CUIDAD DEL ESTE January 2002
One of the least known battles in the war against terror is being waged in a confined area in the depths of Latin America, where the US believes Islamic fundamentalism has been able to grow unchecked.
The rain came down in a sheet, bouncing off the golden roof of the mosque, splashing into the tiny guard house, where we were sheltering, then shorting the electrics so the automatic gate to the compound wouldn’t open and we couldn’t get out.
On the others side of the fence, umbrella raised, then blown out by the tropical wind, was Jeffrey Hessler from Iowa, a small rotund bespectacled man who represented the local American Chamber of Commerce. He showed us a way through the railings and drove us to his home. Dried off, he explained he didn’t like what we had come to talk to him about. But being dutiful, he would oblige.
‘I suppose there is a concentration of religious activity,’ he said cautiously. ‘But you have to decide whether organisations like Hezbollah and Hamas are religious or political parties.’
We were just inside Brazil. A mile or so down the road was Argentina. A mile or so the other way was Paraguay. From the air, this area known as the Triple Border, looks like a huge T-junction of rivers and jungle. On the ground it was a meeting of porous borders which America has described as the most dangerous focal point for Islamic terrorism in Latin America.
‘Barakat,’ I ventured. ‘Do you know him? Was he a member of the chamber?.’
Mr Hessler shook his head. ‘No. Mr Barakat. I’ve heard of this man. But I don’t know him.’
Assad Ahmed Barakat, Lebanese immigrant, father of three children, and Hezbollah sympathiser is one of the many wanted names around the world in the War on Terror.
He used to run an electronics business in the damp, paint-peeled town of Cuidad del Este just across the Parana River in Paraguay. For Arab traders, disrupted by the upheavals of the Middle East, this far-flung and unknown area of Latin America has been a magnet.
Once no more than a shanty town of a river bank, Ciudad del Este has sprouted high-rise apartments, mosques and private security firms. Its economy has boomed with the trading of thousands of Arab businessmen, much of it legal, some illegal, many just wanting a quiet life, others actively involved in drugs, contraband and supporting and funding terror.
Over in Paraguay, ducking from another squall, we sprinted across to the razor-wired compound of the honorary consul for Syria, nodding at the guard, his uniform sodden and water dripping off the bright red shotgun cartridges banded around his chest.
What did the honorary consul think of Mr Barakat?
‘Barakat,’ said Mijael Bazas, the local representative for Givenchy and other international brand names. ‘He is in Brazil right now and I don’t think Brazil would defend someone like him if he were a criminal. It’s completely unfair. Intelligence agents from the US and Israel are here and so far they haven’t been able to find any proof. School children are treated like terrorists just because they’re Arabs.’
Ernesto Irun, the young Mayor of Cuidad del Este had another view. He’s an aspiring presidential candidate, a heavy weight from the ruling party, sent there in December to clean up the place and rid it of any links to terror. With him came the black-uniformed special police, seen around town in four wheel drives with tinted windows and extra automatic pistols strapped to their thighs.
‘If Barakat were here we would have him locked up,’ said the Mayor, slapping a newspaper cutting with the back of his hand. ‘This man is our enemy number one. He would have no escape.’
Except he has had.
From the Mayor’s office, we met a garment trader in a coffee shop and followed his jeep across the bridge into the Brazilian town of Foz de Iguazu – no passport or papers required. Five minutes later, all smiles and confidence, Mr Barakat opened his front door to us.
Plastic garden chairs were stacked up by a swimming pool, empty except for a swirl of rainwater at the bottom. He sat down with his eight month old son, Hassan on his lap.
‘So are you a terrorist?’ I asked.
‘I came here in 1985, when I was a student,’ He laughed. ‘I never took part in any war and have no military training. Of course, we are sympathisers of Hezbollah because they fought the invaders who entered Lebanon. All Lebanese people around the world are sympathisers.’
‘But the Mayor in Paraguay says you’re public enemy number one. Is that a lie?’
He handed Hassan to his wife and paused for a moment in thought. ‘Listen,’ he said. ‘The Paraguayan government… they want to have a good relationship with the US. Supporting the US by accusing us is good for their careers. They get more aid money and more for their pockets.’
The interview over, Mrs Barakat returned with Hassan and a pot of coffee. Two other children scampered in from the kitchen. Mr Barakat picked up the remote and turned on the television, proudly explaining a new satellite channel he could get from the Middle East.
He playfully cuddled Hassan, while we sipped our coffee and watched Islamic fighters march through a desert shouting hatred for the United States.