- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 18, 2001

"If it was a snake, it would have bit you."That's the age-old response for failing to see the obvious, something right under your nose. I think of that adage these days as our undivided attention is riveted on the other side of the world.

The fact is, one of the biggest bastions of terrorism is not a world away, but right under our nose.

A two-hour flight south from Miami will land you in Colombia, the most dangerous and terroristic country in the world. Nearby, the tri-borders area of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil is a lawless place where members of Hamas, Hezbollah and other groups linked to Osama bin Laden are probably huddling to plan their next terrorist attacks. And from the bottom of South America straight up to Tijuana, El Paso and other U.S. border cities flows a pipeline of illegal drugs and weapons.

This is not the far-away, distant Middle East. This is our neighborhood in the Western Hemisphere.

As my predecessor, the late Sen. Paul Coverdell, fully understood and often stated: We ignore our neighbors in the Western Hemisphere at our own peril. Our foreign policy in this region has been conducted in fits and starts, driven mainly by crises.

Recently, we have failed to tend to the region, and cracks have appeared in what just five years ago was an emerging shield of democracy, security and economic opportunity. Today, Argentina is on the verge of financial collapse. Oil giant Venezuela has a president who is openly hostile to the United States. Nicaragua is on the verge of electing a former communist with strong ties to Libya and Iraq. Civil unrest, unemployment and crime are on the rise in many of Latin America's democracies.

But what should concern us most is that this region is home to well-established, well-financed criminal networks networks with better resources than the governments that are trying to stop them. A third of the world's identified terrorist groups have operations in Latin America. In 1993, surface-to-air missiles were found in the suburbs of Managua, Nicaragua. This summer, Irish Republican Army bomb-making experts were seen cavorting with Colombian rebels.

So, what can we do?

First and foremost, it is imperative that we install a strong diplomat for the top Western Hemisphere post at the State Department. The Senate needs to send the message that we understand this region and we take seriously the security threat it poses. It is deplorable that we have stalled in filling this critical job when our commander in chief and our secretary of state have been urging us to do so.

We have already increased security along our borders, and not a moment too soon. Just think what might have happened if authorities had not stopped the Algerian terrorist at the Canadian border in December 1999, before he had a chance to carry out his plan and Osama bin Laden's plan to blow up a millenium celebration with his carload of explosives.

Now, it is time to obtain better intelligence and greater cooperation among our allies in the region. We should focus on isolating terrorists and their backers with economic weapons and strategic alliances. The late Sen. Paul Coverdell agreed with current Western Hemisphere Chairman Sen. Christopher Dodd that we should establish a regional security alliance patterned after similar arrangements we formed after World War II. I am very encouraged that the Organization of American States recently passed a similar resolution of security cooperation in support of the United States. We should build on this momentum.

We should also hit drug and terrorist groups through strong money-laundering legislation, such as that passed by the Senate Banking Committee last week. The Treasury Department is now implementing the drug kingpin legislation passed in the last Congress by Sens. Coverdell and Diane Feinstein. This legislation targets American individuals and companies who willingly do business with drug dealers, terrorists or other enemies of the United States. Now, we must back up this law with enough resources to make it a viable tool.

While all eyes are now on the Middle East, the forces of evil to our south are scheming and stretching their reach around the globe. While Osama bin Laden is hiding in a cave in far-away Afghanistan, his lesser-known lieutenants are a two-hour flight away from Miami. Soon, this snake is going to bite us. It is time to shift some of our focus closer to home, on these volatile, hostile countries harboring terrorists right under our nose.

Sen. Zell Miller is a Democrat from Georgia.

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