Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Triple Border: On the Ground and on the Screen


In the photo above, you are looking at three countries at the confluence of the Río Paraná and the Río Iguazú: Argentina in the foreground, Brazil just across the water, and Paraguay (on the far shore, where the skyline of Ciudad del Este, formerly Puerto Presidente Stroessner, is visible in the distance). This is the area known as the Triple Frontera, notorious for contraband drugs, weapons and, according to some, Islamic terrorist sympathizers - though there has never been any terrorist incident there.

This has always been a porous border - in fact, in 2002, a Lonely Planet guidebook even suggested that US citizens could “borrow” an Argentine friend’s identification to visit the Brazilian side of Iguazú Falls without paying to obtain a visa. That was a suggestion that could have landed the borrower in a Brazilian prison, and caused a small furor in both countries, but after the controversy died down, there continued to be plenty of illicit movement across the border.

Ciudad del Este is a story in its own right, in a country that (almost by acclamation) is one of the most corrupt in the world. Some years ago, when a reporter from The Wall Street Journal interviewed a local “businessman” about the possible impact of the Mercosur common market on Ciudad del Este, the response was “The way I understand it, we may have to stop smuggling things and start producing things.” In this year’s Transparency International corruption index, Paraguay ranked 146th of 178 countries, tied with (among others) Haiti, Iran and Libya.

While Argentina (106th in Transparency’s survey) and Brazil (69th) may have only a little more to brag about in this regard, freewheeling Paraguay is the poster child for uncontrolled smuggling and, according to some sources, money-laundering operations with ties to Islamic terrorist groups in Ciudad del Este. That, apparently, is the reason Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow is following up her mega-success The Hurt Locker with a film about the Triple Frontier that will star Tom Hanks, with rumored participation from Christian Bale, Javier Bardem, Johnny Depp, Denzel Washington, Sean Penn, Leonardo DiCaprio and Will Smith. Shooting will commence in March (for what it’s worth, my favorite Bigelow film is the Western-vampire classic Near Dark; perhaps her new villains could be undead suicide bombers).

All the governments in question are upset that the film may portray the region as crawling with terrorists but, apparently, not so upset as to place obstacles in the way of a project that will bring millions of dollars into their countries. And in reality, the area is far from unsafe - hundreds of thousands of travelers visit Iguazú Falls every year without incident. I myself have stayed in Puerto Iguazú at least a dozen times and have never witnessed or even heard of petty crime affecting tourists (though that doesn’t mean it never happens, and the area has a certain notoriety for auto theft). The larger Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu is, by most accounts, a riskier place, but most visitors cross the border to see the falls and not the city. For that matter, I’ve stayed in Ciudad del Este several times as well, with never a hint of an incident.

Postscript
One interesting development in the Transparency International survey is Chile’s status as No. 21. That’s not surprising in one regard, since Chile is invariably the most corruption-free country in all of Latin America, but this year it has overtaken the United States, which ranks 22nd (tied with Belgium) and is now barely ahead of Uruguay.

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