Guns, drugs and maybe Islamists: Brazil tightens border before Games


On a chilly morning, with a breeze blowing in from Paraguay, customs officials occasionally stop and search vehicles crossing Brazil's busiest border point, looking for contraband. 

Most passengers are poor Brazilians, carrying electronics they were commissioned to buy duty-free over the river in Paraguay's Ciudad del Este, but there is a more dangerous trade too.

“It's not unusual to find drugs or arms,” said Leonardo, a tall Brazilian customs official with a few day's stubble who has been working the bridge for two years. “You start to get an eye for it,” he said, watching cars crawl across the open border.

With just days to go before the Olympics start in Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian security forces have shifted their gaze to an even more amorphous crime: terrorism.

They have increased checks at this border post – where tens of thousands of people cross back and forth every day – and have set up a control room with access to dozens of cameras watching different points of the frontier.

Intelligence officials have long pointed to this border region, home to a sizable Muslim community, as a weak point in Brazilian security. 

With an estimated 500,000 foreigners descending on Rio for the Olympics and recent attacks on European cities raising security concerns, the daunting task of monitoring and controlling the border area between Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina has come back into focus. 

Last month, Brazilian authorities arrested 12 people on suspicion of supporting Islamic State and discussing an attack during the Games. 

It was the first time the government has admitted potential terrorist activity within its borders.

Police say they are monitoring a further 100 people with possible links to Islamic extremism, most of them here in the tri-border area, or TBA as it is known in security circles. 

The point where Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil, Ciudad del Este in Paraguay and Puerto Iguazu in Argentina meet, is a popular tourist spot to access the thundering Iguazu Falls. It is also a major smuggling route. 

In the labyrinth of market stalls lining the feet of high-rise shopping malls, where hookah smoke fuses with the smell of new sneakers and money changers swap wads of currency beside men offering guns for sale, the imagination can run riot.

The reality, however, is hard to pin down. 

The only clear link between the 12 plotters arrested and this area is an alleged attempt by one of the group to buy an AK-47 rifle online from a shop in Ciudad del Este. Given the ease of acquiring weapons in Brazil's major cities, the connection was dismissed by many as a greater sign of the group's amateurism than the dangers of the tri-border area. 

But police sources on the border admit the region is fertile ground for extremist movements.

“There's no doubt the situation suits a would-be terrorist,” one police source told Reuters. “Criminal activity, the flow of people, guns, and a well-established but closed Muslim community are all here.”

'OFFICIALLY, NO TERRORISM'

Concern over the area as a potential fund-raising and access point for militants started after intelligence agencies traced attacks in Buenos Aires on the Israeli embassy in 1992 and the AMIAJewish community center in 1994 back to the region.

Those attacks, which killed 114 people, were blamed on the Lebanese militant political group Hezbollah. 

U.S. intelligence officials drew links to the sizable Lebanese community in the tri-border area and money raised from certain shopping malls in Ciudad del Este.

Diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks from that period showed U.S. frustration. 

“Officially, Brazil does not have terrorism inside its border,” read a message sent in October 2009 from the U.S. embassy in Brasilia. “In reality, several Islamic groups with known or suspected ties to extremist organizations have branches in Brazil and are suspected of carrying out financing activities.”

Another cable, from January 2008, said Brazil “remains highly sensitive” to claims “the TBA is a hotbed of terrorist activity.”

Such sensitivity appears to have been based on a desire not to hurt tourism in the region and a fear of stigmatizing Brazil's Muslim community of about 1 million people, mainly in Sao Paulo, Foz do Iguaçu and the southern city of Curitiba.

The arrests in the run up to the Olympics, all carried out under a new anti-terrorism law passed in March, mark a significant shift in Brazil's approach.

“The law facilitates greatly the sharing of information between police and intelligence services of different countries,” said Marcos Josegrei da Silva, the judge overseeing the investigation.

The prosecutor in the case, Rafael Brum Miron, summed it up even more simply: “If I'd had the same evidence six months ago, I would not have been able to do anything.”

Abdo Nasser Elkhatib, the imam of Foz do Iguaçu's bright white mosque, also stressed cooperation and integration, saying he would alert the police if he suspected a member of his congregation of extremism. 

But at the bridge, or on the river below, it is a different story. Logistical difficulties, corruption and a lack of resources compromise efforts to improve security.

10 MINUTE WALK TO HARDSHIP

Paraguay is a tricky neighbor. South America's second poorest country behind Bolivia, legal and illegal commerce with Brazil is the lifeblood of Ciudad del Este. 

Attempts to increase security by checking more people and cargo would slow the flow of goods and sound a death knell for Paraguay's eastern border zone. 

Despite being a 10 minute walk from Brazil, Ciudad del Este is considered a hardship posting for Brazilian diplomats. Its manic streets can feel lawless despite a heavy police presence. 

On one visit, a fight broke out between motorbike taxi riders, who swarm on yellow bikes across the bridge like bees. One rider ripped off his helmet and smashed it repeatedly over the other's helmeted head. Police and passersby watched with drowsy curiosity. 

“It's very difficult to manage the border,” said Angel Ibarra Mendoza, head of migration on the Paraguayan side, struggling to open his eyes as he walked out of the dark, sleepy migration office. 

He pointed to a new white truck sitting idle in a parking spot. “That's to help us with security for the Olympics.”

Brazilian officers are quick in private to discuss their own flaws. The federal police in Foz have put their own mayor under house arrest on charges of embezzling public funds.

Beyond corruption, there's the problem of resources. 

Out on patrol with the police in a seized smuggling boat, officers point at clandestine ports that line the Parana River. Wearing bullet-resistant vests against the occasional gunfire that comes from Paraguay, they motor past poor communities set along the river's edge where smuggling has been the livelihood for generations. 

“We'd need 10 times the personnel to really be able to police this border,” one officer says.

President Cartes to Netanyahu: ‘Paraguay had its own Holocaust’


President Horacio Cartes, the first Paraguayan head of state to visit Israel, told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that his South American nation also faced a Holocaust.

“Paraguay has had a Holocaust. We lost practically all our population in a war that was called the Triple Alliance with our neighbor,” Cartes said this week during a meeting with Netanyahu, referring to the South American war fought from 1864 to 1870 between Paraguay and the Triple Alliance of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. There were some 400,000 casualties in that war.

“But,” he continued, “I don’t want to be the country to be remembered because we had the Holocaust. I want our countries to be much closer because we share principles and values.”

On Wednesday, Cartes completed a three-day trip to Israel, where he met with high-level officials. The leaders signed bilateral agreements on cooperation in time of emergency, legal matters, education, Holocaust remembrance and culture, as well as a Memorandum of Understanding on technical development assistance for Paraguay.

“You have been an anchor of friendship,” Netanyahu told Cartes, “and we are eager to discuss with you the possibilities of increasing our cooperation with all the countries of Latin America, which we think is a continent that has a great future.”

“We want to develop the future of our relations and through you, and with your help, the future of a broader relationship between Israel and the region.”

On Monday, Cartes met Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, which Rivlin called “historic.”

“Paraguay was and still is a true friend of the State of Israel since its establishment, and even beforehand when it voted for it on Nov. 29, 1947,” Rivlin said. “We are happy to strengthen the ties between the two countries and I hope that your visit here will further improve the good relations.”

The visit came in the wake of the reopening of the Israeli Embassy in Paraguay about a year ago following a 14-year hiatus due to budgetary cuts. Paraguay has distinguished itself among South American countries by supporting Israel in the United Nations and other international forums.

At the World Jewish Congress special plenary assembly in Buenos Aires in March, Cartes was awarded the Shalom Prize of the Latin American Jewish Congress for his contributions to building coexistence.

Paraguay is home to some 1,000 Jews in a population of nearly 6.7 million people.

Paraguayan president on Israel visit to explore expanding ties


President Horacio Cartes of Paraguay will visit Israel to discuss several cooperation agreements between the two countries.

Cartes will meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin during his mid-July visit to talk about bilateral interests in the areas of agriculture, technology and education, the Ultima Hora newspaper reported Monday.

“The visit will help us strengthen our cooperation,” Israeli Ambassador Peleg Lewi told La Nacion. “We have been doing a lot of work together, which we wish to expand to other areas such as innovation and high technology.”

Paraguay exports $190 million to Israel annually in soy, beef, charcoal and other products, according to official data from 2015. In Israel, 40 percent of the meat consumed is Paraguayan. Israel is one of the highest paying markets for Paraguayan beef.

Last month, Israel delivered drip irrigation systems to Paraguayan small farmers as a result of technical collaboration process with local cooperatives.

In March, Cartes was awarded the Shalom Prize by the World Jewish Congress for “contributions to building coexistence.”

Two months earlier, Israel had donated food and assistance kits to help Paraguayans displaced by massive flooding in the region, the worst in half a century.

The Israeli Embassy in Asuncion was reopened last year after the closure in 2002 along with 15 other diplomatic missions around the world because of budgetary constraints. Paraguay is home to some 1,000 Jews in a population of nearly 6.7 million people.

World Jewish Congress to honor Paraguay’s president with peace prize


President Horacio Cartes of Paraguay will be recognized by the World Jewish Congress for what the group said was his “contributions to building coexistence.”

Cartes will receive the Shalom Prize, the WJC’s Latin American branch and Cartes’ office both announced Tuesday. The prize, which was established to recognize individuals or organizations who seek peace, will be awarded at a March ceremony in Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital and headquarters of the Latin American Jewish Congress.

Jack Terpins, president of the Latin American Jewish Congress, said Cartes was selected for his “constant support of dialogue and negotiation, from a neutral place, about the situation in the Middle East. ”

Leaders of the Latin American Jewish Congress informed Cartes of the honor at a meeting Tuesday.

“The Jewish people have a lot of history, is very rich in tradition and memory, so this award is an honor for me,” Cartes said at the meeting.

Cartes has confirmed he will be present in Buenos Aires to receive the award, according to the president’s website.

Other Latin American presidents who have received the award include Michelle Bachelet of Chile in 2008 and Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia in 2012.

In July 2014, World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder thanked the government of Paraguay for refusing to sign what he called a “harmful and unbalanced resolution” on the Israel-Hamas conflict offered by the Mercosur, a trade group of five South American nations. He said Cartes “took a brave stand” by refusing to sign.

“We thank him for insisting on fairness, which this declaration lacked,” Lauder said.

Also attending Tuesday’s meeting with Cartes were Saul Gilvich of Uruguay, the secretary general of the Latin Jewish Congress; Jack Fleishman, president of the Jewish community of Paraguay, and other Jewish leaders and Paraguayan officials.

Israel aiding Paraguayans displaced by worst flooding in 50 years


Israel will donate food and assistance kits to help Paraguayans displaced by massive flooding in the region, the worst in half a century.

“The State of Israel is sympathetic to our sister nation of Paraguay in this difficult moment when thousands of citizens have been forced to leave their homes behind,” the Israeli Embassy in Asuncion said. “We are ready to support the government to provide humanitarian aid.”

Some 100,000 Paraguayans have been displaced by the flooding caused by torrential rain, which was triggered by the El Nino weather phenomenon and started falling in the region on Dec. 18. Some rivers have reached a height of 32 feet and burst floodwalls.

The flooding had a stronger impact on residents of low-lying slums, who sought shelter in camps on higher ground and are sleeping in improvised tents.

Another 50,000 people also were stricken by floods in bordering areas in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, but Paraguay was the most-affected nation.

Israel reopened its Paraguay embassy in July after it was closed in 2002 due to financial constraints. The countries have strong ties in the fields of anti-terrorism, trade and agriculture.

Paraguay is home to a Jewish community of about 1,000.

Paraguayan Jewish soccer boss suspended for racial slurs against Arabs


Paraguay’s soccer association has suspended the Jewish president of a team for hurling racial slurs at a colleague of Arab descent.

During a match last month, the president of Asuncion’s Olimpia soccer team, Marcelo Recanate, accosted Juan José Zapag, the president of a rival team.

Recanate will be suspended for four months and suffer a 60-month reduction in pay, Dr. Raul Prono of the ethics committee of the Association of Football in Paraguay said on Thursday.

In a recording of the incident, Recanate is heard repeatedly cursing Zapag “and all of his countrymen.”

Recanate has apologized for the insults in a press conference, which he convened shortly after the incident.

“I want to offer my apologies to the father of my fathers all the way to Abraham, and the patrimony of the Jewish and Arab people. There can be no place for racism against my brothers,” he said at the press conference.

Olimpia has won 39 national titles, more than any other team in Paraguay.