To the Editor:
In "The Protean Enemy" (July/August 2003), Jessica Stern bases her statements about the presence of terrorists in the triborder area (the region where Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina meet) on faulty assumptions and incorrect information.
According to Stern, Hezbollah has a base in the region and has used Paraguay as a staging ground for coordinating meetings with al Qaeda. The author goes on to describe the triborder region as "a place where terrorists with widely disparate ideologies ... meet to swap tradecraft."
Yet no concrete evidence has been produced to prove the presence of terrorist organizations (or even the existence of fund-raising activities) in the area. This has recently been confirmed (and publicly recognized) by the executive secretary of the Inter-American Committee Against Terrorism (CICTE), who visited the region last August, and by the U.S. ambassador to Brazil, Donna Hrinak. The commander of the U.S. Southern Command, General James Hill, has also admitted as much in contacts with the Brazilian government.
Stern implies that the triborder area is a lawless region where terrorists can find safe havens and raise money with little or no chance of being caught. This is an unfair accusation. The region has been the target of an ongoing surveillance effort that dates back more than a decade and pools the resources of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina. Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, this effort has even been strengthened by the creation of the Mercosul Working Group on Terrorism and the "3+1 mechanism," which combines intelligence-gathering capabilities and promotes information sharing among the three triborder countries and the United States.
The Brazilian government is committed to fighting terrorism anywhere in our country. We have never failed to investigate any serious accusation or credible lead regarding the presence of terrorists. We cannot fail, therefore, to respond to Jessica Stern's groundless assertions, which perpetuate a damaging stereotype that in no way does justice to Brazil's struggle against terrorism, nor to the thousands of Brazilians, Paraguayans, and Argentines who live and work in the triborder area.
Brazilian Ambassador to the United States
Jessica Stern responds:
I regret giving the impression that I doubt Brazil's sincerity in its commitment to the war on terrorism. On the contrary, Brazil's involvement in the 3+1 effort is an extremely important contribution.
I cannot accept, however, the assertion that I had no basis for my claim that terrorists are operating in the triborder area. Although my sources requested anonymity, there has been a great deal of discussion of the problems in the area by Brazilian, Argentine, Paraguayan, and U.S. officials, in the international press -- including the Brazilian press -- and elsewhere. Indeed, the admission that the area has been "the target of an ongoing [multilateral] surveillance effort that dates back more than a decade" supports my point. Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina have been cooperating in their efforts to surveil the region because of its long-standing status as a hub of criminal activities, especially counterfeiting and smuggling.
There is a vast literature assessing the criminal activity in the triborder area. Because of space constraints, I can mention only a few examples. The Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, for example, issued a report in July 2003, "Terrorist and Organized Crime Groups in the Triborder Area of South America." The report includes more than 300 citations, many of them to accounts originating from Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. The report characterizes the triborder area as "a haven for fund raising, recruiting, plotting terrorist attacks, and other such activities," noting the nexus between terrorist groups and organized criminal groups.
In an interview published in The New York Times on October 10, 2003, the U.S. Treasury general counsel to Brazil referred to a "rich marriage of drugs and terror" in the triborder region. In a testimony before Congress in December 2001, moreover, Larry Johnson, a former CIA official, referred to "networks of people affiliated with radical groups such as Hezbollah, some Hamas ties, and people with sympathies toward al Qaeda." Brazilian officials are also frequently cited as referring to the presence of many terrorist groups in the region, including Hamas, Hezbollah, and al Qaeda.
I accept the assertion that the 3+1 effort is playing an important role. The reality is, however, that international organized criminals and terrorists thrive in large cities and lawless regions. The proper response should be more cooperation to assure our mutual safety.