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Story Publication logo August 26, 2007

Iguaçu: Beyond the Rumors


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In the thick green rainforest at the triple frontier of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, a Muslim...

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The chant-like call for Friday's mid-day prayer rings from the loudspeaker, breaking through the humid jungle air. Worshipers file into the shiny, white mosque, chatting in Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish as they take their spots on the soft, blue carpet.

A hush settles over the dome when Sheik Taleb Jomha, the spiritual leader, or imam, enters and climbs to his perch on the altar. He quickly commands the group's attention, leading this community of Muslim Brazilians as they turn towards Mecca and pray.

Prayers coming from this mosque might be a little more fervent these days.

The Muslim community in what is known as the Tri-Border region, where Brazil meets Paraguay and Argentina in the middle of a thick, green rainforest, has been accused yet again of involvement in international terrorism. Recent rumors of money laundering for Middle East organizations remind the locals of terrorism suspicions dating back to the mid-1990s anti-Semitic attacks in Buenos Aires. Though investigations into these accusations continue to turn up empty, Muslims here are learning to live as a community with a target on its back.

"It was unexpected news to us to hear ourselves described this way in the media ' says Jomha, sitting on his house's patio in a lush courtyard just behind the mosque.

He is referring to unconfirmed news reports earlier this year that tie his community once more to terrorist activity, this time through the alleged laundering of $3 billion between a New York bank and accounts affiliated with Middle East terror organizations. Media outlets in Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and even Uruguay jumped on the story, forcing people here to reassume a defensive posture in the latest example of the community's unproven guilt.

"If you were us,' Jomha says, "you would feel the same injustice.'

Unwanted Attention

By its nature, the region attracts international attention.

The nearby Iguazu Falls, a UNESCO World Heritage site with dramatic cliffs and thunderous cascades, draw thousands of tourists every year. But the zone's reputation has a dicey side, too. The unique three-border setup facilitates a thriving contraband market, with the Paraguayan side, called Ciudad del Este, acting as the launching pad for much of the continent's illegal goods.

The area is routinely characterized as a lawless land and a hub for terrorist activity. In 2003, Jessica Stern of Harvard University, went so far as to call the Tri-Border region "the world's new Libya, a place where terrorist with widely disparate ideologies—Marxist Colombian rebels, American white supremacists, Hamas, Hezbollah and others—meet to swap tradecraft.'

What catches the eyes of international anti-terrorism investigators today is the area's roughly 30,000-strong Arab-descendent population, one of the largest in South America. The recent round of finger pointing began in November, when an Argentine federal prosecutor claimed the alleged suicide driver in the 1994 Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association attack, which killed 85 people in Buenos Aires, passed through the Tri-Border region beforehand. Officials have long suspected the Shiite Lebanese organization Hezbollah for planning the AMIA attack as well at the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 people.

Investigations concentrating on the Tri-Border region's large Lebanese population have found nothing conclusive. To date, no indictments in either case have been made, and evidence is sparse. In the AMIA investigation, the strongest lead reported by Argentine intelligence agents is that some of the explosive materials may have originated from the Tri-Border region.

Suspicion of the community also arose after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, with alleged post-attack phone calls between the Tri-Border region and the U.S. causing concern in the FBI. The 9/11 Commission Report cites "a memo that appears to be from Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith to [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld' which touted the value of a "surprise' attack on terrorists in a place like the Tri-Border.

"[T]he author expressed disappointment at the limited options immediately available in Afghanistan and the lack of ground options,' the commission reported. "The author suggested instead hitting terrorists outside the Middle East in the initial offensive, perhaps deliberately selecting a non–al Qaeda target like Iraq. Since U.S. attacks were expected in Afghanistan, an American attack in South America or Southeast Asia might be a surprise to the terrorists.'

By October 2001 the idea of military force as one of the elements of national power against terrorist groups in the region was reasserted by the US State Department's Counter-terrorism Coordinator Francis Taylor in a meeting of the OAS International Committee on Terrorism. No concrete action followed, neither then nor in the five years since, but the region remains top-of-mind in Washington -- despite two admissions in the past year by top Pentagon and State officials that no credible evidence of terrorist activity in the area exists.

In March assistant U.S. Treasury secretary Patrick O'Brien visited Buenos Aires to talk about counterterrorism, and the State Department's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs continues to moderate the so-called "Three Plus One,' a group of Argentine, Brazilian, Paraguayan and American government officials zeroing in on the Tri-Border region.

Terrorism -- or Water?

Some people in the Tri-Border region think they may have found a reason for the constant attention: the geography's ecological resources.

The zone sits on the Guarani Aquifer, an underground water reserve thought to be the largest in the world. People in the community theorize that, with water shortages emerging as a serious environmental issue, international interests in the Tri-Border's aquifer are being veiled by anti-terrorism efforts. The reservoir already provides water to approximately 15 million people in South America and, according to estimates, could be a resource to as many as 360 million people over a sustained period of time.

People who believe this idea point to the joint military agreement between Paraguay and the U.S., in which groups of U.S. troops spend short tours in Paraguay providing humanitarian assistance to rural residents, as a way to slowly establish a U.S. presence in the aquifer zone. Coincidentally, diplomatic visits between the U.S. and Paraguay have surged in the past few years. President Nicanor Duarte made the first Paraguayan presidential visit to Washington, D.C., in 2003, and his vice president had a Stateside meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney shortly thereafter. And just last year, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited the Paraguayan capital city of Asuncion.

The U.S. State Department denies any interest in the aquifer. American government officials say their involvement in the Tri-Border region simply fits into the larger war on terrorism. And they say they are merely supporting, not leading, the three governments in their own pursuit to tighten the Tri-Border's customs control and guard for any terrorist activity.

Some Latin America scholars think American involvement in the area could backfire.

"There is always a risk that if the United States responds as if it's responding to a terrorist threat, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and you could actually encourage a reaction,' says Michael Shifter, a Latin America analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Post-Sept. 11 life for many of the Muslims here has meant a prolonged battle against feelings of irritation at being questioned about their activities and affiliations.

"They come here, they say you're guilty, but they never find anything,' says Carlos Al-mu Amin Velay, 49, a native Argentine Muslim who moved to Foz in 1993 after living in the U.S. for 14 years. Velay, a translator who works with tourists, says the chronic blame and ensuing notoriety the area suffers from can slow his business from time to time.

Imam Jomha says the Muslims here lead honest lives and are trying to overcome the undying—and unwanted—international attention.

The community's past -- and future

Jomha came to Brazil from Lebanon in 2000 to lead the community of Muslims who live in an urban area of approximately half a million residents. The 38-year-old oversees a Sunni mosque that sits on the campus of the Islamic Cultural Center of Foz do Iguacu. Next to the shimmering dome is the Arabic Brazilian Primary School, its name written on a whitewashed wall in bright blue letters, both Arabic and Portuguese. Uniformed children guide their roller backpacks from classroom to classroom in the open-air building, learning Arabic, English, religion and other subjects.

Like Jomha, most members of the Muslim community here are Lebanese. And at its base, this immigrant community's story is no different from that of any other immigrant community around the world. As people looked for ways to escape the Lebanese civil war that began in the mid-1970s, the Tri-Border region appeared an attractive option. The construction of the nearby Itaipu Dam, the world's largest hydroelectrical power plant, was just getting underway and offered reliable jobs. And the region's reputation as a lively commerce center created opportunities in the import-and-export business. Once a few Lebanese families opened shop in Ciudad del Este or found work at the dam, other immigrants followed.

But the balance between preserving their heritage and creating their own, Brazilian identities is proving tricky. Some community members say the constant negative attention the Tri-Border's Muslims have received has created discomfort in Foz, perhaps encouraging Arab immigrants to abandon their ancestry.

"It's not aggressive, or like racism,' says Zaki Moussa, president of the Islamic Cultural Center of Foz do Iguacu and a 40-year-old father of three children. He's quick to point out that native Brazilians have welcomed the Arab community and that the two groups live harmoniously. But, Moussa explains, he and other parents worry that their children will be looked at differently because of their Lebanese background. He says the lack of knowledge about the Islamic religion—in Foz, and in the West in general—has at times caused unnecessary fear of Muslims in the Tri-Border region.

As a result of this fear, many younger Arab Brazilians now consider themselves more Brazilian than Arab. Moussa says many Arab-descendent teens use semi-Brazilian names to fit in at school.

In Mohamad Barakat's family, Arab heritage has been reduced to nostalgia. The 67-year-old Lebanese native came to Brazil in 1961, and his children, born here, all married native Brazilians. His children no longer belong to a mosque, he says.

"In my family…it could be [that] I am the only one now considered an Arab,' Barakat says. Even with his strong Arab identity, Barakat has integrated into life in Foz, too, having served in an elected city council office for seven years. He demonstrates the community's struggle, showing pride in his assimilated children but talking fondly about his family history.

Though the community's eyes may be looking forward, the link back to Lebanon is still present. Children refer to grandparents, aunts or uncles who still live there, and many of the community's adults have made at least one trip back. The most attention-grabbing activity between the two regions, though, is the remittances they send home. Many Arab-Brazilians talk openly about money they mail to relatives still in Lebanon. But this practice is now coming under scrutiny as allegations of terrorism-affiliated money laundering start to fly.

"I don't feel like a terrorist for sending $500 to my parents,' says Moussa, who was born in Lebanon but came to Brazil in 1986. He runs a travel agency in Foz, and he says he sends between $200 and $300 back to his struggling parents in Lebanon on a monthly basis.

Moussa is incredulous at the idea of billions of dollars passing through the Tri-Border region on its way to terrorist organizations. He says the community can barely raise enough money to make small improvements in their own daily lives.

"And live here in this misery?' he asks, explaining that the local Arab Union Club, a recreational compound with a swimming pool, tennis courts and an event hall, has been closed for two years because members can not pay the electricity and water bills. And a better hospital in Foz would be nice, too, he adds.

The community's self-professed integrity does not cancel out the possibility of a few unknown, transient terrorist operatives using the area as an operational base and consequently smearing everyone else's name. But as Pedro Brieger, a Middle East expert and international affairs professor at the University of Buenos Aires points out, "no one can prove absolutely anything' regarding the existence of terrorism in the area.

There is no clear safe haven here, local leaders say, as the area's estimated equal numbers of Sunnis and Shiites have both integrated into society. According to Brieger, the two groups buck patterns that exist in other parts of the world, where collaboration between Sunni groups such as al Qaeda and Shiite groups like Hezbollah is unlikely. Yet as a result of these alleged alliances both communities are now targeted as potential suspects.

Many Muslims here have learned to maintain a day-to-day normalcy amidst the ongoing attention.

At a popular Lebanese restaurant a few cobblestone streets down from the Foz mosque, families dive into plates of hummus, jump from table to table to socialize and pass the hookah on a Sunday afternoon. Women get together for tea, making small talk while their children run wild throughout the house and organize video game tournaments.

The Arabic-Brazilian school also provides a glimpse into the community's future. Gregarious children talk about their love for Foz and the beautiful waterfalls nearby. They can't wait to play soccer and basketball after school, and they have dreams of becoming artists, teachers, doctors and businessmen. They will go on to general public schools—the Arabic school ends at 8th grade—and will continue to grow up among other Brazilian children.

Community Solidarity

The area's reputation is a result of too many people jumping to conclusions, several regional experts in the U.S. say. "The fact that they are a Muslim community has no bearing on whether there is terrorism there or not,' says the Inter-American Dialogue's Shifter. He adds that the perception of the Tri-Border region as a terrorism hotbed is "part of the overall anxiety of this post-9/11 global war environment.' The region's free-flowing borders and large Muslim community make it an easy, if undeserved, target for terrorism suspicions, Shifter says.

Several non-Muslims in the area also vouch for the Muslim community's integrity and are now coming to their neighbors' aid. Not only are lots of local non-Muslims disturbed to hear accusations being directed at people they trust, they say, but negative attention in the international media affects a zone largely dependent on tourism.

Laura Galante de Miskin is a non-Muslim Argentine who has lived in Ciudad del Este for 25 years. Her husband, a native Syrian, is the country's ambassador to Paraguay. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, she started a group called Peace Without Borders to show the world that the Tri-Border region was deeply affected by the terrorist acts and wanted to promote international peace from its own, diverse homeland.

The 48-year-old teacher, who has an Arab and Italian family background, says the area's welcoming nature to immigrant populations is now being used against it. The zone also has large Taiwanese and Korean populations, among other immigrant groups.

Miskin thinks the suspicions of terrorism here are unjustified and chip away at the area's solidarity.

"This is my question: What do we have [here]?...Is it because the region is a zone that has more 'Arabs'? Or because there are two mosques here? There aren't mosques in other parts of the world?'

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