Chasing Islamic ‘terrorists’ in Paraguay

The search for the Islamic bogeyman terror organisation in South America is fruitless because none exist.

Horacio Cartes
A WikiLeaks cable said President Horacio Cartes is the director of "an organisation believed to launder large quantities of US currency generated through illegal means..." [AP]

In November 2012, a subcommittee of the US House Committee on Homeland Security produced a report titled “A Line in the Sand: Countering Crime, Violence and Terror at the Southwest Border“, an updated version of a similarly named 2006 report.

Both were authored by Texas Congressman Michael T McCaul, who has since become chairman of said committee. 

In the preface to the subcommittee’s findings, he explains that the updates were required due in part to the fact that “the new element of Iran and Hezbollah’s influence in Latin America has become very troubling”. 

Of course, some observers might find it more troubling that one of the primary bits of evidence listed in support of this “unsettling trend” is that “Iran now ha[s] embassies in 11 Latin American countries that include Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Nicaragua and Uruguay”. 

When I last checked, diplomatic relations between countries were fairly common, and the opening of embassies abroad was less problematic than other kinds of international projects pursued by certain regimes, such as the illegal invasion of sovereign nations

The new and improved “Line in the Sand” report claims that Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah “remains especially active” in the tri-border area, or “TBA”, between Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, which is home to sizeable Arab and Muslim communities. The report also includes a photograph of the ominous green “Hezbollah mosque (high rise)” – that is, the Mosque of the Prophet Mohammed in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay.

It is not clear how this alleged activity poses a terroristic threat to the “Southwest Border” of the US when the TBA is more than 8,000 kilometres away from the border in question. 

During a recent visit to Ciudad del Este, I spoke with the imam of the mosque, a humble elderly man who had arrived in Paraguay two years earlier from the village of Houla in southern Lebanon. He marvelled at the shamelessness with which US politicians converted Arab expat merchant populations into terrorist battalions. 

Houla, incidentally, was one of the towns partially flattened by Israel during its 2006 war on Lebanon, during which the US provided the Israeli military with rush shipments of precision-guided bombs and other forms of encouragement. This would seem to be yet another indication that US-Israeli forays into Muslim areas are generally more nefarious in nature than hallucinated Iranian-Hezbollah operationsin the US’ appropriated backyard. It is also a reminder of why some Lebanese might emigrate for purposes other than terrorism – such as the ability to earn a living without the added distraction of bombs falling on their heads. 

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Mustafa Khalil Meri threatens apocalypse 

The footnote to McCaul’s claim that Hezbollah is “especially active” in the TBA directs us to a 2007 article by Pablo Gato and Robert Windrem at, titled “Hezbollah builds a Western base“. The subheadline reads: “From inside South America’s Tri-border area, Iran-linked militia targets US.” 

The text of the article, accompanied by a short video report, reveals that proof of the “targeting” is based primarily on an interview in Ciudad del Este with “Mustafa Khalil Meri, a young Arab Muslim”: 

If he attacks Iran, in two minutes [George] Bush is dead,” Meri said. “We are Muslims. I am Hezbollah. We are Muslims, and we will defend our countries at any time they are attacked.

In an article subsection titled “Straight shot to the US”, Gato and Windrem report that “US and South American officials warn that Meri’s is more than a rhetorical threat”. 

And so it is that, thanks to this feat of journalistic integrity, a statement by a single Arab resident of Paraguay about “defend[ing] our countries” transforms into a direct offensive threat against the Homeland. 

Another prime example of dogged reporting on Hezbollah in the TBA is by Jeffrey Goldberg, who in a Fox News-esque two-part article for the New Yorker in 2002 classified the Lebanese political party as a “Shiite terrorist group” and declared that the “main purpose” of its TV station, Al-Manar, “is to encourage Palestinians to become suicide bombers”. 

Goldberg cites claims that the Muslim community in the TBA “has in its midst a hard core of terrorists, many of them associated with Hezbollah”, who offer “weekend training camps on farms cut out of the rain forest” and “raise… money from legitimate businesses but, more frequently, from illicit activities, ranging from drug smuggling to the pirating of compact disks”. 

He warns: 

Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors are considered by the governments of Israel, the United States, and Argentina to be responsible for the single deadliest anti-Semitic attack since the end of the Second World War: the suicide truck-bombing of the [AMIA] Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, in 1994, which left more than a hundred people dead.

Given the New Yorker‘s legacy of egregious fact-checking failures, it is perhaps not surprising that the publication has not managed at some point over the past 13 years to amend the incorrect body count

Investigative historian and journalist Gareth Porter – recipient of the prestigious Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism – meanwhile demonstrated in a 2008 report for the Nation that neither the suicide truck-bomb story nor claims of an Iranian motive for the AMIA attack hold water. 

As Porter notes, an explosives expert from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms produced an on-scene post-explosion report “suggesting that the blast came from inside rather than outside” the AMIA building. Furthermore, Iran was engaged until 1995 in negotiations with Argentina to revive suspended nuclear technology contracts and presumably would not have risked jeopardising the process by bombing Argentine institutions.

Non-Muslim incursions into the TBA 

In Ciudad del Este I spoke with José Almada, a superior officer in the Paraguayan Special Operations Group (GEO in its Spanish acronym), a special forces unit created in the aftermath of accusations that the AMIA bombing was planned by Islamic terrorists in the TBA. 

We are Muslims. I am Hezbollah. We are Muslims, and we will defend our countries at any time they are attacked.

Mustafa Khalil Meri, a young Arab Muslim

According to Almada, the GEO had thus far not uncovered any evidence of terrorist cells in Ciudad del Este despite frequent charitable visits to the area by US intelligence agents. 

As for other incursions into the region by US personnel, historical details such as extensive US support for homicidal Latin American dictators – not to mention the training of brutal Colombian paramilitaries conducted by the US’ Israeli appendage – would seem to indicate that the average regional citizen might have more critical things to worry about than the establishment of Iranian embassies in Latin America. 

Writing in 2007, author Benjamin Dangl observed that, after a 2005 Paraguayan Senate vote “allow[ing] US troops to operate in Paraguay with total immunity”, the nation was treated to “joint exercises with US military in counterinsurgency training and monitoring of social organisations, the use of private mercenaries for security and the criminalisation of social protest through ‘anti-terrorism’ tactics and legislation”. 

A 2010 WikiLeaks cable from the US embassy in Buenos Aires identifying Horacio Cartes – recently elected president of Paraguay – as the director of “an organisation believed to launder large quantities of United States currency generated through illegal means, including through the sale of narcotics, from the TBA to the United States” would appear to be more relevant to the current Paraguayan situation than a tragicomic campaign to link Hezbollah to drug cartels.

Though there is certainly no debating Goldberg’s classification of the TBA as “a hospitable base of operations for smugglers, counterfeiters and tax dodgers” or McCaul et al’s claim that “lax customs enforcement in the area allows these crimes to continue largely unabated from one country to the other”, a flourishing contraband industry does not indicate the presence of an Islamic terror den. 

Nor does potential ideological or financial support among TBA residents for Hezbollah – selectively designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation by virtue of its effective opposition to US-Israeli designs in the Middle East – suggest that the personal security of US citizens is at risk. 

Why, then, the concerted effort to demonise the Arab/Muslim community in the TBA? 

For one, the fearmongering portrayal of Iran as a “direct” threat to the southern border of the US serves as a useful alibi for destructive machinations against the Islamic Republic. 

For another, the more menaces that can be created south of the border – the narco menace, the gang menace, the communist menace, the terrorist menace – the better for a political establishment tied to a security industry that profits from the proliferation of insecurity. 

Were the US concerned with achieving actual “homeland security” and reducing opportunities for violence along its southwest frontier, it might abstain, for example, from federal operations permitting US weapons to be smuggled into Mexico

Such concrete measures would, however, endanger the business of global militarisation and the concomitant deprivation of human rights that ensure the lucrative nature of conflict, both real and imagined. 

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blogThe BafflerAl Akhbar English and many other publications. 

Follow her on Twitter: @MariaBelen_Fdez