PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad – Security chiefs from 34 countries in the Americas outlined broad strategies for fighting money laundering, passport fraud and drug smuggling, warning that Islamic terrorists could exploit lawlessness in the region to raise money and slip through borders.
Plans included training almost 200 port security officers throughout the Americas and auditing Caribbean (search) ports to evaluate their progress in complying with stricter security standards adopted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States, said Steven Monblatt, the head of the Inter-American Committee against Terrorism (search).
The initiative would bring to almost 400 the number of port officers trained by the anti-terrorism committee, a branch of the Organization of American States (search) that concluded a three-day conference in Trinidad's capital of Port-of-Spain on Friday.
Millions of dollars in South American drugs and thousands of illegal migrants sneak through hard-to-patrol Caribbean waters each year, officials say.
While Colombian rebels and right-wing paramilitary groups that Washington labels terrorists have long thrived on the drug trade, U.S. officials warned at the conference that militant groups outside the hemisphere could also take advantage of it.
"There has been some intelligence that terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida, would utilize routes that are traditionally used by drug smuggling organizations and would use that capability to move people into the United States," said U.S. Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson.
He noted, however, that there have only been "one or two concrete historical examples of terrorists coming through the land borders" into the United States.
U.S. officials also say tens of millions of dollars in drug trafficking and arms smuggling in the tri-border area connecting Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina are ending up in the hands of Islamic militant groups like the Palestinian Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Hutchinson also stressed the need to tighten controls on surface-to-air missiles, which are relatively easy to use and can bring down a plane. He urged member countries to report missing stockpiles, destroy extra supplies and train border officers to recognize missile components.
The emphasis came a day after two men in Nicaragua were convicted on terrorism charges for possessing a Soviet-made anti-aircraft C2M missile — also known as a MANPAD. The leftist Sandinista government that ruled Nicaragua in the 1980s obtained the missiles from the Soviet Union to fight off U.S.-backed Contra rebels.
Officials also urged member states to improve document security, including issuing new digital or biometric passports that are harder to falsify.