- The Washington Times - Friday, October 31, 2003

MEXICO CITY — An attempt by the United States to reinforce a 1947 mutual-defense pact has run into vocal opposition from several Latin American member nations, who dismiss it as a Cold War relic.

Mexico, which last year pulled out of the accord known as the Rio Treaty, accused Washington during a security conference of the Organization of American States (OAS) this week of trying to “militarize” the 35-member political group.

“We are not looking for, nor can we accept, the militarization of the OAS,” Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez said at the opening of the conference in Mexico City on Monday.

Mr. Derbez’s Brazilian counterpart, Celso Amorim, was more tactful. “Given that the treaty was drafted in other historical circumstances, it should be revisited,” he said.

The Bush administration invoked the treaty, which says that an attack on any nation in the Western Hemisphere will be considered an attack on all, after the September 11 terrorist attacks, just as it invoked a similar article in the NATO treaty.

The pact “remains an essential component of our security architecture because it is the legally binding security instrument within our hemisphere,” said Marc Grossman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, who led the U.S. delegation at the two-day conference.

The United States won a reference to the treaty in the forum’s final declaration, which states that the participants “recognize the importance and usefulness of the inter-American instruments and agreements,” including the Rio Treaty.

But the OAS members also recommended that the organization’s Committee on Hemispheric Security “continue the process of study and assessment” of this and other such documents, “bearing in mind security realities in the hemisphere and the distinct nature of traditional and nontraditional threats.”

The member states agreed, after intense negotiations, on the nature of the new threats, including terrorism, trafficking in weapons and people, poverty, HIV/AIDS and attacks on electronic security.

However, divisions remained over how best to address those threats, with Mexico and Brazil rejecting a U.S. proposal to bolster the military role of the OAS’s Inter-American Defense Board, which traditionally has had an advisory function.

Some diplomats from Latin America expressed displeasure at the Bush administration’s focus on terrorism — sometimes, they said, at the expense of equally important issues.

U.S. security concerns recently have focused on Southeast Asia as the second front in the war on terror after the Middle East, mainly because of the presence there of groups linked to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network.

But U.S. officials said this week that South America has become another region of serious concern.

“There has been a documented movement of al Qaeda in at least one of the countries we cover,” said a Latin America-based U.S. law-enforcement official who is responsible for six states in the Caribbean and the northern part of South America.

“We believe there is the potential for an emerging terrorist threat,” he added. “Suriname, for example, is about 35 percent Muslim [and] has a historical nexus to Indonesia, the home of Jemaah Islamiyah, which is affiliated with al Qaeda and responsible for the Bali bombing” last year.

But, he said, Suriname is not necessarily the country where the movement of al Qaeda members has been documented.

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