“They walk around armed and nobody does anything. How can they walk down the street armed with an AR-15 or an AK-47? (…) We know a lot of things. People know what is going on here, but (apparently) the police don’t know, the prosecution doesn’t know…”
Thus was indignant, bitterly ironic, Jose Carlos Acevedo, 51, mayor of the city of Pedro Juan Caballero (north), in an interview a few months ago. One of his last before being riddled with bullets in the street on May 17 by strangers, as he was leaving a town hall meeting. He died after a few days of agony.
A week earlier, it was a 45-year-old prosecutor, Marcelo Pecci, right-hand man of the Attorney General of Paraguay and on the front line in drug trafficking and money laundering cases, who was shot dead in front of his wife, on the beach on a Colombian island where they were spending their honeymoon.
One of the avenues explored, according to sources close to the investigation, goes back to Sergio de Arruda Quintiliano Neto, known as “The Minotaur”, alleged member of the Brazilian criminal organization Primeiro Comando Capital (PCC), arrested in 2019 and currently detained in Brazil. The PCC, like the Comando Vermelho (red commando), were in the crosshairs of the prosecutor Pecci, and the activities they manage remotely in Paraguay.
The small (7.3 million inhabitants) landlocked subtropical country between Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil, with which it has a 1,300 km border, is rather known as a producer of marijuana. But “we have become a regional distributor hub for cocaine from the Andes, a country from which shipments leave for Europe, via the ports of Buenos Aires and Montevideo”, estimates Juan Martens, criminologist at the National University of Asuncion.
The northeast of the country, border area with Brazil – Pedro Juan Caballero, 452 km from Asuncion, is contiguous with Ponta Pora in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso du Sud – is experiencing a singular effervescence between increased anti-drug operations , settling of scores between criminal groups to fill the void left by imprisoned leaders and the elimination of recalcitrant judges or politicians, or even their relatives. Mayor Jose Carlos Acevedo’s niece was shot there in 2021.
In the province of Amambay, of which “Pedrojuan” (as the locals call it) is the capital, the homicide rate in 2020 was more than 70 per 100,000 inhabitants, ten times higher than the national average.
In the same region, the police destroyed 600 tons of marijuana in a highly publicized operation last week in the wake of the assassination of prosecutor Pecci.
And over the year, more than 1,000 hectares of marijuana were destroyed, and more than 3,400 tons, in plant or packaged form, taken out of circulation “causing a loss of nearly 103 million dollars to drug trafficking”, assured AFP Francisco Ayala, spokesperson for Paraguay’s anti-drug secretariat. And 2.2 tons of cocaine ($15.7 million) seized.
President Mario Abdo Benitez, criticized for the lack of results in the face of drug trafficking, hailed these “record” figures last week. And the fact that “big fish begin to fall.”
But he also painted a bleak picture of a country where “organized crime pays politicians, pays parliamentarians, pays prosecutors, magistrates and various authorities”. Without naming any.
Diagnosis confirmed by Professor Martens, who ensures that there is “a progressive takeover of various institutions”, public and private by drug trafficking. Here in Paraguay we have narco-breeding, narco-soya, narco-sport (via the leaders), narco-religious, narco-universities…”
For the Head of State, the assassinations are “victims of the war” waged on drug trafficking, a precise sign that a frontal struggle is being waged, and, he warned, “that it will be hard, that ‘it will last’.
Parliament was debating this week a bill on the modalities of interception – or even elimination – of small unidentified or “hostile” tourist planes, an Achilles’ heel of Paraguay, which makes its ” open sky”, according to Professor Martens, a popular drug trafficker.
But like the head of the Air Force, General Arturo Gonzalez, the military are demanding radars and planes, even before a text of law.