The triple frontier area of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, which is home to many Arab immigrants, remains under scrutiny as a possible center for Middle East terrorist activities. But unlike its neighbors and the United States, Brazil remains dubious, saying there is no concrete evidence of any terrorist links in the region.
Thousands of Arab immigrants staged a demonstration this past Sunday in the southern Brazilian city of Foz do Iguacu to protest recent characterizations of the triple frontier region as a haven for terrorists. Organized by Muslim religious leaders, the demonstration also was sponsored by Catholic, Jewish and other religious organizations.
Protest leaders said the main aim of the demonstration was to show support for those who have been persecuted, simply because of their ethnic origin and religious beliefs.
The region, which is home to an estimated 25,000 people of Arab origin, has been the focus of intense scrutiny by authorities ever since the September 11 attacks in the United States. The border area, and especially the Paraguayan city of Ciudad del Este, has long been a center for contraband, drug trafficking and other illegal activities. The suspicion is that members of Middle East terrorist groups are also present, taking advantage of the lawless environment to pursue their activities.
But so far, Brazil has yet to see concrete evidence backing up these suspicions. National Security chief Alberto Cardoso said recently there are no indications of terrorist activities in the triple frontier region.
But University of Brasilia political scientist David Fleischer says while the evidence may not yet concrete, there are persistent reports that some links exist.
"The problem is that there is evidence, according to Brazilian newspapers, that there is some sort of a connection between these groups on the triple frontier and contraband and drug trafficking as well. Of course, these activities are very lucrative and if you want to make quick profits to send contributions to the cause of al-Qaida, Hezbollah or whatever, these types of activities are very lucrative. The Brazilian press is full of information that has been leaked out of Argentine intelligence, Paraguayan intelligence, Mossad, CIA and FBI," he said. Paraguayan police have been actively pursuing suspected terrorist links. About 20 Arab immigrants have been arrested since September 11, and held on charges of possessing illegal identity documents.
Paraguayan authorities also are seeking the arrest of others who are believed to have raised funds for extremist groups. One of them, Lebanese businessman Assad Kahlil Barakat, lives in Foz de Iguacu and runs a business across the Paraguayan border in Ciudad del Este.
Mr. Barakat denies he is a Hezbollah fundraiser, telling a Brazilian newspaper he simply sent $400 to an orphange run by the extremist group.
Paraguay has asked Interpol to issue a preventive detention order against him. So far, Brazil has not responded.
Professor Fleischer says Brazil appears to be reluctant to get involved for several reasons, but mainly because it does not believe there is enough evidence of terrorist activities in the region.
"Brazil is somewhat hesitant about getting so much involved in this. The Paraguayan intelligence and police are much more involved and have made arrests and have issued arrest warrants to the Brazilian police asking them to arrest people who have judicial warrants on them in Paraguay. But Brazil, for the time being, its position is that this doesn't exist. ... One of the problems is that the Arab-descent communities in this region have been screaming and yelling about discrimination and the Cardoso government is very sensitive about any accusations of discrimination, be they racial discrimination or ethnic discrimination," he said.
President Fernando Henrique Cardoso touched on this point in an interview earlier this month by TV Globo. Mr. Cardoso said since September 11 we've been concerned with this problem in a more active way, but we cannot use this as a pretext to forget about rights such as civil liberties, democracy and civil defense.
However, the United States considers the tri-border area as a "focal point" for Islamic extremism in South America. U.S. officials say there is evidence that some members of the Arab community are providing financial support to groups like Hezbollah. Warnings about these alleged activities have come recently from U.S. diplomats in Paraguay and Brazil.
This has prompted complaints from Brazilian officials. Apparently indirectly referring to the United States, National Security Chief Cardoso said there are pressures to impose an anti-terrror war in Brazil based on evidence of activities that do not exist. He went on to reject calls to crack down on Islamic groups in Brazil.
The issue was not raised during last Thursday's meeting in Washington between President Bush and the Brazilian leader. However, speaking to reporters later, President Cardoso reaffirmed his government's position that, as he put it, there is "no new fact that should give rise to any nervousness about the tri-border region." If something should arise, Mr. Cardoso added, Brazil will act decisively.