It is here that half of South America's marijuana is produced. There are narcos present in the elections, airplanes with Bolivian cocaine land on clandestine airstrips and revenge attacks are carried out for drug trafficking accusations. This is Paraguay, the second biggest producer of cannabis after Mexico. And this is a portrait of the country, from the perspective of Dromomanos, the 2014 winner of the Ortega y Gesset Journalism Awards.
For several minutes, Captain Oscar Chamorro had been observing the landscape in the border region between Paraguay and Brazil through the scope of his rifle. That morning, in a heat that had already become oppressive with the first rays of sunlight, he was traveling on a helicopter together with some of his men, on a mission to eradicate marijuana plantations.
Through the captain's viewfinder, among the fields of soy and the cattle pastures, he saw hectares and hectares of marijuana. These included "tempraneras," plants of 1.8 meters in height; "tradicionales," of 2.2 meters; "mentoladas," of 1.5 meters, and "mestizas," which reach an average of up to four meters in height.
"The hills are better for planting on, but there are also [crops] on the plains," said the captain, who had an athletic build, gray hair and turquoise blue eyes.
Some 75 percent of marijuana production in Paraguay -- the second biggest producer in Latin America after Mexico -- occurs in this eastern border region composed of red earth. The helicopter landed near a crop and around a dozen soldiers began cutting the plants with their machetes. In a work day like this one, each man may eradicate around one hectare -- some three tons of the plant.
"Yesterday we eradicated 270 tons. It is the most effective way to combat drug trafficking. Imagine seizing that amount en route," said Chamorro, who is not interested in anti-drug policies like Uruguay's regulatory marijuana legislation.
The 160 members of Paraguay's National Anti-Drug Secretariat (SENAD) had been camped for various days in Capitan Bado, one of the border towns that together with Pedro Juan Caballero -- the capital of the Amambay province -- forms the cradle of marijuana production in South America.
At 5am that morning, a convoy of soldiers and anti-drug police took off from this town of dirt roads and one-family houses, headed toward the plantations. Their objective was to prevent pressed Paraguayan marijuana from continuing to feed the Brazilian market, where a kilo can cost up to $400. Paraguay's marijuana also satisfies demand from Argentina, Uruguay -- at least until the 2013 approval of Law 19.172 of the Regulation of the Cannabis Market, which legalizes production, distribution and consumption of the plant -- and from Chile, where a kilo can be worth up to $1,000.
According to figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Paraguay produces 50 percent of South America's marijuana, an amount equivalent to 15 percent of global production.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Paraguay
Chamorro has spent over a decade amid plantations of this Indian hemp that is used as a narcotic. Each year he visits this region about seven times to lead eradication operations. During the rest of the time, he travels to other countries to continue his training with various special forces, such as the Brazilian police or US SEALS. He recently saw "Zero Dark Thirty," the Kathryn Bigelow film that narrates the hunt for Bin Laden. It was "laughable," he said, how in the final assault the special operations agents pointed at their colleagues with their rifles instead of advancing with them pointed to the sky. "You can never point at a colleague because you are putting them at risk. I don't know who the director for the film was, but that scene was not real."
This man, who is a perfectionist, has seen how the family clans dedicated to drug trafficking have multiplied exponentially in recent years. Additionally, many have moved from the marijuana business to cocaine, which mostly arrives in planes coming from Bolivia to this region that lacks aerial radars.
"In 2009 we were monitoring about seven clans; now I don't want to give a number but there are many more." What has not changed is the way in which they run the plantations.
The Paraguayan drug business is controlled by two major Brazilian criminal organizations, the First Capital Command (PCC), which operates in the Sao Paulo market and has moved into countries including Bolivia and Peru, and the Red Command (CV), which is based primarily in Rio de Janeiro. Although there are Paraguayans who run their own organizations, the locals are just executors. The plantations are cared for by farmers in the region, who sleep for several days in temporary shelters, with a mattress and canned goods. During harvest time -- which occurs every four months on average, although it depends on the plant variety -- other residents of the region take part in the business.
"The whole society depends on this trade. Clothes, products for cultivation. Everyone knows what everyone else does and they don't say anything. It is a very unique society," said Luis Rojas, head of the SENAD.
Cannabis also show up on private ranches, but the owners stay silent in the face of threat from the traffickers. A complaint can lead to not only the deaths of various heads of cattle, but also of the accuser. In addition to the caretakers, there are the bulk buyers, who are responsible for storing various hectares of product and making contact with the distributor, who is usually Brazilian. From here, the drug is trafficked to the outskirts of major Brazilian urban hubs. "It is a monster with an enormous demand," said Rojas.
Chamorro received a radio announcement and headed beyond the hectare roped off by his men. Behind some fallen down tree trunks there was a makeshift camp, a mattress and a tent made of camouflage fabric, under a fragile wooden structure. Minutes earlier, there was also a trail of smoke from a fire that that had not quite gone out.
"This is where the caretakers sleep. In these operations we almost never arrest anyone. If we do, they are always farmers. To capture the high command, we perform intelligence operations. But the only thing that affects production is eradication," said Chamorro. The caretakers know that the penalty in Paraguay is between five and 15 years in prison for what they do; this is why they run when they hear the propellers of the helicopters.
But there was someone who could not escape from the plantation. When the captain returned to the helicopters, he encountered his men hovering over a marijuana plant that was once taller than them.
The soldiers, dressed with hats and headscarves to combat the heat, remained in place, despite the fact that they had already destroyed the entire hectare.
"Perhaps it is a warning for the thieves or perhaps it is a warning for us," said one of them. Behind the stem of one of the plants they had found a skull.
Towards a "Narco-Society"
The radio station of Senator Roberto Acevedo was located at the crossing of the avenues 14 de Mayo and Cerro Cora in Pedro Juan Caballero. Acevedo was born here 49 years ago. He was a town councilman and governor of the Amambay province before becoming senator. That morning he was presiding over a large meeting together with the radio station's production team, in order to pay tribute to one of the worst days of his life: one afternoon in April 2010 when he, his driver, his bodyguard and his dark red truck were shot at more than 60 times.
"If they want to kill you, they will kill you," said Acevedo, a tall man with short curls and a resigned tone of voice, who was distant at first and became more generous with details as the minutes passed. "They shot at me with AK-47s and M-16s; it was terrifying." The driver and the bodyguard died in the act, and the senator, crouching down in the passenger's seat, escaped as though by miracle. The bullets just barely grazed his arm. Acevedo and his radio program, Radio Amambay 570 AM, are known in Pedro Juan for constantly reporting suspected drug traffickers, mainly members of Brazil's PCC. Just a few months ago, one of his reporters, Fabian Alcaraz, was murdered by hired assassins when he left the radio station, in the plain light of day. He was just 28 years old.
"The mafia has always been here in Pedro Juan," said the senator as he sat at the meeting. "It has always had its godfather, its (Vito) Corleone, but there wasn't all this drug trafficking. I made myself into a 'Quijote,' confronting it as I saw possible."
In Pedro Juan Caballero, a small city of 120,000 inhabitants, there were 106 murders last year -- about 20 percent more than the previous year. In February, the regional judge Jose Valiente Gonzalez explained to us that the first two months of the year had been "terrible, very bloody," and that this had been in part due to the fight between border clans -- the settling of scores. The judge said that the drug trafficking business had "democratized in recent years," and that the old clans had ceded to the power of the two major Brazilian groups, the PCC and the Red Command. The line that divides Paraguay from Brazil here, said the judge, is a "dry border" -- there is no river separating the two countries, which facilitates the work of the narcos.
SEE ALSO: PCC Profile
At the senator's side was Ramon Cantaluppi, his friend, who had entered the radio station on crutches, with a half-smile on his face -- the smile of a defeated man who is not sure how he has stayed alive. The narcos attacked him; they shot him six times, but he only lost his right leg. He is alive.
Cantaluppi, the former director of public transport in Pedro Juan, who also frequently reports drug trafficking, has been retired since December 21, 2009, when he was attacked. He remembers perfectly certain details of that day. He described, for example, the shadow of the mango tree next to his house, where the car of the men who attacked him parked, the young assassin who jumped off the motorcycle to point a gun at him, and the round of gunshots.
His next memory is of 15 days later, in a clinic in Asuncion -- the country's capital -- feeling the absence of his right leg and toes. After retelling all of this, the first thing he said was, "We are losing the battle."
Pedro Juan is a small border town, busy, steamy, full of bars. For its neighbors, the center contains the avenue that separates it from Ponta Pora, its counterpart in Brazil. Businesses -- cell phone, flip-flop and fried chicken shops -- flourish in the center. As the streets move away from the center, they lose their pavement and take on the same saffron color of earth that is a distinguishing feature of the 100 kilometers of the route to Capitan Bado -- the same reddish tone that can be seen covering the lower bodies of the cars in the neighborhoods farthest from the center.
But the hustle and bustle is just an illusion of normalcy. Peaceful months -- four or five homicides -- precede bloodbaths like that of the first trimester of this year: from January to April, 50 people were murdered. The police attributed the attacks to hit men from criminal groups.
The worst thing, though, according to Acevedo, Cantaluppi and Valiente Gonzales, is the irreversible movement toward a "narco-society" -- a point at which being a drug trafficker means the same thing, socially, as selling aspirin or raising cattle.
"There is a candidate for office who is a narco, who is wanted in Brazil for drug trafficking," said the senator bitterly as he sat in his radio station's office one afternoon in February last year. "On the 21st, he will be a candidate in the elections, and he will win. This is how things are." And that is how things happened. On February 21, 2013, Carlos Ruben Sanchez, alias "Chicharo," won an alternate seat as a representative for the Partido Colorado, the country's principal political party, which won the February elections.
It didn't matter that the Brazilian government wanted him for money laundering or the concealment of property, or that this had already been reported to the electoral tribunal. "Chicharo" won his seat and continued living peacefully in Capitan Bado for several months. It wasn't until September that year that SENAD agents detained him there.
Drug trafficking threatens the society in Pedro Juan Caballero; it interferes with the economic sectors that are normally separate from the trade, infects the conversations of neighbors, creates and develops its own reality in front of everyone's eyes. Before, it was just the marijuana from Capitan Bado. Now, as Judge Valiente Gonzalez said, it is much more.
"Now there are even Paraguayan people with more economic power, with their planes, and with their landing strips, their product."
The drug clans import cocaine from Bolivia to bring to Brazil. One afternoon, in front of a grocery store, a youth who worked at the airport took his cell phones out of his pocket. He had four. The narcos want him to be available 24 hours a day and each of them has given him a phone. He explained that due to the nature of his work -- which he preferred to keep secret for security reasons, along with his identity -- he didn't have any other option than to listen to their orders, help them to take off and accept the money that they offered in exchange. He said he didn't do anything beyond being in the airport when he had to "be and helping with what he had to help with." He claimed he was not more deeply involved in the business, that he neither traveled nor trafficked with them, but that thanks to his help, the drug traffickers were able to leave Pedro Juan for Bolivia in small planes, load them up with cocaine and return. In six hours.
"I know pilots that make $40,000 a week making trips to Bolivia," said the Paraguayan youth. He said this as he sipped a beer, with a neutral and distracted tone as though he were someone selling insurance.
The repertoire of rumors that this youth and other residents of Pedro Juan possess transcends the habitual chattering of a small city -- which would usually focus on beauty competitions, local soccer games or who was sleeping with whom. Many also know -- and say so -- that Candido Figueredo, the city's correspondent for the country's principal newspaper, lives in a heavily fortified house, armed with an array of security cameras and protected by private security guards, in addition to carrying a pistol at his hip. People know that the pharmacies and money exchange centers are front businesses for money laundering, that the narcos buy cattle to wash dirty dollars, and that those cattle are called "paper cattle."
"Everything here is rotten," said Senator Acevedo. "The police, part of the SENAD too. It is very difficult and I am essentially isolated -- I can't go out. My wife begs me, she wants to go to a party, and I tell her 'I can't go to a party because I will have to see all of them,' and not because I am scared, but because it is disagreeable to deal with them," he said.
Mr. "Quijote" seems tired. Acevedo himself has been pointed to in the press as having accounts in foreign banks and laundering money. "Those are attempts to discredit me. I have received honors in Brazil; I work with their Federal Police!" He laughed bitterly, and concluded in the same tone: "When they attacked me, they wanted to make me think this was about a war between narcos. If I were a narco, I wouldn't be here -- I would have made a lot of money."
Small Town, Big Drug Trafficking
Odilon de Oliveira is a 62-year-old man, who measures 1.6 meters in height and has a compact but muscular body. He likes books about the mafia, runs 21 kilometers each week and plays with his grandchildren by the swimming pool at his house in Campo Grande, the capital of Matto Grosso del Sur, a Brazilian state the size of Germany, on the border with Paraguay. But he has to do all this wearing a bulletproof vest.
The most threatened judge in Brazil cannot be alone for even a second. At least nine men are monitoring him 24 hours a day to guarantee his safety. In the past 15 years, a long list of enemies has shot at his house, and attempted to poison him. On various occasions he has been in the sights of a sniper and one day a man entered the gym where he was running to cut his throat. Last year he had to escape in a helicopter from Ponta Pora -- a city separated from Pedro Juan Caballero by just a road and barely distinguishable from its Paraguayan neighbor by its Portuguese signs -- due to the possibility of an attack. In recent days, the judge has seized 400 properties, 25 planes, 20,000 heads of cattle (paper cattle) and $8 million in cash from the drug traffickers crossing the border.
"If so many criminals hate me, it means I'm doing something right," said the man who in just one year sentenced some 200 drug traffickers. Because of this, every time he travels to the border with Paraguay, the Federal Police halt communications, close the roads and do not let anyone pass. Just a few years ago, the military post where de Oliveira was sleeping surrounded by 50 armed men was shot at.
Odilon de Oliveira's main enemies -- such as the "King of the Border," Fahd Yamil, or the Morel family, which controlled the drugs entering from Paraguay -- live in Ponta Pora. Odilon de Oliveira disbanded a large faction of the Red Command operating on the border, the group that was led by Fernandinho Beira Mar, Brazil's most famous drug lord. He moved into Capitan Bado at the end of the 1990s and over time, began taking over the entire drug trafficking business and killing off his enemies. He began producing marijuana at an industrial scale, and the crops expanded.
"Now there are crops five kilometers away from Pedro Juan Caballero," said Nelson Lopez, the SENAD delegate in Amambay. In February last year, Lopez commanded a group of 12 men from Paraguay sent to cover the entire region -- one agent for each 1,000 square kilometers, an area nearly as big as the Federal District. Lopez spoke in a discouraged tone about the dry border -- those 250 kilometers of ground that separate Paraguay from Brazil in Amambay.
"We don't have radars or helicopters," he said, "but we do everything that is humanly possible." Lopez gave his perspective on the drug trafficking in the region as he sat in his office in Pedro Juan. At times, he said, when he sends his men to perform intelligence work, he has to ask for permission from the Brazilian police to use their roads -- he doesn't want the National Police to see them in Pedro Juan Caballero. "It is incredible the number of people who are involved in that [drug trafficking]," he said. Pedro Juan is not a city for him; it is a problem. "You already know what they say: small city, major hell. Here everybody knows each other and we have to go around performing a balancing act so that they won't know about us. The only advantage we have here is that there is no common crime… people do kill each other, but that is an advantage, right?"
Brazil is the big, powerful consumer country. Amambay, his area of operation, is the strategic greenhouse for the narcos on the other side of the border. Both sides -- the special SENAD group and the narcos -- know the province like the back of their hand.
"We know the plots by heart," said Captain Oscar Chamorro. The helicopter in which the captain was traveling landed in the soy plantation where the SENAD had set up their base that morning. The agents got comfortable in the trucks that would take them back to campaign headquarters in Capitan Bado.
With everything organized, Chamorro climbed on board an air conditioned jeep and exhaled. The underside of the vehicle became covered in red dirt from the Paraguayan border as it drove away from the plantations that Chamorro and his team would return to each day for the next week. According to Chamorro's calculations, they would eradicate some 3,000 tons of cannabis.
On the other side of the border, Judge Odilon de Oliveira maintains a folder with all the threats and plans that various drug traffickers have to kill him, and attacks that they have already perpetrated in recent years, such as that of Nilton Cesar Antunes, or "Cezinha," a PCC leader whom he sentenced to 28 years in prison, or that of Aldo Brandao, alias "Alvejado," another member of the PCC who was sentenced to 30 years, who attempted to murder the judge on Mother's Day after hiring a dozen hit men and a plane to track him down.
Among these documents, there are also two recordings from Fernandinho Beira Mar. In one, the drug trafficker laughs as he orders his men to cut the ears, feet and genitals of a youth who had become involved with one of his ex-girlfriends. In another, Beira Mar says over the phone to a mafia leader: "The judge's time is short. I can't wait to kill him."
*Alejandra S. Inzunza contributed to this article. This article was reprinted and translated with permission from Jose Luis Pardo and Pablo Ferri. Follow them on Twitter at @Dromomanos, and see more of their work at https://www.dromomanos.com. This article originally appeared in Domingo El Universal. See original here.