet there is some evidence that terrorists or their supporters have managed to live in the Arab community undetected. Last year, Paraguayan authorities arrested a Lebanese businessman, Ali Khali Mehri, who is believed to have financial links to the extremist group, Hezbollah. He later fled the country after a flawed judicial procedure led to his release. An Egyptian now being held in Uruguay and wanted in Egypt for his alleged involvement in the 1997 massacre of foreign tourists in Luxor was detained in 1999 for carrying a false passport. For a time, he lived in the Arab immigrant community in the tri-border area.
Prompted by the United States in the wake of the September 11 attacks, these incidents are likely to spur authorities of the three nations to continue their vigilance of the tri-border area, and maintain tighter controls over the comings and goings in Ciudad del Este.