The escape of six alleged Brazilian gang members from a prison in Paraguay highlights the rampant corruption within the country’s penal system.

The men, suspected of being part of Sao Paolo drug gang First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), were sprung from jail by a group of gunmen in the early hours of May 3. The group reportedly broke into the prison, overpowered the guards, and collected the men, who were prepared and waiting for them, before driving off in several vehicles. The prison is located in the border town of Pedro Juan Caballero, a hotspot for drug and weapons smuggling into Brazil.

As Paraguayan authorities scramble to respond to the incident, the blame seems to be settling on prison officials. Four guards were arrested after the incident, along with prison director Catalino Diaz. A local anti-drug prosecutor said he had heard rumours about the plot and had warned the prison in advance, seemingly without effect.

Police also arrested several prostitutes who were reportedly having a party inside the prison with the Brazilians before they fled.

Two of the fugitives are accused of an assassination attempt against Paraguayan Senator Roberto Acevedo. The lawmaker was seriously wounded in the April 2010 attack, thought to be a hit ordered by the PCC, which killed his driver and bodyguard. Acevedo blamed Diaz for the jailbreak, saying he was involved in the drug trade and that his prison “serves as a nightclub, it’s full of prostitutes.”

Paraguay has faced a flurry of recent scandals about its penal system, with reports of massive overcrowding, inmate abuse, and the filming of child pornography by prisoners who lured young girls into the building. Administrative errors reportedly caused an 11-year delay in the release of one inmate.

The system is under strain from the booming drug trade. The landlocked country has seen a surge in trafficking over the last decade, and towns on the border with Brazil, like Pedro Juan Caballero, are the focus of operations. The town is in danger of becoming a second Ciudad Juarez, Mexico’s most notorious city, according to Acevedo.

The news of the jail break is indeed reminiscent of Mexico’s repeated failures to keep high-profile traffickers locked up, most famously in the case of fugitive drug lord Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias “El Chapo,” who allegedly fled prison in a laundry basket after paying off guards. But unlike Mexico, Paraguay’s most dangerous criminal groups are not homegrown, but imported from Brazil.

The drug trade at Paraguay’s porous border is mostly controlled by Brazil’s ultra-violent gangs, such as the PCC and the Red Command (ComandoVermelho), which have long run the drug trade in Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro. Many small-time Paraguayan traffickers have been pushed out of business over the last decade by these more hardcore rivals, while local rebel group the Paraguayan People’s Army (Ejercito del Pueblo Paraguayo – EPP) are too weak to control the competitive multi-million dollar business.

Being arrested has not traditionally presented much of an obstacle to these Brazilian drug gangs going about their business. The PCC was itself forged in the prisons of Sao Paolo in the 1990s, established by inmates seeking to protect themselves against abuses. Over time it grew into a mafia whose leaders could order scores of murders from their jail cells.

It appears that the Brazilian gangs are able to enjoy the same impunity in Paraguay, whose penal system is underfunded and ripe for exploitation. Following the jail break, Paraguay’s Interior and Justice Minister Humberto Blasco even proposed that the armed forces take over the running of the country’ prisons. But in a further twist his integrity was called into question by Senator Acevedo, who said Blasco was a close friend of arrested prison director Diaz.

Blasco has in turn blamed the break on a security company contracted by the government, leaving observers to wonder how far the corruption has spread and whether Paraguay will be able to fight organized crime if it can’t keep detained traffickers under lock and key.

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