Diary From a Dangerous Place
It’s considered one of the most dangerous places in the Western Hemisphere — a small jungle town bordering three countries, Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil — and home to a myriad of unsavory characters: drug runners, arms smugglers and pirates.
Just getting here is a feat unto itself. (New York to Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo to Asuncion...then later Asuncion to Ciudad del Este.) I met my team in the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion. After traveling for a day and a half, I arrive at the Asuncion airport. It's an interesting, rather diverse cast of characters getting off the plane — a handful of missionaries from Canada, some Germans now living in Paraguay, a surprisingly large group of Taiwanese nationals now living in the region, as well as a dozen or so people from the Middle East. And of course, some Paraguayans.
I've traveled through dicey parts of the world before, including this part of South America, and not a whole lot makes me nervous. Still, I had read about the recent surge in "express kidnappings" and as a foreigner, traveling alone and carrying as much cash as legally possible
(our local team and guides prefer to be paid in American dollars) I'm avoiding a taxi in favor of a vetted driver. I collect my bags and clear customs but can't spot the driver anywhere. My cell phone doesn’t work (and you can forget about the Blackberry) so, I begin wandering around the airport pick-up area. After about 30 minutes (and the beginnings of some nervousness on my part) a young man walks toward me with a sign saying “Trish Regan,” introduces himself as Santiago and explains that David, the producer, is waiting at the hotel. Off we go.
Santiago gives me a quick drive-by tour of Asuncion. We speed past the Presidential Palace, a magnificent colonial style white mansion. We pass the Congress building, another large colonial structure with grand arches. Santiago points to the colonial architecture in the old part of town, explaining that Asuncion was the first city in South America settled by the Spanish empire. "Buenos Aires," he tells me referring to the Argentine capital, "was an after thought."
MONEY LAUNDERING JOINT?
Pretty soon we make it to the hotel — the newest one in town and a spot Paraguayans are proud of, albeit an American franchise. Interestingly, when my company's travel department called for reservations, the hotel was booked. Seemingly always booked. Our contacts on the ground had planned ahead however, and made reservations for us in-person for about half the rack rate. But, here's the catch: we are the only people staying in the hotel. The American investigator we're with later explains that's because the hotel is a big-time money laundering operation. So, now you know why it's always "booked".
I meet up with my team at the hotel: David Lewis, the producer who flew in from Atlanta several days ahead of me; Mario deCarvalho, a cameraman I had worked with previously and one of the best in the business. Mario, who came via South Carolina, has spent twenty plus years covering news and seen his share of hell-holes and war zones. He is an artist and great journalist who just happens to speak eight or nine languages (I've lost track, but one of them is Arabic which comes in handy on this story.)
Eduardo Lerina, a soundman from Rio de Janeiro, is also with us. Plus, we’ve got Mark McCabe, the American investigator out of Rochester, N.Y., who has been traveling to the Tri-Border to fight counterfeiters in Ciudad del Este for more than a decade. He’s here with his associates Stacey (a former U.S. government employee) and Elida. We're a bit of a motley crew. No sooner did we meet than we had, well, some surveillance, trailing us. Yes, surveillance.
We're Being Followed
Mark was the first to spot it. We were finishing our dinner at the hotel when he leaned towards David and me and whispered, "We're being followed." "Followed?" I asked.
"Don't look now," Mark warned, "But there's a guy behind us that hasn't left our side." Mark jesters to his left. "He's been following us all day. Probably not a big deal, he's only trying to figure what we're up to. You haven't logged onto your computer from your room yet have you?"
I shake my head 'no.'
"Well, make sure you don't,” he warns. “They'd just love to get in there and see what you're working on. Oh, and you're phones are being tapped. Assume all your conversations are recorded."
Mark explains that the hotel we are staying in is allegedly owned by the biggest cigarette pirate and smuggler in all of Paraguay. A man considered powerful and dangerous and who also recently ran for President. Only in Paraguay.
“He may have heard us talking about piracy and wants to make sure we're not doing a story on the cigarette industry or on him,” Mark offers.
When I go back to my room, I call my husband but am extra cautious on the phone. I avoid talking about our plans for tomorrow and any talk of terrorists or pirates. I also decide I don’t really need to log onto my e-mail or the Internet.
WORKING IN ASUNCION
Over the next couple of days we shoot, we shoot and we shoot some more. Interview after interview. Official after official. It's always interesting what people will tell you on and off camera. Off camera, officials admit to a connection with Hezbollah terrorists. On-camera, it's a different story. The same line keeps getting repeated.
"Well, Paraguay doesn't have any terror groups." That's because, in Paraguay, terror groups are not recognized. In fact, in Paraguay, you can donate all the money you want to al-Qaida. No questions asked. It's all legal. That said, intelligence officials say Hezbollah launched two terror attacks in Argentina in the early 1990s from Ciudad del Este, Paraguay.
The best part of our trip to Asuncion: I connect with a source who has documents linking members of the tri-border community to Hezbollah. The source provides us with bank records, letters, and intelligence documents--key elements and components to our story. Armed with documents and several interviews, we leave for the Tri-Border itself.
CIUDAD DEL ESTE, PARAGUAY: THE GLOBAL FRONTIER OF CAPITALISM
A grimy border town buried deep in the Paraguayan jungle, Ciudad del Este is home to the largest illicit economy in the Western Hemisphere. Here, anything and everything is for sale. This small city of roughly 225,000 people has become a haven for drug-smugglers, arms dealers, counterfeit good traffickers and terrorist financiers.
It is one of the last places you’d ever willingly travel to and yet, this is my second visit to the area in less than three years. (Hey, a good story is a good story.) I’m here to investigate the piracy and counterfeit operations in the region that are costing American companies billions of dollars in lost sales. I am also trying to understand how money is being funneled to terror groups in the Middle-East. According to U.S. intelligence, this region has become the second biggest source of funding for Hezbollah after Iran, generating hundreds of millions of dollars for the terror group every year.
It’s a Friday night in May when we arrive via plane in Ciudad del Este. (I’ve also traveled here by car but it’s a six-hour, highly dangerous trip thanks to bandits populating Paraguay’s roads. So this time, I decided to fly.) Our team now numbers about 12 including our production crew, the investigator we are profiling, his associates and our security. We have security because there are serious problems with kidnappings and robberies in the region. And as Americans (with lots of camera equipment), we’re targets.