George W. Bush has sent US Special Forces soldiers to the Philippines, Georgia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Horn of Africa and Colombia in his global war against terrorism. The next battlefield however, may well be a remote jungle region south of Colombia on the banks of the Parana River where the borders of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay meet. This lawless strip, a long-time vortex of drug smugglers, gunrunners and bandidos, is now seen as a centre for Arab extremists. By some accounts, these militants, some believed to be linked to Osama bin Laden, are fanning out across Latin America and in the view of US authorities posing a potentially serious security threat.
Intelligence agencies from a dozen countries have infiltrated the region, where Lebanese and Syrians predominate among the 20,000 Arabs who have turned this Casablanca on the Parana into a hotbed of intrigue, a haven for fugitives on the run from the Middle East and a money-laundering centre.
This strange region, where the governments of three countries seem incapable of imposing any sort of order, first came to international attention following terrorist bombings in Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital, in 1992 and 1994. Both were blamed on Iran and Hizbullah. Yet this outlaw region continues to exist, with little real effort by, any of the governments in whose territory it resides, to curtail the illegal activities carried out there.
Indeed, so impervious to the forces of law and order has the tri-border area become, extremist organisations now reportedly use it as a rest and recreation centre for their fugitives. The US State Department describes it as a "focal point for Islamic extremism in Latin America".
Presumably, dozens of officials are getting their cut from the profits made by the gunrunners, drug traffickers, money-launderers and other outcasts who populate this stretch of jungle. Argentine and US investigators say inhabitants of the zone--a large number of them Arabs--have raised or laundered around $50m for terrorist organisations in recent years.
In March, the Miami Herald quoted General James T. Hill, head of the US military's Southern Command, whose area of responsibility covers Latin America, as saying that radical Islamic groups such as Hizbullah, Hamas and Egypt's Al Gamaa al Islamiya are getting between $300m and $500m a year from the criminal networks that are spreading across Latin America, particularly the tri-border region and Margarita Island off...