THE ROVING EYE Part 1: Hezbollah south of the border By Pepe Escobar
CIUDAD DEL ESTE, at the triple border of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay - This
is the way savage globalization ends - at least 20,000 shops, stalls, tin
shacks and mini-malls crammed into 15 blocks selling everything under the
(tropical) sun. There's Little Asia - thousands of Taiwanese, mainland Chinese
and Koreans. But above all there are some 20,000 Arabs of Syrian and mostly
Lebanese descent (another 12,000 live in the Brazilian resort of Foz do Iguacu,
across the Friendship Bridge).
Welcome to Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, population 200,000, free-trade cesspit
and World Trade Organization wet dream, realm of sacoleiros (bag
carriers) crossing the bridge every day and
dreaming of the ultimate knockoff, but mostly realm of money changers,
prehistoric armored cars, gun-and-coke dealers, dodgy pharmacists and stolen
Mercedes with tinted windows.
The border is virtually non-existent, as Paraguay is a Mercosur member (along
with Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela). Airspace is free - virtually no
radar. Cocaine comes by plane or truck from the Bolivian Andes. Brazilian
weapons are everywhere - not to mention real and fake Kalashnikovs. Tons of
laundered money whirl in free flow. The whole thing is a dizzying black void of
billions of dollars in contraband, narco-trafficking, weapons smuggling, money
laundering, car theft, piracy and corruption of public officials.
it gets worse: it's crammed with terrorists.
Stand and deliver
The head of the US Southcom (Southern Command), the vociferous General Brantz
Craddock, is absolutely convinced the Triple Border is the abode of "the
"transnational terrorist, the narco-terrorist, the Islamic radical fundraiser
and recruiter, the illicit trafficker, the money launderer, the kidnapper and
the gang member". The emphasis is on "terrorist" and "Islamic". Southcom -
US$800 million annual budget, more than the State, Treasury, Commerce and
Agriculture departments combined - is the eyes and ears of the Pentagon over
In essence, this is how it works. Armchair gurus in Washington and New York
theorize on the so-called five wars of globalization - terrorism, trafficking,
money laundering, piracy and migration - and the Pentagon sends the Special
Forces posing as cleaners to make it all proper for the "free" world. The
underlying assumption is that Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaeda - "in sum, terror" -
are profiting like mad from the so-called five wars.
The "new threats of the 21st century recognize no borders", according to the
Pentagon. Ergo, everyone may be a terrorist, at least a potential one. Not
accidentally, General Craddock hates "anti-globalization and anti-free-trade
demagogues". Sunni or Shi'ite, Marxist or anarchist, ruralist or
existentialist, the Russian mafia, the Hong Kong triads, the Nigerian mafia,
the Ukrainian mafia - they are all in cahoots. And for the Pentagon, Hezbollah
is selling pirate video discs of Christina Aguilera to finance more Katyusha
At the real Triple Border, though, everyone may be a spy, or a would-be spy,
because everyone is there: the Russian mafia, the Mossad, the Nigerian mafia,
the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Hong Kong triads. A rule of gold
in the underworld is that Brazil is neutral territory and not subject to turf
wars; everyone is entitled to join the fun (technically Ciudad del Este is in
Paraguay, but it does business as a Brazilian annex via the Friendship Bridge).
There's no chance of catching one of Ayman al-Zawahiri's lieutenants slipping
$100 bills into the G-string of dancer Harlem Roux at the Casino Parana. He -
and his al-Qaeda affiliation - would be spotted in minutes.
General Craddock grudgingly had to admit that the Pentagon has "not detected
Islamic terrorist cells" at the Triple Border, nor anywhere else in South
America, for that matter. But he'll keep trying. If he dropped by Ciudad del
Este's mean streets, Craddock would hear a lot of Mandarin - but not Arabic. He
would see every cheap plasma set in every audio-video shop tuned to Lebanese TV
- or Al-Jazeera, hardly a terror ID. In his search for preemptive strikes, he
could try the Condominio Mesquita - which, as the name attests, is a condo in
the shape of a gold-painted mosque (they would love it in Peshawar). But he
would see no Hezbollahs in fake Nikes chowing an empanada and sipping mate
with Jet Li lookalikes.
Hezbollah's electronic casino
Anyway, the latest annual State Department terrorism report explicitly regards
the Triple Border as a main source of financing for both Hamas and Hezbollah,
even though it admits "there's no confirmed information" either Hamas or
Hezbollah has "an operational presence" on the ground.
The US government keeps accusing the Brazilian government of regarding
Hezbollah as a legitimate political party. The Treasury Department also said it
has detected money transfers from Foz do Iguacu - home of the famous Iguacu
(Iguazu in Spanish) Falls, on the Brazilian side - to "terrorist groups"
including Hezbollah. In a report on drugs released in March, the US once again
was explicit: Brazil must fight "terrorism financing" in the Triple Border
It doesn't matter that the State Department has found no evidence of "terrorist
financing" from Paraguay and was forced to admit that between 1961 and 2003,
only 1.2% of worldwide terror took place in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay,
Uruguay and Chile combined. An International Monetary Fund report on money
laundering also revealed the obvious: the Triple Border is awash in cash
smuggling, but no sight of "terrorist financing".
In 2001 CNN dubbed the Triple Border "a terrorist paradise" - based on dodgy
documents obtained by US embassies in both Paraguay and Argentina. An article
in The New Yorker in late 2002 defined the Triple Border as "the center of
Middle Eastern terrorism in South America" and "a community under the influence
of extreme Islamic beliefs" - with Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda all training
on the spot.
Between late 2001 and early 2002, this whole thing was fine-combed by US and
Brazilian investigators. There was no chance Sheikh Nasrallah would be
uncovered operating an electronic casino in Ciudad del Este under an alias.
Commercial and banking ties between the Arabs in the Triple Border and their
relatives in the Middle East were perfectly legal - just like the ones between
resident Arabs in the US and their relatives.
But the heat was on - relentless, humiliating, brutal.
Thus US Immigration and Customs agents, financed to the tune of $2.25 million,
will soon be parachuting into the Triple Border to help the locals fight money
laundering, contraband and terrorism financing. The Americans will establish
"units of commercial transparency". Up to now the only country in the world
boasting a "unit of commercial transparency" was Colombia. The Brazilian
Federal Police and the Ministry of Foreign Relations prefer not to comment.
American diplomats insist a permanent group representing the US, Brazil,
Argentina and Paraguay has agreed on the matter.
Common wisdom rules that at least $20 million annually is sent from the Triple
Border to finance Hezbollah, linking South American banks to banks in Texas and
New York in the US, plus banks in Panama, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Egypt and
Lebanon. That would be 20% of total worldwide financing for Hezbollah's
military wing. There's no independent confirmation. "This figure was arrived at
by the Mossad. They always have plenty of people snooping around here," said a
Lebanese-Brazilian businessman who owns a bustling audio-video shop. Hezbollah
receives donations from sympathizers worldwide. There's no evidence it is being
financed by pirate video discs or cocaine dollars from the Triple Border.
But the pressure is non-stop. Thus the US Congress has approved a motion
enabling President George W Bush to ask for a task force to act against
"terrorism in the Western Hemisphere", especially on the Triple Border. Bush is
also supposed to demand from Brazil and other Latin American countries the
branding of both Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations.
The Brazilian Embassy in Washington was furious - reminding the Americans that
even the White House admits there's no terror operating on the Triple Border.
Carlos Alvarez, head of the Commission of Permanent Representatives of
Mercosur, worries that the Americans "want to convert the Triple Border into
part of the war on terror". Diplomats from Mercosur countries say they have
enough of an institutional base to fight crime - as that is the real issue.
Brazil has set up a new police unit and has reinforced air and fluvial patrols
at the Triple Border - fighting above all the trafficking of drugs and weapons.
Starting in two weeks - to the dismay of the business community in Ciudad del
Este - they will even start inspecting all the sacoleiros crossing the
Arab businessmen in both Foz do Iguacu and Ciudad del Este dismiss US paranoia
as, well, paranoia. They have more tangible things to worry about - like two
Lebanese businessmen robbed of $250,000 cash in downtown Ciudad del Este just
as they had left a bank. The robbers - carrying machine-guns - were disguised
as Paraguayan investigative police. The Sunday headline in the Paraguayan daily
Ultima Hora also told another popular story: "It's easier to leave Lebanon than
to arrive in Paraguay". It referred to a Lebanese-Paraguayan family who managed
to leave Lebanon in a Brazilian rescue plane, arrived in Sao Paulo but then
could find no flights home. No one wants to fly to Paraguay: airspace is
totally unprotected, with no security systems and no radar.
The locals claim they don't need Americans to arrest one of the top Brazilian
narco-traffickers, Marcelinho Niteroi, as they did last week. Niteroi carried
fake Paraguayan identification, which he obtained posing as a "farmer". On the
other hand, businessmen on both sides of the border focus on made-in-USA
missiles used by Israel that killed Lebanese-Brazilian kids, who were born in
Brazil. "Maybe these kids were dangerous terrorists," said a real-estate
Where is Osama's hotel?
Irrespective of the facts on the ground, as far as the Pentagon is concerned
the Triple Border remains a nest of subversive activity to be preempted as fast
as Syria and Iran.
Take what happened last year when the Foz do Iguacu municipality ran a
full-page ad in leading newspapers with a photo of Osama bin Laden. The caption
read: "When he's not busy blowing up the world, bin Laden spends his time
relaxing at Iguacu." Craddock might have taken it literally - and blown the
Craddock would have had a heart attack with the recent subversion calendar.
Last month the Mercosur chiefs of state got together in Cordoba, Argentina -
officially welcoming Venezuela as a new member. Fidel Castro stole the show.
Venezuela's news network Telesur - very popular via satellite in Ciudad del
Este - provided extensive coverage of "anti-imperialist" speeches by both
Castro and Hugo Chavez.
Meanwhile civil society - in the form of social, political, cultural,
environmental, student, religious and human-rights organizations - was engaged
in the second Triple Border Social Forum in Ciudad del Este, discussing the
region's security, a controversial military agreement between the US and
Paraguay, and the preservation of the Guarani Aquifer. The slogan went straight
to the point: "Out Yankee troops and the World Bank".
The "Yankee troops" are holding "training exercises" in Paraguay (more on that
in Part 2 of this report). And the World Bank is developing a program toward
mapping the Guarani Aquifer - which is the first step toward commercial
exploration of its precious waters. The Guarani Aquifer is arguably the biggest
reservoir of fresh, potable water in the world - right under Triple Border
soil. The majority (71%) of its 1.2 million square kilometers lies in Brazil.
According to the United Nations, by 2025 worldwide demand for potable water
will be 56% higher than what will be on offer.
When you combine a huge Arab community and lots of non-commercialized water in
a Pentagon-defined "lawless area", no wonder bells start ringing. Watching the
non-stop coverage on the Arabic channels of Lebanese civilians dying under
Israeli bombs, a Lebanese-Brazilian businessman offered the preferred local
version of the "war on terror": "In Iraq they said there were WMD [weapons of
mass destruction]. They wanted the oil. Here they say that we are terrorists.
But what they want is our water."