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Democracy: No. 1 Foe of Terrorism

August 01, 1993

Last May an explosion in an illegal arms depot in Nicaragua revealed the existence of an international network of radical leftist terrorists in Latin America. Investigators who probed the ruins of the Managua building where the arms had been hidden discovered antiaircraft missiles, fake passports from 22 countries, assorted false identity documents and a complete dossier on wealthy Latin Americans who would make likely kidnaping victims. One official aptly described the place as "a one-stop shopping center for Latin American terrorists."

Apparently established in the 1980s, when the Sandinistas controlled Nicaragua, the arms depot was a center of activity for Spanish Basque separatists, Salvadoran guerrillas and other radical Latin Americans, Arabs and even Canadians.

But radical terror in Latin America does not come just from the left. The old contacts from the infamous Operation Condor, an international network of right-wing intelligence agencies and death squads linked to long-gone dictatorships, are apparently interacting once again.

Last June Chilean scientist Eduardo Berrios, who was linked to the 1976 assassination of a Chilean diplomat in Washington by agents of former dictator Augusto Pinochet, disappeared in Uruguay under suspicious circumstances. He was about to reveal information about that assassination and other right-wing plots. Berrios' disappearance suggests that the old South American network of anti-democratic forces is as alive and well as its left-wing counterpart.

Both the Berrios affair and the arms depot explosion must be fully investigated, not just by the governments directly involved--Nicaragua, Chile and Uruguay--but by the FBI and international police agencies such as Interpol. Before sending more U.S. aid to Nicaragua, we certainly need to know, as the U.S. Senate demanded last week, if any Nicaraguan official was responsible for the Managua arms depot. But more than investigations, Latin America needs to build democratic institutions strong enough to resist terrorism.

Civilian presidents in South America still lack the political muscle to fully investigate their own armies and oust officers engaged in right-wing activity. In Central America civilians must tread carefully lest they stir up not just a resentful military but former guerrillas who have not yet accepted democracy.

The Organization of American States must help nurture free and democratic institutions. This may be the best opportunity in its 45-year history to recast its leadership in Latin America in a positive way. It must use these terrorist scandals to offer concrete proposals to strengthen democracy, push for reconciliation in nations where the political forces have been violently at odds and assist with specific programs to stimulate economic growth in the region.

Only strong democracies can end the long reign of both right- and left-wing terror in Latin America.

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