While President Bush has been across the Atlantic, meeting with the leaders of the other seven members of the “G8,” Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has been in Panama City, meeting with America’s neighbors to the south, according to the U.S. State Department.
Bush’s G8 Conference will naturally gain more media attention, as it includes the eight most powerful, industrialized Western nations of the world. But Rice’s trip will strengthen cooperation between the governments of the Western Hemisphere, making America’s ties to its regional neighbors stronger.
Rice spoke on the Panamanian television station Telemundo in praise of the counterterrorism efforts of the governments of Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay in the “tri-border region” where these three South American countries touch.
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The three nations have recently created an intelligence center in the region, operating out of the Brazilian city of Foz de Iguacu. The Brazilians opened the center, and then extended invitations to its neighbors to participate. The purpose of the new center is to gather intelligence concerning terrorist fund-raising activities, gun and drug trafficking, and other illegal trans-border activities in the area.
Rice praised the cooperation between the countries. She said that the fight against terrorism must be international in scope if it is to succeed. She mentioned the recent uncovered terrorist plot against J.F.K. International Airport in New York as an example of the benefits of international intelligence-sharing and counterterrorism efforts. Several of the conspirators considered to be involved in that plot were from the Latin American countries of Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, and information from those countries was essential in uncovering the plot.
The concern in the tri-border region is that there is a large Muslim immigrant population numbering around 50,000 people, within which there may be support of fund-raising efforts by terrorist groups such as Al Quaida, Hamas and Hezbollah. The region is also known as a hotspot for drug trafficking, money laundering, and weapons trafficking. These features, along with the ability to escape into several neighboring countries, make it an ideal place for a terrorist presence. This was the rationale for the United States being involved in establishing the “3 + 1 Group on Tri-Border Area Security” in this region. The group includes Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and the United States in a participatory role.
The tri-border region is also a tri-city region, composed of Bolivia’s Ciudad del Este (pop. 240,000), Argentina’s Puerto Iguazú (pop. 28,100), and Brazil’s tourist center Foz do Iguacu (pop. 190,000). The cities meet where the Iguazu and Parana Rivers converge, the site of a beautiful and majestic series of waterfalls that was the setting for the 1987 Oscar-winning film The Mission, starring Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons. De Niro and Irons played 18-century Jesuit missionaries to South America.
The region’s lands were disputed even at this time, as shown in the film. The region was also the center of a type of illegal trafficking – at that time the trafficking in human slavery. One of the themes of that film was the possibility for crime and inhumanity that arises in an area where the governing authority is unclear or shared.
The varied terrain, rivers, and huge waterfalls make the region a geographically gorgeous tourist spot, but also a magnet for illegal activities. The terrain is very difficult to patrol and defend. In 2002 and 2006 the United States Treasury Department issued memos stating that there are “clear examples” of “Islamic groups in the region that finance terrorist activities.”
These groups are located in the three urban areas, and the activities are carried out across the rivers and outlying lands of the region. The Paraguayan side of the region is of particular concern, as Paraguay has no national laws against contributing money to terrorist organizations. According to the Washington Post, Paraguay gave international immunity to 400 American soldiers in May of 2006, according to the Washington Post, for “joint military exercises, such as programs on fighting urban terrorists, public security and humanitarian assistance.” But Paraguay has decided not to renew that immunity, making the region once again risky from the American viewpoint.
U.S. State Department, http://usinfo.state.gov/xarchives/display.html?p=washfile-english y;=2007 m;=June x;=20070606134703x1eneerg1.139468e-02
Washington Post, Paraguay Hardens U.S. Military Stance, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/03/AR2006100301627.html