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12/07/2005 | Latin American seaports forced to confront global terrorism

Martin Edwin Andersen

Ready for a little good news? Latin America and the Caribbean, a tumultuous region that in the 1990s was the scene of three deadly attacks from Islamist fundamentalists, is starting to focus greater attention on security for one of the pillars that sustain its economic well being -- its seaports.

 

In May alone, Argentina -- the site of two of the last decade’s terror attacks -- became the first Latin American nation to agree to let U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) do security checks on seaborne containers. The move to allow inspections by foreign officials at the sprawling port of Buenos Aires, the 24th largest source of U.S. imports, was followed by the announcement that the Brazilian port of Santos, South America’s largest, had also taken the plunge, becoming the 36th port on CBP’s list of maritime commerce facilities joining the Container Security Initiative.
 
Meanwhile, in Washington, Florida’s Democratic senator, Bill Nelson, put port security in America’s backyard on the congressional agenda when he introduced a bill, S. 744, to establish a Caribbean Basin port assistance program. Although the Nelson bill offered just a barebones outline of what might be in store if the legislation is eventually made law, it called on the administrator of the Maritime Administration (MARAD), together with the State Department and the Organization of American States (OAS), to use U.S. foreign assistance programs to help implement “port security antiterrorism measures at ports in a country in the Caribbean Basin that the Secretary [of State] finds … to lack effective anti-terrorism measures.”
 
News about those initiatives came as the OAS also began drilling down on port security issues. A Washington-based forum for the region's 34 democratic nations that has been criticized by some as a nearly moribund debatin g society, the OAS recently has moved to the fore on the port issue, seeking to prod its members into more than mere paper compliance with the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code that went into effect last July 1.
 
Not only has the OAS begun offering a broad range of training, seminars and “lessons learned” on port security, with on-site help to some of its smallest members; it is also working with the Asian Pacific Economic Community on plans to develop a “model port” at the Peruvian city of Callao -- where port officials from around the hemisphere can come to observe first hand the synergies between state of the art practices and technologies to improve security at a “center of excellence.”
 
Even as U.S. and OAS security officials seek to put financing security projects, including port security, on the agenda at next fall’s Hemispheric Summit to be held in Buenos Aires, however, a number of questions remain, not the least of whic h is whether those international organizations with the financial resources to help the coalition of the willing port security advocates, will actually do so. There has been “very little participation” by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in lending a hand up until this point, one OAS official noted recently. The banks, he said, did not see security as part of their agenda, preferring that their institutions remain “pure” in their development vocation.
 
Still, Latin America’s own experience with Islamist extremists, together with its relative dependence on international trade, particularly with the United States, has helped to create growing pockets of consensus about the need to act to protect both commerce and tourism at some of their most vulnerable points -- its seaports. Whether it is a weapon of mass destruction smuggled into the United States in a container ship, a fast-boat attack on a cruise liner, or the blowing up of a liquefied n atural gas (LNG) tanker by frogmen, the consequences of a terrorist attack on regional prosperity would be devastating and immediate, experts said.
 
A little history. In 1990, the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, now a major exporter of LNG to the United States, was the scene of a coup attempt staged by a radical Islamic organization, Jamaat-al-Muslimeen. The prime minister and eight cabinet members were held hostage for four days, and 23 people died in bombings at the police headquarters, the state TV station and the Parliament building.
 
In Argentina, Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite militant group, has been blamed for the bombing, in Buenos Aires, of the Israeli Embassy in 1992, and the AMIA Jewish community center, in 1994; attacks which cost the lives of 114 people.
 
During the Cold War, Argentina was an important way station for Eastern Bloc agents, particularly East Germans, who changed their identities as they made their way to the United States by acquiring the birth certificates of dead Argentines. Fast forward to today and, by juxtaposing recent scandals involving Buenos Aires police selling thousands of ersatz passports with U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reports this year that most of Argentina’s growing business in the transshipment of illegal drugs is done using maritime containers, one can also see the potential for terrorists or their deadly cargos receiving safe passage into the U.S., too.
That underscores the importance of the Container Security Initiative. Based on the exchange of information, screening, technology and reciprocity, the CSI agreement with the Argentines puts a pair of U.S. Customs officers at the port of Buenos Aires to work side by side with Argentine customs officials. Although CSI agreements vary from country to country, the agreement signed by the government of President Nestor Kirchner allows for a mobile scanner to be loaned by the U.S. to Argentina, with the port agreeing to competitively purchase nine mobile scanners worth about $5 million each.
Although it received scant notice in the U.S., the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were also a devastating blow to the economies of several Latin American and Caribbean countries, such as the Dominican Republic, and some of those nations are only now beginning to fully recover. Regional port officials, if not the countries’ presidents and cabinet officials, know that, as Kevin Newmayer, program director at the OAS’s Inter-American Committee Against Terrorism, told a maritime security conference held in Arlington, VA, last May, another terrorist attack could mean an “immediate cessation of trade activity,” with a “devastating impact” on the U.S. economy, but being an even greater blow to some of the smaller export-based economies of the region. (For some Caribbean nations, the remittances left by visiting cruise ships account for some 70-80 percent of those countries’ foreign exchang e earnings.)
 
However, continuing budgetary and manpower constraints in Latin America have meant that virtually all of the countries of the region -- Cuba, with an extensive internal and external intelligence network, is the exception -- appear still largely unprepared to deal with the Islamic terrorist challenge. Ports, like the region’s police and intelligence agencies, must engage in a fierce competition for funding from government offices far removed from the bustling world of maritime commerce. Throughout the hemisphere, existing ports and infrastructure operate at or near capacity, with prospects for even greater trade in the near future, yet port security staff remain under trained and under equipped.
 
At the same time, Newmayer noted, in many countries in the region compliance with the ISPS Code has been “paper thin” and needs to be fleshed out. As the OAS seeks to shore up the region’s port security facilities through training and information exchanges, questions remain about whether on-going compliance with ISPS and other security protocols will be assured, and whether the increased attention to the issue will help regional policymakers understand the real price of non-compliance.
 
At bottom, the issue is likely to be one of resources. Senator Nelson’s useful initiative notwithstanding, it is unlikely that much financial help will be forthcoming from a country -- the U.S. -- that still badly under funds its own ports’ security.
 
That’s where the multilateral development banks (MDBs) come in. The banks have long shied away from funding improvements in their member countries’ police forces by brandishing the argument that somehow development can be divorced from security, or at least from those who help to ensure it. That same argument is now being used about port security. Perhaps incoming World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz can help explain to the MDB community that maintaining its “purit y” should not come at the expense of being able to wash its hands of another issue that affects the lives and prosperity of millions of people.

Government Security News (Estados Unidos)

 


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