As the United States prepares for war against Iraq, in what the Bush administration calls the next phase in the war on terrorism, should Washington pay more attention to Latin America?
Analysts in the United States have long argued that the region gets short shrift from a Washington perpetually absorbed by far-off lands to the east.
But U.S. officials focused on problems to our south are increasingly ringing alarm bells.
No one more so than Gen. James T. Hill, the military commander of the U.S. Southern Command, in Miami. When Hill addressed a regional security conference in Miami last week, attended by 300 academics and military brass, he didn't pull punches.
"Narcoterrorism" in Latin America is fueling "radical Islamic groups" such as Hamas and Hezbollah, he said. These groups are exploiting weak border controls and the lack of state authority in certain "lawless" areas, to "generate hundreds of millions of dollars through drug and arms trafficking with narcoterrorists."
This was "fact, not speculation," he stressed. Hill said he wasn't pointing fingers at any one country.
"I don't have enough fingers," he said.
He did, however, go on to pick out some of those "lawless" places, including the so-called triborder area, a curious dot on the map where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay converge, and the Venezuelan island of Margarita in the Caribbean.
The notion of Islamic radicals in those places might sound like a new threat from an unexpected quarter. In fact, these allegations have been around for a while. What was new this time was the emphatic way Hill delivered it, and the message of a "clear and present danger" it carried.
Lawlessness in Latin America is a perennial enemy of progress and democracy. For example, the lack of state presence in large parts of Colombia has allowed illegal armed groups, partly financed by drugs, to flourish.
The triborder area in particular is a haven for all kinds of smuggling activity, counterfeiters and tax-dodgers. This remote, steamy jungle region is home to two cities _ Ciudad del Este in Paraguay and Foz de Iguacu in Brazil _ linked by a rusty iron bridge over the Parana River.
What has aroused the attention of the United States is that Ciudad del Este, in particular, is home to a community of some 20,000 Muslim Arabs who have immigrated there, mostly from Lebanon.
Some analysts believe Southern Command exaggerates the Islamic threat in Latin America. It is no secret that the military hierarchy views Southcom as its least important command. Hill is scheduled to testify before Congress this week, and by raising the Islamic threat he may be seeking to make his best pitch for relevance _ and new funding.
On the other hand, the evidence does give rise to concern. If groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah are involved in the drug trade, this would represent a dangerous development for the region.
According to a report prepared in May by the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, titled "A Global Overview of Narcotics-Funded Terrorist and Other Groups," Islamic fundamentalist groups in the triborder area are sending large amounts of money to bank accounts in Canada, Lebanon and elsewhere.
Although some of that money may be accounted for by family remittances, intelligence agencies believe a large part of it is probably destined for Islamic terrorist groups. Some of it is likely derived from drug trafficking, although proof of that is lacking.
"If the large amounts of funds are any indication, these groups may be increasingly involved in drug trafficking in the region to fund their worldwide operations and to further the degradation of Western society," the report said.
Brazilian officials have estimated that more than $6-billion a year in illegal funds are laundered in the triborder area. An estimated 1.5 tons of cocaine per month are exported from the region, according to Argentine authorities.
Local mosques deny allegations that they have raised money for Hezbollah. But the terrorist group's presence is hardly a secret. Hezbollah's official channel is among the four Arabic-language cable television stations broadcast locally.
Argentina's security services have been investigating possible links between terrorists and the Arab community of the triborder region since car bomb attacks in 1992 and 1994 on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and a nearby Jewish community center. The bombs killed some 115 people.
Joint intelligence operations between the United States and Argentina led to the breakup in 1996 of a plot to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Asuncion, Paraguay's capital.
One piece of good news: Local triborder police say they have uncovered no link to al-Qaida.
_ The report is available on the Web site of the Inter-American Counterdrug Forum at: www.iacdf.org/eng/Countries/us.asp. David Adams may be contacted at dadamssptimes.com.