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IN THE PARTY OF GOD. Hezbollah sets up operations in South America and the United States. by JEFFREY GOLDBERG. Issue of 2002-10-
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IN THE PARTY OF GOD
Hezbollah sets up operations in South America and the United States.
by JEFFREY GOLDBERG
Issue of 2002-10-28
The patrol boat, a Boston Whaler, was worn at its edges, and it was pocked with bullet holes along its starboard side. It had a four-man crew, officers of the Brazilian Federal Police. They carried AK-47s and side arms, and they wore jeans, sunglasses, and bulletproof vests, which made them sweat. The patrol chief steered the boat into the middle of the Paraná River—half a mile wide, muddy, and sluggish. He opened up the boat's two Suzuki engines, and as we moved north the outskirts of the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu came into view on the right; on the opposite side was the Paraguayan jungle, where smoke from cooking fires rose above the tree line. The chief, who was worried about snipers, kept the boat moving fast. He pointed to a series of chutes, dug out from the banks on the Paraguayan side, down which drug smugglers move bales of marijuana to the river.
A decaying iron bridge, the International Friendship Bridge, connects Foz do Iguaçu to its Paraguayan sister city, Ciudad del Este, the City of the East. Ciudad del Este is at the heart of the zone known as the Triple Frontier, the point where Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina meet, which has served for nearly thirty years as a hospitable base of operations for smugglers, counterfeiters, and tax dodgers. The Triple Frontier has earned its reputation as one of the most lawless places in the world. Now, it is believed, the Frontier is also the center of Middle Eastern terrorism in South America.
From the boat, we could see that the traffic above us on the bridge was at a standstill. Between twenty and twenty-five thousand people cross the bridge each day, Brazilian police officials said. Pedestrians, many carrying huge packages, follow a narrow walkway that runs along the bridge's outer edge; motorcyclists maneuver among trucks and buses. From the river, one sees only a jumble of towers clustered near the edge of Ciudad del Este, and the men on the patrol looked that way with distaste. "It's filthy and disgusting," the chief said. "Everything there is illegal." And the local police? The men smiled, and the chief said, "They do what they do, and we do what we do."
The chief explained that the underworld of Ciudad del Este is dominated by Asian and Middle Eastern mobsters. Many of them prefer to float contraband across the river rather than use the bridge, but the men caught smuggling are invariably poor Paraguayans. As he spoke, we passed, on the Paraguayan shore, a group of shirtless men, who stared at the boat. "They're just waiting for us to leave the river," the chief said. "Then they'll start across." The sun by now was setting, and the police seldom patrol at night. It would be too dangerous, the chief said.
The men on the boat were all residents of Foz do Iguaçu—Foz, as it is usually called—an orderly city that employs street sweepers and traffic police. I asked them if they ever visited Ciudad del Este. One said that he used to go for the shopping. Much of Ciudad del Este is built around vast, canyonlike shopping malls. The better malls sell legitimately acquired products at discounted prices, and the rougher ones specialize in stolen and pirated goods.
Roughly two hundred thousand people live in the Ciudad del Este region, including a substantial minority of Arab Muslims; in the Triple Frontier zone, there may be as many as thirty thousand. According to intelligence officials in the region and in Washington, this Muslim community has in its midst a hard core of terrorists, many of them associated with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group backed by the Iranian government; some with Hamas, the Palestinian fundamentalist group; and some with Al Qaeda. It is, over all, a community under the influence of extreme Islamic beliefs; intelligence officials told me that some of the Triple Frontier Arabs held celebrations on September 11th of last year and also on the anniversary this year. These officials said that Hezbollah runs weekend training camps on farms cut out of the rain forest of the Triple Frontier. In at least one of these camps, in the remote jungle terrain near Foz do Iguaçu, young adults get weapons training and children are indoctrinated in Hezbollah ideology—a mixture of anti-American and anti-Jewish views inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini.
In the Triple Frontier, Hezbollah raises money from legitimate businesses but, more frequently, from illicit activities, ranging from drug smuggling to the pirating of compact disks. Unlike the other radical Islamic groups in the Triple Frontier, Hezbollah, it is said, has the capability to commit acts of terror.
A billboard advertising the services of the Kamikaze Tour Company stands near the Foz do Iguaçu entrance to the International Friendship Bridge. It is faster to walk the half-mile span than to drive, and so I joined a line of Guaraní Indians and Brazilian traders who had assembled one morning under a sign on the Foz side that read, "You Are the Strong Ones, Not the Drugs." A Brazilian police helicopter circled overhead.
In Ciudad del Este, there is an immediate sense of heat and claustrophobic closeness. The streets, jammed with people and worked by watch sellers and money changers, give way to alleys, and the alleys open up onto strips of badly built shops. The smallest shops, some barely six feet by six feet, are called lojas, and are crammed with in-line skates and cellular telephones and pharmaceuticals—almost anything that could fall off a truck. Guaraní women sit on the ground, drinking maté through metal straws. The sidewalks are dense with stands selling sunglasses and perfume, and with tables of pornographic videos. Marijuana is sold openly; so are pirated CDs. The music of Eminem came from one shop; from another, there were sounds familiar to me from South Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley—martial Hezbollah music. I bought a cassette recording of the speeches of Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader.
In a shop called Caza y Pesca Monday, or the Monday Hunting and Fishing Store, the owner offered to sell me an AK-47 rifle for three hundred and seventy dollars. For an extra thirty dollars, he said, he could have it smuggled to my hotel in Brazil. I asked whether it was possible to acquire explosives. He said it would be more difficult, though not impossible. The cost of smuggling them would be significantly more than thirty dollars.
A few blocks from the center of town, the Mosque of the Prophet Muhammad occupies the first three floors of an unfinished fourteen-story apartment house. The building is painted green and white and topped by an oversized crescent and star, the symbols of Islam. When I arrived, the mosque was opening for afternoon prayers, and I was introduced to Muhammad Youssef Abdallah, who owns the building and built the mosque. Abdallah, a short, round, voluble man in his fifties, is an immigrant from a village in South Lebanon, near the Israeli border.
He told me that he came to the Triple Frontier more than twenty years ago, in a wave of Lebanese immigrants who had discovered a part of South America that welcomed international traders. Like most Lebanese businessmen in Ciudad del Este, he lives in the more orderly climate of Foz do Iguaçu. He also has a farm outside Foz. For many years, he said, he owned one of the malls in Ciudad del Este, but now he devotes his time to the propagation of the faith. He invited me into his office, on the second floor of the mosque. On the wall was a portrait of Sayyid Muhammad Hussayn Fadlallah, the spiritual leader of Hezbollah; on a shelf was a gun.
I told Abdallah that, a month earlier, I had interviewed Fadlallah in his home in the southern suburbs of Beirut, the Hezbollah stronghold. He asked if I knew his cousin, Hani Abdallah, Fadlallah's spokesman, and seemed pleased when I said yes. In 1994, according to Paraguayan intelligence officials, Fadlallah travelled undercover to Ciudad del Este, on an Iranian passport, in order to bless the mosque. Abdallah was quick to say that Fadlallah plays no official role in the work of Hezbollah—that he is merely a spiritual adviser to poor Shiites throughout the world. Fadlallah and his followers said much the same thing when we met in Lebanon.
Abdallah, who has never been charged with any wrongdoing, was circumspect in describing his activities. "If you touch on Hezbollah, you get a shock," he told me, and added that charges sometimes levelled in the press against the Muslims of the Triple Frontier are untrue. "We are not involved in terrorism," he said. Many of the Muslims who once worshipped in the mosque are afraid to visit now, he said, believing that it is under surveillance by Israel and the United States. Abdallah insisted that he himself had no connection to Hezbollah, but he conceded that, like other Lebanese businessmen, he had given money to the group. "Five years ago, people were expected to give twenty per cent of their income," he said.
I asked him what he meant by "expected."
"Right, expected," he replied. A look of helplessness crossed his face. "What are people supposed to do?" he asked.
Abdallah would not elaborate, but, according to South American investigators and two Lebanese who once worked in the Triple Frontier, such donations were made under duress. At the beginning of each month, they said, a Hezbollah official named Sobhi Fayad or one of his associates would visit shops owned by Lebanese immigrants—Shiites, but also Sunni Muslims and Christians. The shop owner would be handed a certificate thanking him for the support he had provided to various Hezbollah-run charitable groups. A dollar amount would be written on each certificate—a South American investigator showed me one with the figure ten thousand dollars—and the shop owner would be expected to pay that sum. After that, the certificate would be put in his shopwindow—and no more "donations" would be sought for the remainder of the month. Otherwise, the shop owner would be warned, and then his relatives in Lebanon would be warned, that if they didn't comply Hezbollah would spread rumors about them. "People would be told that they are spies for Israel," one South American investigator told me. Some were beaten. "It's a very effective system," the investigator said.
The Fayad operation was expert in laundering money. According to intelligence documents provided to me by regional investigators, Hezbollah has used traders from India to move money from Paraguay to the Middle East. The documents referred to an Indian named Rajkumar Naraindas Sabnani, who does business in the Triple Frontier and in Hong Kong; investigators allege that he arranged to ship goods to Paraguay, receiving payment far in excess of their value. After subtracting his own fee and paying for the actual goods, Sabnani wired the surplus to banks in the United States or in Lebanon. Sabnani is believed to be currently in Hong Kong.
Abdallah, the founder of the Prophet Muhammad mosque, says that people in the Triple Frontier are giving less these days, because the region's economy is in very poor shape. But investigators in South America and experts on the group nevertheless believe that the amount raised in South America over the years is in the tens of millions of dollars; according to one Paraguayan official, two years ago Hezbollah raised twelve million dollars in the Triple Frontier. Hezbollah's annual budget is more than a hundred million dollars, provided by the Iranian government directly and by an international network of fund-raisers.
Besides Sobhi Fayad, several other figures in the Triple Frontier's Arab community play important roles in raising money for Hezbollah. One of the most notorious is a fugitive: Ali Khalil Mehri, a man considered by Paraguayan authorities to be a leading distributor of pirated compact disks. According to Paraguayan investigators, Mehri left for São Paulo, Brazil, then moved on to Europe and, finally, to Lebanon, where he is today. Sobhi Fayad is in jail in Asunción, the Paraguayan capital, awaiting trial on tax charges and on charges of associating with a criminal organization. Paraguay has no anti-terror law, and so it is not illegal to donate money to terrorist groups, as it is in the United States. "It's exactly the same as Al Capone," one investigator told me. "You have to get them on tax evasion."
In the days following September 11th of last year, the Paraguayans arrested twenty-three people in the region of Ciudad del Este and in southern Paraguay on suspicion of involvement with Hezbollah or other organizations. But Carlos Altemburger, the chief of the Paraguayan Secretariat for the Prevention and Investigation of Terrorism, told me that most of these detainees have been released and many have left the country. Even though the Paraguayan government is considered among the most corrupt in South America, the terrorism secretariat is thought by American officials to be free of corruption. Altemburger told me that he would like the government to impose strict controls on the border region, which would make it more difficult for Hezbollah members who live in Brazil to travel so freely into Paraguay. His requests, he said diplomatically, are still being weighed by the government.
The openness of the borders in the Triple Frontier, as much as its free-for-all ethos, makes the region particularly inviting for terrorists. (When I ran into a bureaucratic problem entering Paraguay, I was advised to sneak in by riding a motorcycle with Brazilian plates, and wearing a helmet to disguise my face. It worked perfectly.) The open borders provide politicians and senior law-enforcement officials of the three nations with a ready excuse for the presence of terrorists in cities under their nominal control.
Joaquim Mesquita, the chief of the Brazilian Federal Police in Foz do Iguaçu, dismissed the idea that his third of the Triple Frontier was a haven for terrorists. "We have a marijuana problem, and cigarette smuggling," he said. But, he continued, "we don't have any concrete evidence that this is a terrorist region." In Asunción, I met with the interior minister, a former chief of the national police named Víctor Hermoza. "Most of the Arabs live on the Brazil side, I should point out," Hermoza said, and added, "Anyway, the Arabs are all moving to Chile."
Hermoza, who has an open, friendly face, insists that his country is doing everything it can to aid the American war on terror. In fact, he said, with a suggestion of pride, he takes his orders from American diplomats. "The national police cannot do anything without the American Embassy," he said. "We rely on their intelligence."
We met in his office at the Interior Ministry, in downtown Asunción. Paraguay is small and poor, and perhaps best known for the longtime rule of Alfredo Stroessner, who made the country a hideout for Nazi fugitives, including Josef Mengele. Crime is rising, and the economy has been badly hurt by the collapses in Brazil and Argentina. Some Paraguayans have taken to spray-painting walls with the slogan "Stroessner Vuelve!," or "Stroessner Will Return!" Stroessner was deposed in 1989, and now, at the age of eighty-nine, lives in exile in Brazil.
Hermoza, who began his career during Stroessner's regime, suggests that the country is no d
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