Officials in Paraguay have dismantled a sophisticated international drug trafficking network on the border with Brazil, seizing a record amount of cocaine and illustrating the country’s growing importance to major players in the regional drug trade.
On November 10, Paraguay’s anti-drug agency (SENAD) broke up a sophisticated drug trafficking operation based out of a ranch in the province of Canindeyu, along the eastern border with Brazil. The officials arrested 19 suspects of Bolivian, Peruvian, Brazilian, and Paraguayan nationalities, including alleged Bolivian drug kingpin Marco Antonio Roca Ali, alias "El Presi."
They also seized 1.7 tons of cocaine, several firearms, and five planes, reportedly intended to transport the cocaine to Rio de Janeiro. The drug seizure is a record in the country, and amounts to more than the total amount of cocaine intercepted in 2011, when just 1.4 tons were seized.
Officials say the site was used as a transit point for some 20 percent of the cocaine that passes through Paraguay, and that its clandestine landing strip received direct drug flights from Peru and Bolivia.
According to Silvio Amarilla, one of the agents involved in the raid, the operation is proof of an alarming level of transnational criminal activity in the country. Amarilla told Ultima Hora that at least five distinct criminal structures with links to the major Paraguayan cities of Pedro Juan Caballero and Ciudad del Este used the ranch as an operations hub aimed mostly at shipping cocaine to the Brazilian market. The SENAD agent also claimed that the property was equipped with a cocaine processing lab, overseen by a Peruvian national.
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The find confirms reports that the country is playing an increasingly vital role in the region’s illicit drug trade, providing transnational drug trafficking networks with key access to the growing domestic market for cocaine in the Southern Cone.
According to officials from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), lax border security and the absence of significant air control mechanisms have made the Paraguay the favored stopping point of drug flights from Bolivia and Peru. From there, drug shipments are sent on to Brazil and Argentina, which together account for more than half of cocaine consumption in Latin America and the Caribbean.
This latest seizure suggests that Paraguay is now being used to run fairly large-scale trafficking operations, with the participation of traffickers from across Latin America, as evidenced from the fact that the 19 detainees came from four different countries. It also highlights how organized crime may operate along Paraguay's porous eastern border with Brazil with relative impunity.
The arrest of Roca Ali highlights the participation of Bolivian traffickers in the transnational drug trade in the region. The government of Bolivia has repeatedly rejected the notion that the country is home to powerful drug cartels, and maintains that the main powerbrokers of the underworld are crime families with little ability to participate in transnational operations. However, the case of Roca Ali contradicts this narrative. "El Presi" has been previously arrested on drug trafficking charges in Colombia, Peru and the United States, but managed to serve only brief sentences in each case. He was apprehended again in Bolivia in 2010 and accused of international drug trafficking, but was released yet again on legal technicalities.
The international profile of those arrested is especially worrisome considering that Paraguay is the largest marijuana producer in South America, and accounts for some 15 percent of global cannabis production. As indicated by this recent record cocaine seizure, illicit marijuana growers in the country have access to a sizeable international distribution network. While U.S. anti-drug officials believe the sale of Paraguayan marijuana is limited to neighboring countries at the moment, this may change in the future.