American foreign policy is, lamentably, a tad reactionary. And that’s no one’s fault, really. It is difficult to map, monitor and engage every country touching U.S. interests with equal care and planning. This is why, for instance, it usually takes large-scale geopolitical conflagrations — think the World Wars, Communism, War on Terror, etc. — to really focus resources and attention.
Historians usually trod along a few decades after an international flash to let us know the signs were there all along. So, let me save them some trouble. Parts of South America, a beautiful continent with an unfortunate political history, economically and socially frozen for decades, but teeming with the promise of natural resources and hard-working people, is becoming a terrorist safe-haven.
In Ciudad del Este, a city nestled on the Paraguayan side of the so-called Tri-Border Area with Brazil and Argentina, Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization funded by Iran, has used Paraguayan political corruption — and general lack of resources — to set up a network a profitable money-laundering operation. Along with Hezbollah, of course, Latin American drug kingpins and run-of-the-mill contraband import/exporters, too, are in town on the take.
Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has been among only a few voices raising concern with Paraguay’s inability — or lack of inclination — to combat its status as a tax haven for some of the world’s most notorious criminals and terrorists. He correctly cites lack of transparency and rampant corruption at every level of government, as some of the challenges American policymakers will have to understand and combat if they hope to eradicate the scourge.
Thankfully, the Trump administration has shown signs of waking to a problem previous administrations left festering. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently traveled (the first such visit by an American secretary of State in 50 years) to the Paraguayan capital to meet with new President Mario Abdo Bentez, and noted “There’s no doubt. Iranian money remains in South America supporting Hezbollah, supporting transnational criminal organizations, supporting efforts at terrorism throughout the region.”
This rhetoric, and personal, high-level attention the United States is paying to the situation in Paraguay is a heartening sign. And it could not come at, I think, a more crucial moment. You see, as things stand, Hezbollah’s activities in Paraguay and other parts of South America seem to have concentrated on nefarious financial activities, not the exportation of terrorism. But give it time.
The borders throughout Latin America as a whole are porous, a vulnerability seized upon by drug smugglers and human traffickers. To date — and this involves the importance of secure U.S. borders — foreign terrorists tend to attempt infiltration by air or sea, and in low numbers.
However, as Mr. Pompeo remarked early this year, “terrorists will always find the weakest link, and we need to make sure that the weakest link in our national security isn’t our southern border.” And just reflect: If the cartels, which have perfected the art of smuggling, are adept at moving thousands upon thousands of pounds of drugs (and human beings) into the United States, why not smuggle terrorists? Or their deadly contraband?
The short answer, I think, is that, to date, this revenue stream — the bottom line for any cartel — has not demonstrated efficiency, sustainability or profit. But if Hezbollah grows a robust financial footprint further south, develops ties with the Mexican cartels (and others) up north, and a value proposition struck, the United States will find itself in a dangerous, almost intractable situation.
Latin America’s problems are complex and don’t admit of neat solutions. Many of their challenges are home-grown, and to this extent, there are limits to what the United States can and cannot do to better the situation. What the United States can do, however, is begin to pay more careful attention to our southern neighbors as a whole, taking care terrorist groups never find comfort in our region.
The current administration should be commended for recognizing this potential threat. Now it’s time for them to act before our worst fears are realized.
• David Bahr is the communications director for the R Street Institute.
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