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Terrorist connection?
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Panama’s location makes it a key point for drug and arms trafficking.

Since Sept. 11, the US government has been looking more closely at free trade zones in the hemisphere as possible support structures for international terrorist activities. The border shared by Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay came under immediate scrutiny (LP, Nov. 5, 2001).

A US State Department report, Patterns of Global Terrorism, which claims that Arab terrorist organizations have raised millions of dollars annually through criminal enterprises connected to free trade zones, has sparked controversy in Panama. Arab traders in the Colón Free Zone have affirmed their support "for the Palestinian people," but denied links to terrorist organizations. They accuse the US government of trying to economically destroy the Colón zone — the world’s second-largest free-trade zone.

The zone, located in Colón, at the northern end of the Panama Canal, is home to about 1,800 trading companies that directly contribute to between 12 percent and 15 percent of Panama’s gross domestic product and indirectly contribute to about 40 percent.

Observers say that many of the trading company executives are millionaires who engage in a variety of commercial activities, some legal and some illegal.

Panama’s location makes it a key point for drug and arms trafficking (LP, Nov. 13, 2000), and the US government has frequently accused the Colón Free Zone of being a haven for money launderers, counterfeiters and arms smugglers. Some traders also work as buyers for terrorist and rebel groups, especially those in Latin America, according to a 1998 report by Jon Mitchell, a British freelance journalist.

The Colón Free Zone attracts about 300,000 visitors a year, many of whom are business representatives from around the world. About 40 percent of the zone’s traders are Jewish, 20 percent are Arab, 20 percent are Asian Indian, 15 percent are Asians from other countries, and 5 percent belong to other ethnic groups, according to Mitchell’s study.

The Panamanian government has denied that any Arab terrorist cells exist in the zone and called the US State Department report "misguided."


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