Deadly legacy of a lawless frontier
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Tri-border has become a top-level, if little-publicized, concern for Washington, particularly as tension mounts with Iran, Hezbollah's main sponsor. Paraguayan government officials told Telemundo that CIA operatives and agents of Israel's Mossad security force were known to be in the region seeking to neutralize what they believe could be an imminent threat.
But long before that, U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies regarded the region as a "free zone for significant criminal activity, including people who are organized to commit acts of terrorism," Louis Freeh, then the director of the FBI, said in 1998.
Edward Luttwak, a counterterrorism expert with the Pentagon's National Security Study Group, described the Tri-border as the most important base for Hezbollah outside Lebanon itself, home to "a community of dangerous fanatics that send their money for financial support to Hezbollah."
"People kill with that, and they have planned terrorist attacks from there," said Luttwak, who has been a terrorism consultant to the CIA and the National Security Council. "The northern region of Argentina, the eastern region of Paraguay and even Brazil are large terrains, and they have an organized training and recruitment camp for terrorists."
"Our experience is that if you see one roach, there are a lot more," said Frank Urbancic, principal deputy director of the State Department's counterterrorism office, who has spent most of his career in the Middle East.
A mother lode of money
Operating out of the Tri-border, Hezbollah is accused of killing more than 100 people in attacks in nearby Buenos Aires, Argentina, during the early 1990s in operations personally masterminded by Hezbollah’s military commander, Imad Mugniyah.
Mugniyah is on the most-wanted terrorist lists of both the FBI and the European Union, and he is believed to work frequently out of Ciudad del Este.
For President Bush and the U.S.-led "war on terror," the flourishing of Hezbollah in the Western Hemisphere demonstrates the worrying worldwide reach of Islamist radicalism. In the Tri-border, Hezbollah and other radical anti-U.S. groups have found a lucrative base from which to finance many of their operations.
Smuggling has long been the lifeblood of the Tri-border, accounting for $2 billion to $3 billion in the region, according to congressional officials. Several U.S. agencies said that Arab merchants were involved in smuggling cigarettes and livestock to avoid taxes, as well as cocaine and marijuana through the border with Brazil on their way to Europe. Some of the proceeds are sent to Hezbollah, they said.
So, why don't we hear about all this?
From Cracking the Case: An Interview With Sibel Edmonds by Scott Horton, August 22, 2005:
SH: Okay, and you mention when you talk about criminal activity, drug-running, money-laundering, weapons-smuggling...
SE: And these activities overlap. It's not like okay, you have certain criminal entities that are involved in nuclear black market, and then you have certain entities bringing narcotics from the East. You have the same players when you look into these activities at high-levels you come across the same players, they are the same people.
SH: Well, when we're talking about those kind of levels of liquid cash money we probably also have to include major banks too, right?
SE: Financial institutions, yes.
From Former FBI Translator Sibel Edmonds Calls Current 9/11 Investigation Inadequate by Jim Hogue, May 07, 2004:
JH: Here's a question that you might be able to answer: What is al-Qaeda?
SE: This is a very interesting and complex question. When you think of al-Qaeda, you are not thinking of al-Qaeda in terms of one particular country, or one particular organization. You are looking at this massive movement that stretches to tens and tens of countries. And it involves a lot of sub-organizations and sub-sub-organizations and branches and it's extremely complicated. So to just narrow it down and say al-Qaeda and the Saudis, or to say it's what they had at the camp in Afghanistan, is extremely misleading. And we don't hear the extent of the penetration that this organization and the sub-organizations have throughout the world, throughout their networks and throughout their various activities. It's extremely sophisticated. And then you involve a significant amount of money into this equation. Then things start getting a lot of overlap -- money laundering, and drugs and terrorist activities and their support networks converging in several points. That's what I'm trying to convey without being too specific. And this money travels. And you start trying to go to the root of it and it's getting into somebody's political campaign, and somebody's lobbying. And people don't want to be traced back to this money.