Public hearings on security lapses surrounding the devastating September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States have focused attention on U.S. security policies in place prior to the attacks. As those hearings continue, others in Washington are worrying about potential future lapses in security at U.S. ports and along the U.S. southern border.
During a hearing last week of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg said U.S. seaports are among the more vulnerable targets for terrorism. "When you look at it, if a terrorist organization is looking for a point of relatively easy penetration, just think about it: 55,000 ports of call are made each year," he says. "And where do these ships come from ? They come from places that we know are not really necessarily friendly to the United States and are usually fairly quickly accessible to those who would like to do us damage."
Inspectors search few of the approximately nine million sea containers that enter U.S. ports each year and an attack could have enormous repercussions on international commerce. Smugglers have long trafficked drugs and illicit goods through U.S. ports, and there are now fears that they may be cooperating with terrorists.
Steven Monblatt is Secretary of the Inter-American Committee Against Terrorism - a branch of the Organization of American States that coordinates security policies among countries in the western hemisphere. He says the signs of increasing cooperation between various smuggling and criminal groups in Latin America means fighting those groups has become more complex, but not necessarily more dangerous.
"I think one of the differences between drug dealers and terrorists is that drug dealers don't really want to take over a government. They want to be able to influence the government so that they can pursue their businesses and maybe get some protection from the government, but they don't actually want to be the government," says Mr. Monblatt. "Terrorists want to actually be the government. They want all of those responsibilities - they want to actually take over. So it's a different order of complexity, not necessarily a different order of danger for the U.S., but a different order of complexity that you're dealing with."
Analysts say the U.S. foreign policy in Latin America has not significantly changed since the attacks in 2001. Aside from strengthening border controls and tightening immigration procedures, U.S. officials have not regarded Latin America as a potential harbor for Islamic terrorists.
"Latin America is really sort of a tertiary theater in the war on terrorism," says Michael Desch, a foreign policy analyst at the University of Kentucky. "Aside from Canada and Mexico which would be good places - or would have been good places for terrorists to sneak into the United States, the rest of the region is not really that receptive to al Qaida or other Islamic groups."
Despite the apparent lack of support in much of Latin America for Islamic terrorism, the region's porous borders, government corruption and established criminal groups may now be grabbing the attention of officials in Washington.
Adam Isaacson is program director at the Center for International Policy, a research organization that promotes demilitarization and cooperation in U.S. foreign policy. "The folks in the Pentagon do talk about a new doctrine. They haven't put a lot of money or political capital behind this doctrine yet, but they're talking about ungoverned areas in Latin America as a new threat to U.S. security," he says. "Meaning places like the tri-border region, places like the Amazon basin jungles, southern Colombia, places where the government of these countries have not exercised their sovereignty and so U.S. assistance and diplomatic pressure have to be put to create some sort of authority over these areas."
The Tri-border region in South America has been the highest profile area where officials worry about a developing nexus between terrorists and local criminals. Located where the borders of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina converge and populated by large groups of Arabs and Muslims, it has been recognized by U.S. officials as a fundraising center for the Islamic terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas.
Analysts say that similar to President Bush's recent call for promoting democracy in the Middle East, encouraging deeper structural reforms in Latin American governments and economies will ultimately erode the conditions that make areas attractive to terrorists.
However Latin America has been the focus of ambitious U.S. aid plans in the past. During the 1960's when the United States feared growing Soviet influence in the region, President Kennedy created the Alliance for Progress to generate wealth among the poor and reform political structures. At the time it was the biggest U.S. foreign aid program of its kind, but after eight years and billions of dollars, it was largely abandoned because of uneven success.
"One might study the alliance for progress as a means of gauging whether our more ambitious political and economic reform efforts in Iraq and the Middle East in general have any chance of succeeding," says Mr. Desch. "And I think if you made the comparison you would come away somewhat pessimistic."
U.S. funding for aid and development programs in Latin America remains relatively flat in the short term. But with increased scrutiny on potential terrorist threats to the United States, analysts say it is only a matter of time before U.S. officials focus more attention on the ungoverned regions of America's closest neighbors.