Paraguay has long been considered one of the most corrupt countries in South America — Transparency International called it a “monolith of corruption” in a 2016 report. Its most corrupt regions are its 2,750-miles of borders with Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, where money — real and counterfeit — is smuggled and laundered, along with weapons, drugs, cigarettes and cars.
The country of 7 million people had suffered a long history of violence and coups d’etat when Gen. Alfredo Stroessner seized power in a coup in 1954, after six presidents had been overthrown by military coups in the preceding six years. With help from the CIA, Stroessner established a feared secret police force and ruled by fear and torture until he too was overthrown by a coup in 1989. (Stroessner died at 93 in 2006.)
Barred from easy access to international trade — Paraguay is South America’s only landlocked country — Stroessner “actively promoted corruption,” saying, “Corruption is the price for peace,” according to The New York Times. Paraguay’s president today, Mario Abdo Benítez, is the son of Stroessner’s personal secretary.
Paraguay’s nebulous drug laws contribute to the problems. In 1988 it became one of the first counties to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana — less than 10 grams — and also decriminalized possession of less than 2 grams of heroin or cocaine.
By 2008, Paraguay was producing 6,500 tons of marijuana a year, according to the United Nations. Its rich red soil could produce more than a ton of marijuana per acre.
Remarkably, the country’s entire, enormous marijuana crop could have been grown on a little over one square mile (640 acres.) Paraguay today is the second-largest producer of marijuana in Latin America, after Mexico, and the major purveyor of the drug to Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. Last year Paraguay legalized production of marijuana for medical and scientific purposes.
Even so, Paraguay has not suffered the rampant violence inflicted by major drug cartels elsewhere in Latin America, such as Colombia and Mexico. But its porous borders and central position on the continent, among other factors, are attracting increased attention from drug cartels, according to The Washington Post.
With thousands of square miles of farmland, Paraguay has a stable, agriculture-based economy — and the world’s fourth-largest crop of marijuana, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime — behind only Mexico, the United States and Nigeria.
Drug investigators say the cannabis and cocaine move from Paraguay to Brazil, then primarily to Europe. Most of the cocaine comes across Paraguay’s 466-mile border with Bolivia.
Most of the marijuana is raised in Paraguay’s northern districts near the Brazilian border — with which Paraguay shares an 809-mile-long border. Its cultivators, until recently, tended to be poor peasants who cannot break even with traditional crops.
Yet less than 1% of Paraguay’s population consumes marijuana, according to the country’s National Anti-Drug Secretariat, or SENAD. Paraguayan farmers see it as a high-risk, high-reward cash crop with a better yield than soybeans, the country’s main legal export. Nearly all of the marijuana grown in Paraguay enters the international black market, SENAD said.
The 809-mile-long Paraguayan-Brazilian border region is one of the most violent places in Latin America, with murder rates similar to Honduras and El Salvador, according to InSight Crime, which investigates and analyzed organized crime.
Regional lawlessness is fueled by American guns. In fact, “The United States is the largest source of guns entering Brazil that end up in the hands of armed bandits and drug traffickers, according to a Brazilian Federal Police report,” according to a 2018 report from MercoPress South Atlantic News Agency.
“Guns from the United States tended to be assault rifles and higher caliber handguns, while guns already circulating in Brazil or arriving from other countries skewed toward smaller handguns,” according to MercoPress.
So many American weapons were being shipped into Paraguay that officials in the United States took the rare step of temporarily halting commercial arms exports to the country in 2018, according to Reuters news service. Paraguay followed up by suspending imports of guns and ammunition, to try to stop the rampant smuggling of weapons into Brazil, according to its National Directorate of War Material.
“We’re talking of some thousand weapons which were assembled here in Argentina, in a triangle operation, from United States and Europe to Argentina, and then to … Paraguay, to provide the powerful gangs in Brazil,” Argentina’s Security Minister Patricia Bullrich told MercoPress in June this year.
The gangs allegedly used the U.S. Post Office to smuggle arms into Argentina from Florida.
Once the arms and magazines were assembled, they were smuggled into Brazil via a Paraguayan transport company.
The high-powered weapons, along with more than 160 explosives and 15 silencers, were intended for a network of arms traffickers in Argentina who distribute them to criminal gangs in that country, Brazil and Paraguay. According to published reports in South America, the semiautomatic rifle parts cost about $1,500 apiece but when assembled sell for as much as $12,000 in Paraguay and $20,000 in Brazil.
A cache of weapons and parts were discovered by chance when a mislabeled package of weapons parts was intercepted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at a postal-sorting facility in Doral, Florida, and Argentina was alerted.
According to the Miami Herald, some of the 5,300 firearms and components were confiscated in South Florida during the arrest of two alleged high-level smugglers accused of illegally exporting weapons parts.
(Courthouse News correspondent Miguel Patricio is based in El Salvador.)