Terrorism Groups:Latin Connections.
Walter Fanganiello Maierovitch is President of the Giovanni Falcone Institute of Criminal Sciences, the former National Anti-drugs Secretary, and a retired São Paulo State Criminal Courts Judge. A visiting professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., he has also taught at the São Paulo Lawyers' Institute and the Mackenzie University Law School in São Paulo. An avid researcher and frequent speaker on organized crime, he has published more than one hundred articles on Mafia activities in Brazil, drug trafficking, gambling and money laundering. He is a columnist for the weekly newsmagazine CartaCapital, and a regular contributor for the O Estado de S. Paulo and Jornal do Brasil dailies.
To most Brazilians, terrorism has always been a distant matter, a problem for other nations to deal with. Nations victimized by acts perpetrated by intolerant religious groups, Mafia-style organized crime, or political extremists.
In Brazil, the term "terror" has been used in the past to denigrate people or groups that offered resistance to the military regime that ruled from 1964 to 1985. In that period, once the military dictatorship settled into power, the Brazilian Constitution entered its patchwork quilt period, as essentially unlawful amendments became the norm – these were introduced through so called "institutional acts" that amounted to little more than unopposed executive orders. The resistance groups of the time, whether peaceful or armed, were considered "subversive" because they sought to force changes in the constitutional order then imposed by the military. It should be noted, then, that the word terrorism doesn't apply: what Brazil experienced was an effort to promote institutional upheaval, given the illegitimate nature of the government.
Real terrorism only became a cause for concern in Brazil after 1990, when there were attacks on the Embassy of Israel (1990) and the Amia Jewish Association (1994), both in neighbouring Argentina. The intelligence service in Argentina concluded that the attacks originated in Paraguay – both organized and launched by Islamic extremists connected with Hezbollah and Iranian Shiite groups. Still according to the Argentines, these groups settled in the so-called tri-border region, where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay meet, taking advantage of Paraguay's institutional disorder and territorial control of the region by Mafia-style organized delinquency. The criminal element in the region is devoid of ideology: its efforts are aimed primarily at financial profit.
Experts and observers believe Argentina was chosen as a target instead of Brazil, in part because of its hands-on involvement during the Gulf War, when it supported U.S. efforts with two warships. The terrorist acts of the early 1990's in Buenos Aires inspired changes to Brazil's Constitution: terrorism is now considered a heinous crime, punishable with up to thirty years in prison without possibility of parole, grace, or concessions of any kind that might benefit the culprit.
On August 1st – before the cowardly acts that took place in September in New York and Washington – I warned about a trend that has concerned me for quite some time: the expansion of international terrorism to Latin America. In a special report published by Carta Capital, a weekly newsmagazine recently recognized as Brazil's top magazine overall by ABERJE (the Brazilian Association of Corporate Communication), I made specific mention of the presence of terrorist groups in the Southern Cone since the early and mid-90's, in many cases connected to criminal organizations like the Russian Mafia and Chinese Triads, also active in the region.
Clearly I was not alone in my concern. In April of this year, the U.S. shut down its embassies in Paraguay, Uruguay and Equador for three days, fearing possible attacks by members of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda group. Once again it was Argentine intelligence that detected the probable presence of extremists connected to bin Laden, who moved into Paraguay after the attacks on Argentina led to the departure of Hezbollah and Xiite groups from the area. Not surprisingly, a recent U.S. State Department report said the tri-border region "continues to be the focal point of Islamic extremism in Latin America."
In fact, after the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, there were numerous reports of a transfer to Paraguay of Al Qaeda training camps formerly in Pakistan. At the time, because of international pressure, one such base had already been moved temporarily to Afghanistan. The base, known as Hizbi Islami, was identified with satellite pictures published by the New York Times last August. Since bin Laden already kept the Abu Khababa base in Afghanistan, Hizbi Islami would reportedly move elsewhere.
There are other indicators of a possible Islamic extremist presence in Paraguay that deserve mention. For example, the Paraguayan side of the tri-border region has been described in the past as a preferred location for wanted terrorists to go into hiding. Thanks to organized crime groups, this is an easy region in which to obtain fake passports and credit cards. And the Paris-based International Observatory on Terrorism, presided by Roland Jacquard, has recently confirmed reports by the CIA about the presence of terrorists in the Southern Cone.
More than any other country in the region, Paraguay has been for quite some time now a true safe haven for all sorts of criminal organizations. It is there that the Russian Mafia and Chinese Triads have set up shop. The presence of the Russian Mafia was the object of an attempt by Colombia to establish a strategic alliance with the U.S. in 1999. The idea of the alliance was to keep the Paraguayan arm of the Russian Mafia away from one of its key objectives: linking up with cocaine and weapons trafficking rings, involving Colombian and Mexican cartels.
Contrary to what Argentine intelligence has been saying, Brazil's intelligence service, led by General Alberto Mendes Cardoso, has rejected the notion that terrorists might be on the ground in Paraguay and the tri-border region. The U.S., through the CIA and the FBI, obviously did not accept the Brazilian assessment. The end result was that last month, Brazil was pressured into accepting the establishment of a U.S. intelligence office in São Paulo – Brazil's and Latin America's largest city. The Americans will concentrate on tracking financial movements – the flow of terrorist cash in the region.
At the same time, FBI and CIA agents are already in the tri-border region conducting their investigations. They're fully aware that Brazil's intelligence agency is relatively new, and its young agents simply don't possess the desired experience or technological support demanded by the current context. The Argentine agency was restructured several years ago, during Raul Alfonsin's term as President. What's certain is that both the Brazilian and Argentinean intelligence services have changed: when the two countries were ruled by military dictatorships, their role was chasing down domestic "subversives" – in other words, their work supported authoritarian regimes. Today, both are aimed at preserving democratic states. Times have certainly changed.
As for the third country in the tri-border region… given what is known and can be concluded about Paraguay, with its permanent dictatorial regimes, political instabilities and institutionalized corruption, it is certainly – and for obvious reasons – an attractive locale from which terrorist organizations can function, relatively undisturbed.
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