By Paul Cook
December 7, 2018
The Tri-Border Area (TBA) of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay has long been a safe haven for transnational crime and terrorist organizations like Hezbollah. Weak border enforcement, corruption and lack of government presence have given criminal groups free reign to operate virtually unchecked for years.
The U.S. maintains strong security relations with the governments of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, but the effectiveness of our cooperation has been limited. As a result, illicit activities in the TBA have spilled over into other parts of Latin America, impacting regional security, breeding greater levels of corruption and crime, funding drug consumption around the world, and enabling Hezbollah to carry out terrorist attacks to support Iran’s geopolitical objectives.
The U.S. has been concerned about these issues for many years, and Congress has held multiple hearings and passed legislation to address these problems. Sadly, we have not had consistent partners in the TBA countries willing to make these issues a true priority. However, recent elections in Paraguay and Brazil, in particular, and a strengthened ally in Argentina provide a new opportunity for the U.S. to consider greater avenues for cooperation on these issues.
U.S. security assistance to these countries has traditionally focused on drug interdiction, providing equipment and training for border inspection, port security, and supporting criminal investigations. Nevertheless, limited government capacity and a lack of political will to address systemic corruption and internal issues have undermined the effectiveness of U.S. assistance and created risks of waste and unsustainability.
New political circumstances and recent elections in the TBA countries have created new opportunities to crack down on transnational crime and terrorist organizations. For instance, the new president of Paraguay, Mario Abdo Benítez, has signaled that anti-corruption, long a problem in Paraguay and the TBA, will be a priority for his government, and he has taken actions to tackle corruption in the political and judiciary systems. The incoming president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, expected to take office on Jan. 1, has also expressed his intention to strengthen ties with the U.S.and make security a priority.
Given these developments, the Trump administration should urge the Benítez administration in Paraguay to professionalize and fund customs and border security ministries properly and weed out corrupt officials in the judicial system. Doing so will help Benítez effectively target known Hezbollah-linked individuals operating in the country. Likewise, the Trump administration has a chance with the Bolsonaro administration in Brazil to support Brazil’s robust justice system, which has taken significant steps to address government corruption, and work to strengthen security cooperation within the TBA.
Argentina under the leadership of President Mauricio Macri has already been a strong U.S. ally on these issues since he took office in 2015. Unlike the previous Kirchner administration, Macri has shown how a commitment to working with the U.S. on security can generate results. In July, Argentina froze the assets of 14 individuals belonging to a Hezbollah-linked criminal organization. Last month, ahead of the G-20 Summit, two citizens with suspected links to Hezbollah were arrested with a small arsenal of weapons.
Other recent successes include the arrest and extradition to Paraguay by Brazilian authorities of the leader of a criminal organization, which was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Treasury as one of the most prominent and influential members of Hezbollah in the region.
The U.S. must take advantage of these opportunities to achieve sustainable and long-term security outcomes for the region. This will require a collective focus, strategic investment of resources, and the strengthening of these governments’ ability to address corruption to prevent Hezbollah’s continued operations in the region.
This Congress, I held an oversight hearing on the effectiveness of the sanctions authorities provided in the U.S. Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act (Kingpin Act). The Government Accountability Office is now conducting an independent review of the impact of those authorities, and I look forward to working with my colleagues in the next Congress to strengthen U.S. tools to address these challenges in Latin America and provide our regional partners with the resources and technical assistance necessary to prevent transnational crime and defeat terrorist groups like Hezbollah.