Criminal groups in Latin America's Southern Cone are increasingly focused on feeding the region's domestic market for drugs, rather than exporting cocaine overseas. Up until now, Paraguay's prominent drug traffickers have largely played a supporting role in this dynamic -- but that may be set to change, as demonstrated by the career of one Paraguayan crime boss.
This past May, after nearly five years of delays in his trial, a Paraguayan court sentenced Carlos Antonio Caballero, alias "Capilo," to seven years in prison. Although drug trafficking was not among the charges he was convicted of, Brazilian authorities have said Capilo is one of the top four cocaine suppliers for one of Brazil's biggest criminal groups, the First Capital Command (PCC).
SEE ALSO: PCC News and Profile
Capilo is just one of several Southern Cone-based drug traffickers who, while not as prominent as some of Mexico or Colombia's legendary drug lords, are driving a new trend in Latin American organized crime: an increased emphasis on feeding local drug markets -- especially Brazil, the second biggest market for cocaine in the world -- rather than depending heavily on exports to Europe or the US.
Not only does Capilo's criminal career offer a glimpse at the criminal networks that are behind this trend, he embodies the new role that some sources say Paraguayans are playing in the trade: that of big-time drug traffickers, rather than low-level dealers.
Capilo's Criminal CV
"I'll give it to you on Monday my friend."
So said one of the many incriminating text messages that Capilo sent to a Paraguayan senator in 2011, after the politician asked him for a $5,000 campaign contribution.
The text was even more startling considering Capilo had been in a Paraguayan prison since 2009, where he reportedly continued coordinating major cocaine shipments. This is supported by a June 2010 phone recording obtained by the São Paulo Public Ministry and accessed by G1 Globo, in which Capilo discussed the delivery of a drug shipment to a Brazilian buyer with a Brazilian inmate.
A Paraguayan lawyer familiar with Capilo's case, who asked not to be identified due to safety concerns, told InSight Crime that Capilo got his start with the PCC during a stint in a São Paulo prison. He later worked for the Brazilian gang while based out of Pedro Juan Caballero, a Paraguayan border city, and also spent time in Bolivia. In addition to trafficking drugs, he coordinated arms shipments, ordered assassinations, and provided bodyguards for Brazilian traffickers, according to the Paraguayan anti-drug agency, the SENAD.
There are some indications that Capilo has ties to another Brazilian crime group: the Red Command, based in Rio de Janeiro. When Capilo was arrested in Paraguay in 2009, he was captured alongside Jarvis Chimenes Pavão, a Brazilian drug trafficker with dual citizenship -- then one of Paraguay's most-wanted men -- who ran his own criminal group, but was reportedly linked to jailed Red Command leader Luiz Fernando da Costa, alias "Fernandinho Beira-Mar."
Pavão was singled out in an investigation by Brazilian media company O Globo as one of the "ambassadors" of a loose association of drug traffickers that cater to the Latin American regional drug market -- a coalition referred to as "Narcosul." According to O Globo, Pavão ran his own drug trafficking network in Pedro Juan Caballero, moving marijuana from Paraguay and cocaine from Bolivia into Brazil.
Paraguay Moves Up the Drug Trade Totem Pole
Capilo may be the perfect illustration of the increased role that Paraguayans play in the new drug trafficking dynamic that has taken hold in Latin America. Cocaine sourced from Peru and Bolivia is moved into Paraguay and Brazil, while marijuana from Paraguay -- South America's biggest producer of the plant -- feeds Argentina, Chile and Brazil. Many reports indicate that by the time he was arrested, Capilo had become an integral part of the PCC's operations in Paraguay, although there's few signs that he had reached the point of establishing his own independent drug franchise.
Brazilian organized crime groups have been deepening their presence in Paraguay for some time now, especially in frontier zones like Pedro Juan Caballero. By and large, Paraguayans have typically played small-time roles in these foreign drug trafficking structures, usually working as hit men and drivers.
However, according to Paraguay's anti-drug chief, Luis Rojas, this is changing. In statements made in 2013, Rojas said that Paraguayan nationals were assuming bigger roles in the Southern Cone's drug trade, including working as suppliers.
Such an assertion was echoed by one of the authors of O Globo's Narcosul investigation, who recently told a Paraguayan newspaper that he was "impressed by the strength of Brazilian traffickers in Paraguay, but also with the growth of Paraguayan traffickers in recent years."There is also an increased number of family-run criminal clans dedicated to drug trafficking, according to one Paraguayan police chief.
What's Next for Paraguay's Crime Bosses?
The Paraguayans' role appears to be growing in the "Narcosul" drug trade. Carlos Arias Cabral, alias "Lider Cabral," was a PCC operative and Paraguay's biggest marijuana trafficker prior to his 2010 arrest in Brazil. Cabral allegedly planned to kill Capilo at one point, for meddling in his business.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Paraguay
Carlos Ruben Sanchez, alias "Chicharõ," worked his way into politics before being arrested in 2013. O Globo said he was another of the drug trafficking "ambassadors" and allegedly a top operator for Brazilian national Luis Carlos Da Rocha, alias "Cabeça Branca" (White Head), who is believed to run a major drug smuggling structure in Paraguay.
Paraguayan traffickers appear poised to take the leap of establishing their own transnational criminal groups. There have already been reports of Paraguayans running marijuana smuggling networks that control every step of the drug trafficking chain, from production to export and distribution.
This is similar to Honduras where family organizations like the Valles and the Cachiros -- previously focused on transporting cocaine shipments on behalf of Mexican and Colombian cartels -- eventually became transnational cocaine smugglers in their own right. But it remains to be seen whether a Paraguayan criminal group will some day have the type of brand name recognition that groups like Brazil's PCC currently enjoy.