- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2006

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents have teamed up with law-enforcement authorities in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay to combat money laundering and other financial crimes in a remote and lawless region known as the “Tri-Border Area.”

Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Julie L. Myers, who heads ICE, said multigovernment “trade transparency units” will investigate and prosecute crimes including money laundering, terrorist financing, contraband smuggling and tax evasion.

The United States has determined that the Tri-Border Area is a source of fundraising for radical Islamic groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas and al Qaeda, and the U.S. government has worked cooperatively with governments in the region to disrupt fundraising activity.

U.S. law-enforcement authorities describe the Tri-Border Area as South America’s busiest contraband and smuggling center, where billions of dollars annually are generated from arms trafficking, drug smuggling, counterfeiting and other crimes.

“The new units will not only help authorities in these nations combat domestic financial crimes, but will also enhance the ability of the United States to target money-laundering rings that operate both in South America and the United States,” Mrs. Myers said.

The Tri-Border Area is flanked by the freewheeling cities of Puerto Iguazu in Argentina, Foz do Iguazu in Brazil and Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, where drug dealers and terrorists reportedly meet and where counterterrorism investigators worldwide have intensified their focus since the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States because of the growing presence of Islamic radicals.

Argentina’s Secretariat of State Intelligence first reported in 1999 that members of the al Qaeda terrorist network were in the region to coordinate terrorism training and to plan attacks with Hezbollah against U.S. targets.

U.S. intelligence officials have been concerned that an alliance with Hezbollah would give al Qaeda a new base close to the United States for attacks.

The Treasury Department has described the Tri-Border Area as a “clear example” of where Islamic groups gather to “finance terrorist activities.”

The department has said members of al Qaeda, Egypt’s Al-Gamaa Islamiya, the Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah have drawn some of their funding from activities in the area.

The FBI sent agents to the region in 2002 after a poster of Iguazu Falls, the area’s major tourist attraction, was found inside an al Qaeda bunker in Afghanistan.

Mrs. Myers said earlier efforts by the agency and other foreign governments to combat trade-based money laundering have yielded successful results, including an investigation into a $20 million gold export subsidy scheme in 2004 that led to the prosecution of 20 New York jewelers for money laundering.

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