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Tuesday, 10 September, 2002, 16:37 GMT 17:37 UK
Frontier in terror spotlight
The border area has a troubled reputation

The so-called Triple Frontier is a border area shared by three South American countries -Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, with a reputation as a centre for drug trafficking and money laundering.

In April, the US Government also named the Triple Frontier - with its thriving Arab community - as an area where there is "terrorist activity", and declared that at least two groups, Hezbollah and Hamas, operated in the area.

There is no firm evidence of links to al-Qaeda, but both the Paraguayan and the US authorities have said that they strongly suspect their existence.

Despite its reputation as a haven of illegal activities, many of those who know the area well say the majority of people go quietly about their business - legally. They have accused the media of being sensationalist and reporting events out of context.

After the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, the Triple Frontier was described on repeated occasions by officials in Washington, as a collection centre for Islamic extremist groups. This seriously affected its reputation and dealt a severe blow to a thriving tourism industry born from the beauty of the Iguazu Falls.

Iguazu Falls [Copyright: Convention and Visitors' Bureau Iguazu]
The area is keen to attract more tourists
Shortly after the attacks, 90% of hotel reservations were cancelled in the city of Foz de Iguazu.

Ciudad del Este stopped receiving businessmen from Brazil, known as "compristas", and the volume of merchandise coming in from that country dropped significantly.

The inhabitants of the region, which comprises Foz do Iguazu in Brazil, Ciudad del Este in Paraguay and Puerto Iguazu in Argentina, decided to launch a diplomatic "counter offensive" in order to shake off the bad reputation of the area and clean up its image.

No evidence

Last November Foz held a peaceful demonstration which brought together 65,000 people under the slogan Peace without Frontiers.

The campaign set about underlining the importance of people from different cultures and parts of the world - there are important Arabic and Taiwanese communities here - coming together in a peaceful and productive way. Efforts to "de-mystify" the area have continued ever since.

Despite rumours, there is no evidence to suggest that either terrorist training centres or cells belonging to Hezbollah really exist.

Since 2001 seven citizens of Arab origin and three from India have been detained but the majority have been released because of insufficient evidence.

Those prosecuted are accused of crimes such as tax evasion. They are suspects but it has been impossible to link any of them to any extremist organisation.

Investigation

The Paraguayan authorities say they have evidence that money is being sent to organisations with terrorist connections.

According to Carlos Altemburger, Chief of the Department for the Prevention and Investigation of Terrorism in Paraguay, that is a body which has been at the forefront of the arrests in the region.

Carlos Altemburger, Chief of the Department for the Prevention and Investigation of Terrorism in Paraguay
Carlos Altemburger: Money is being sent abroad
"Through our various activities in the Triple Frontier region, we have been able to verify that there are individuals or groups of individuals who devote themselves to the financing of acts of terrorism or terrorist groups, because of the amount of money leaving Ciudad del Este for the Middle East," said Mr Altemburger.

"It's true that money is being sent from this area. That much is true. But whether any groups exist here specifically for any other kind of activity, we cannot say."

As far as post-11 September activity is concerned, he confirmed the authorities had carried out several security operations.

"Many people have been detained. Some were deported for holding false identity papers, others are in detention centres," he said.

"All of them had some connection with illegal activities."

Prisoner profiles

But not everyone agrees. The profile of those detained, established businessmen who apparently lived perfectly ordinary lives, made many people question the actions of the Paraguayan authorities.

Four people, three of them of Indian origin, were arrested recently and accused of arms trafficking.

One of them had his home raided and was accused of tax evasion and falsifying trademarks. Photos of arms, a photocopy of an armaments order for $30m, a teargas grenade and other high explosives were found by special prosecutors.

The Indian community in Ciudad del Este was quick to deny these charges and spoke of the existence of an organisation which they say devotes itself to extorting small businesses.

In the past, the Arab community had already spoken of the existence of police informers who denounced other members of their community as part of commercial "vendettas" or for extortion.

Paraguayo Cubas, ex-opposition candidate for the post of mayor of Ciudad del Este and defence lawyer for the accused, told the BBC: "Twenty years ago we used to look for reds under the bed. Now world fashion dictates we seek out terrorists."

Mr Cubas said it was hard to believe that a professional terrorist would leave an order for an AK47 on the table, along with a photocopy of a facsimile apparently authorising him the use of $30m.

"No terrorist has ever been found in Ciudad del Este," he said. "The only suspect who was detained was sent to the US and later released because of lack of evidence."


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