October 15, 2001 | News Releases on Department of Homeland Security

U.S. Shouldn't Neglect Regional Terrorism Threats, Analyst Says

WASHINGTON, Oct. 15, 2001-Because of its persistent poverty, weak rule of law and unstable democratic institutions, Latin America could pose as much, if not more, of a challenge to U.S. security as the Middle East, a new Heritage Foundation paper says.

"Latin America is both a target for terrorists and an unwilling host," Heritage expert Stephen Johnson says. "Of the 30 terrorist organizations identified by the U.S. State Department as having worldwide reach, 10 operate from Latin America, and one of those has significant ties to Osama bin Laden."

Cuba, Colombia and Paraguay all display different forms of terrorist activity, he says. Cuba, long identified as a "state sponsor" of terrorism by the State Department, has helped the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army-the two challengers to Colombian sovereignty-since the 1960s. Cuba has ties to Libya, Iran and Iraq and has developed biological weapons and massive electronic warfare and eavesdropping facilities.

More than half of Colombia has fallen under control of FARC, which is financed by cocaine traffickers, Johnson says. As a result, the FARC's fighting force has doubled in size in the last six years, to 16,000 soldiers. Most of its violence has been directed against its own citizens. But in September 1999, Colombian police discovered a partially built submarine in a warehouse near Bogata, and this April, police seized a quantity of enriched uranium from an amateur scientist, which suggests someone may be trying to construct a crude atomic bomb.

Paraguay, Johnson says, tolerates smuggling and now has a black market that rivals or exceeds its formal economy. It has allowed groups such as the Egyptian Islamic Group, with known ties to bin Laden, and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah to gain footholds. Police suspect a Hezbollah cell played a role in bombing the Israeli embassy in Paraguay in 1992 and an Israeli cultural center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1996.

Johnson says the United States has begun to recognize the threat that lax law enforcement, which allows terrorists to function freely, poses in Latin America. It has sent FBI agents to investigate aspects of the Sept. 11 attacks and invoked the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance to obtain support for rooting out terrorists by declaring the attack on the United States an attack on all the Americas.

But beyond that, America must expand legal assistance treaties in the region, help countries tighten border and migration controls, extend the Andean Trade Preferences Act (which expires in December) and expand efforts to train police, immigration and customs officials, prosecutors and judges, Johnson says.

"The danger is that, at some point, terrorist groups and the region's drug traffickers will become fused into one well-financed and dangerous threat to the United States and its hemispheric neighbors," he says.

About the Author