The Triple Border Area, the Guaraní Aquifer and the American Interests in the Region: Evolution and Change of Scenario?

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GESI Analysis, 15/13

The Triple Frontier or Triple Border Area (TBA) constitutes the geographic point where the Argentinean, Paraguayan and Brazilian borders meet, coinciding with the place where the Iguazú River flows into the Paraná River.

In this area are settled the towns of Foz do Iguaçu (Brazil), Ciudad del Este (Paraguay) and Puerto Iguazú (Argentina). The Tancredo Neves Bridge crosses the Iguazú River in order to connect Puerto Iguazú with Foz de Iguaçu as does the Bridge of the Friendship, which is built over the Paraná River for communicating Foz do Iguaçu with Ciudad del Este.

The Triple Border Area is extended over 2500 Km² and counts with a population, of approximately 470.000 people, that constitutes an ample social and cultural conglomerate, including remarkable German, Chinese, Korean and Arabian colonies. Concretely, there is a large presence of citizens of Lebanese origin who started arriving in this region in the 80’s of the past century, escaping from the Lebanese civil war , and who were attracted by the high commercial perspectives of this cross-borderarea.

Because of this social and cultural mixture and together with the border porosity, a scarce control from the States, an elevated level of touristic activity and the geography itself, the zone is characterized by a highly informal economy. There is an outstanding commercial development all along the TBA, but it is based on the direct buying and selling of a variety of goods on the streets, which makes it very difficult for any government to keep under control and facilitates enormously the . smuggling. This is the reason why the TBA is worldwide known for hosting a high number of illegal activities such as gunrunning, drug dealing, prostitution, document counterfeiting, computer piracy, selling of stolen cars or money laundering.


Terrorist Activities

Terrorism is another illegal activity that has been linked to the TBA for a long time. The first reported deeds regarding terrorism in the zone were two concrete attacks which took place in the early 90’s. Both were located in Buenos Aires and linked to the Triple Frontier. In 1992, a suicide attack against the Israeli Embassy in Argentina killed 29 people, and only two years later, in 1994, the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) was the objective of another attack killing 85 people. The Argentinean justice has found Hezbollah and Iran responsible for both acts of terrorism and has unsuccessfully asked for the extradition of several Iranian citizens (including the Iranian ex-president Rafsanjani and Soleimanpour, who was the Iranian Ambassador in Buenos Aires at that time), together with some members of the Lebanese militia. However, it should be highlighted that this legal process has become cloudy due to the destruction of proofs and other charges for obstructing the course of justice which brought the Judge Galeano (who investigated the process for the AMIA) and Carlos Menem, (Argentinean ex-president), among  others, before the court.

Nevertheless, the suspicions which pointed out that the TBA was hosting sleeper cells of different radical Islamist groups grew exponentially after the 9/11 attacks and have continued to be hold principally until the end of the first decade of the present century. When the Bush Administration launched the “global war against terror” campaign, some authors such as the reputable Jessica Stern placed the Triple Frontier among the hubs likely to concentrate jihadist terrorism and, therefore, among the places that were an actual threat for the American security. However, these statements have never been corroborated by irrefutable facts. The existence of terrorism in the TBA is a contested issue which, furthermore, has been the object of rhetoric accusations scarcely justified responding to a variety of interests. In fact, in spite of the preoccupation showed by the United States, it has been admitted by its official sources that, nowadays, the theory of the existence of any terrorist cell, either active or sleeper, from any jihadist group in the TBA, cannot be proved.

On the contrary, the majority of American sources state that the threat is rather the funding of terrorism, and they link such activities, concretely, to the armed branch of Hezbollah. These sources point to some of the illegal activities mentioned above as funding methods ordinarily used by the Lebanese militia. This point is eventually confirmed by the presence of the large Lebanese colony in the area, together with the periodic detentions that year after year are carried out by the local authorities (above all in Ciudad del Este), charging citizens who belong to this community with funding the organization through all kinds of illegal activities. The Barakat operation, for instance, was the most resounding one since the Paraguayan police arrested Assad Barakat for tax-evasion through a series of stores located in a shopping center of Ciudad del Este. The laundered money was allegedly sent to Lebanon in order to fund Hezbollah, and Barakat himself was considered the treasurer of this organization in the Triple Frontier. This activity would be a truly injection of money for Hezbollah. Concretely, the U.S. Naval War College held that the Lebanese militia received around 10 million dollars per year from the illegal activities carried out in the TBA. Nevertheless, many Latin-American sources stress that all these accusations suffer a complete lack of rigor, due to the scarce and weak proofs which support them.

Nonetheless, whatever the source, security and anti-terrorist measures have been a priority for the three countries directly affected, as well as the United States. Since 2002, these four States analyze the evolution of the TBA in periodical summits known as the Group 3 + 1. Their objective is to strengthen the mutual cooperation, to exchange information and to improve the efficacy of the fight against illegal activities and terrorism in the Triple Frontier. As a consequence of such summits, the governmental control has been intensified at every level, above all in Brazil and Argentina, although these measures of control are not very popular among the governments themselves, because of the negative effects they have for the informal economic activity that characterizes the region.


The Guaraní Aquifer

The Guaraní Aquifer System (GAS) is a gigantic subterranean reserve of fresh water located beneath  the surface of Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil. Its extension is around 1.200.000 Km², divided mostly between Brazil (840.000 Km²) and Argentina (225.000 Km²), and corresponding for a part also to Paraguay (70.000 Km²) and Uruguay (45.000 Km²).

According to a research carried out by the Centro de Militares para la Democracia Argentina (CEMIDA), the Guaraní Aquifer has a volume of about 50.000 Km³ and a recharge between 160 and 250 Km³ per year, which means that exploiting 40 Km³ per year, 360 millions of people could be supplied with 300 liters of water a day per inhabitant.

Regarding the same research, over 15 millions of people live in the GAS zone. This reserve supplies fresh water either for urban, agricultural or industrial purposes, to all the zone, above all in Brazil, where about 300 towns take their water from the GAS. Moreover, the aquifer has different hot pots, that is to say places where the water is renewed, being one of the most important ones precisely in the Triple Frontier.

Due to its enormous potential, the GAS has been of interest both to the countries directly concerned by the reserve as well as to third States. They all wanted to carry out an investigation that would help to know the exact conditions and features of the system and, after that, to establish a joint legislation which would enable them to exploit the GAS in an efficient and sustainable way. For this purpose, the four countries elaborated the “Project for the Environmental Protection and Sustainable Development of the Guarani Aquifer System”, which counted with a budget of 27 million dollars and was co-funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF). Furthermore, the World Bank was the trader of the fund and the Organization of American States (OAS), the executor agency. In addition, other international institutions such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources from Germany and the Bank Netherlands Water Partnership Programme (BNWPP) also collaborated to an extent.

Nevertheless, some differences appeared between Argentina and Uruguay due to the fact that the latter installed two plants of paste of cellulose over the Uruguay River, which separates both countries. Allegedly, those differences caused the withdrawal of the Project in 2009, when only the first phase was finished, which dealt with the scientific research. Therefore, no agreement on a legal framework for the GA was achieved, and this vacuum was tried to be solved in 2010 by means of a Multilateral Agreement concerning the GAS, signed by the four countries and backed by the Mercosur. However, this agreement had to be ratified by each national parliament of the four member States, and Paraguay failed to do so. Supposedly, the Agreement violated the Paraguayan sovereignty over its own resources, because it obliged its members to negotiate joint measures whenever an action adopted by a member about the GAS could affect to the others. Different reasons are also pointed out by other sources, stressing that the Paraguayan denial to ratify the Agreement was actually a form of vendetta against Uruguay, since the latter pressed Mercosur for suspending Paraguay after the political judgment to ex-president Fernando Lugo.

For these reasons, the GAS lacks a proper international or regional regulation nowadays, and its administration and exploitation are up to each country, which increases the risks of an indiscriminate and inefficient use of the water and a potential contamination of the system.


American interests in the zone

As it has been stated above, the USA has shown a great interest in the Triple Frontier during the last decade, above all after the 9/11 attacks. Repeatedly, different American organisms have been concerned about the existence of terrorism or its funding in the TBA, although there is a lack of uncontested proofs able to support these statements.

This is the reason why Latin-American sources have argued that the American anti-terrorist speech was actually aimed to gain military or diplomatic presence in the region in order to defend other interests, for instance:

  • To ensure the flow of hydrocarbons from exporting countries in the region, above all Bolivia
  • To keep under control the Colombian conflict, the FARC’s activities and the drug trafficking.
  • To counteract the anti-American doctrine which was spreading in South America after the inclusion of Venezuela as a member of the Mercosur, the growing commercial relationships between Iran and both Bolivarian and not Bolivarian countries, as well as the booming Chinese investments in the region. Hence, the mentioned 3+1 Group would be a key political forum for the USA in order to extend its influence.
  • To warrant a privileged access to the Amazonian biodiversity for pharmacological purposes
  • To supply fresh water by means of exploiting the Guarani Aquifer System.

Among all them, maybe the most relevant interest is the last one. Due to its huge potential, it has been suggested that the GAS is a coveted objective for the United States, whose fresh water reserves are in  not very promising conditions nowadays. Therefore, regarding the GAS, some Latin American sources were worried about two factors. On one hand, the already mentioned Project of Sustainability for the GAS, coordinated by the World Bank. Some feared that this Washington based international organization could use the privileged information obtained from the Project for privatizing the exploitation of the Guarani Aquifer, promoting administrative concessions in favor of private multinationals. On the other hand, and complementing the former factor, there were the negotiations about the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a treaty proposed by the USA and aimed to connect all the countries of the American continent in a “free trade” area, removing custom duties progressively. This treaty would enable the multinational companies to freely import the water from the GAS, with the laws of the FTAA as their unique bound.


Change of scenario and present situation

Nowadays, and since the beginning of the present decade, the news about the Triple Frontier or the Guarani Aquifer System have decreased. And this could be , in part, because  the last global happenings could directly affect the American point of view and its relation with the area we are analyzing. If we consider the objectives cited above as true, we may realize that the global and local scenario has changed and, hence, that might alter the foreseeable actions of the USA.

Firstly, the last two annual reports by the International Energy Agency claim that the USA will become energetically self-reliant and a net exporter of hydrocarbons in 2015 due to the fracking method. Many have ensured that this achievement will allow the U.S. decision-makers  to ease the pressure in the Middle East and to focus on the Asia-Pacific area. Likewise, this new predominant position might motivate a loss of short-term interest in the Latin American hydrocarbons, which were the first objective mentioned above.

Secondly, the government of Juan Manuel Santos is nowadays in Cuba negotiating a peace process with the FARC, which contemplates the possibility of including the guerrilla in the political system after they surrender all the arms. This process will have consequences for the drug trafficking, which historically has funded the guerrilla. Therefore, a resolution of the conflict might affect the American interests in the zone and make dispensable certain efforts.

Thirdly, regarding the anti-American doctrine, two authentic problems for Washington have disappeared lately. Those problems were personified in the figures of Hugo Chávez and  Mahmud Ahmadineyad. It should be pointed out that we are talking about a dialectic battle where leaders play a key role and, hence, the disappearance of such charismatic figures paves the way for the USA. Moreover, the recent nuclear agreement achieved by the P5+1 Group with Iran might have positive effects for the image of USA in Latin America, because the reduction of international sanctions on Iran will ease the commercial relationships between the South and the Persian country.

Finally, the two elements that inspired fear about the “looting” of the Guarani Aquifer System are dead currently. On one hand, we have already mentioned that the World Bank’s Project was abandoned because of the differences between Uruguay and Argentina. On the other hand, the negotiations about the FTAA seem to be completely halted and the agreement is unlikely to be reached nowadays. For these reasons, if we consider the interests to be true, the former American plan of taking control of the GAS seems to have failed.


Final Considerations

In this analysis we have dealt with the contradictory information, contested facts and accusations which have been released regarding the Triple Frontier and the Guarani Aquifer System for more than a decade. Furthermore, we have seen how the last global happenings can affect the American interests in the area and trigger a change of scenario which might mean a decrease in the American pressure. 

Nevertheless, despite this change of tendencies, we consider that the TBA still is a key geostrategic point for the USA and, therefore, Washington will continue to make all sorts of moves. The area is a perfect gate to the issues of the Southern Cone, which will be useful to counteract the growing Chinese influence on the continent. Moreover, although both the Project for the GAS and the FTAA failed, the burning American need of fresh water will make the USA to go after the GAS in order to supply what, sooner or later, will become a geostrategic priority.

Both elements -the rising Chinese presence in Latin America and the need for fresh water of the United States- are two factors that remain stable in the region’s scenario, and both boast a crucial geostrategic value for the U.S. future. This is the reason why, despite the alteration of the circumstances, it is possible that the United States continues trying to gain influence in the region one way or another, and the TBA is one of its best cards.

Joaquín Ferro is Research Assistant at GESI. He holds a Master Degree on Strategic Studies and International Security by the University of Granada (Spain).

Edited by: International Security Study Group (GESI). Edited in: Granada (Spain). ISSN: 2340-8421.

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