Repeated clashes between two criminal gangs in prison in Paraguay this year has shined light on the country’s consumption of crack, the drug that spurred the birth of the largest Paraguayan criminal group and has since become a challenge for local prison authorities.
The largest incident came in June 2019 when confrontations between the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital - PCC) and the Rotela Clan reached never-before-seen levels of violence in Paraguay’s prisons. The incident, which took place in the San Pedro Penitentiary, resulted in the death of 10 members of the Rotela Clan, who were decapitated and incinerated by members of the Brazilian PCC.
Several months beforehand, members of the Rotela Clan had killed Wilson Diana, a PCC member that had been transferred from the Esperanza prison and “stationed” in Tacumbú prison, while awaiting a court hearing in Asunción.
These two groups were not always at war. Prison authorities informed InSight Crime that, in the Concepción and Oviedo prisons, the groups had joined forces to cause riots in the past.
However, while the reasons for the violence are not completely clear, the distribution of drugs, particularly crack, appears to be one of the main motives.
“It is evident that the Rotela Clan supported crack sales in some prisons, but this has provoked a fight with other groups as the PCC does not accept consumption of crack [within prisons]. So we don’t know if the fights are over the sale of drugs or because the drugs shouldn’t be sold,” Joaquín González, Paraguay's national director of prisons, told InSight Crime.
Despite being a small market regionally, Paraguay has experienced a considerable increase in the supply and demand of this drug over the last two decades. In 2017, the Paraguayan Drug Observatory (Observatorio Paraguayo de Drogas - OPD) classified “crack” as the drug causing the “most problematic consumption” in the country.
Meanwhile, the production of crack in the country has reached alarming levels. According to official figures from the National Anti-Drug Secretariat (Secretaría Nacional Antidrogas - SENAD) that InSight Crime had access to, crack seizures went from a total of three tons in 2012 to a record-breaking 30 tons seized in 2014.
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Paraguay’s crack market appears to be directly responsible for the creation of the country’s largest criminal group and seriously jeopardizes the stability of a flawed penitentiary system, as demonstrated by the June 2019 massacre.
Official sources told InSight Crime that this family clan, led by Armando Javier and Oscar Rotela, grew thanks to crack sales in Asunción’s poorest neighborhoods, before entering the drug market in the country’s largest prison, Tacumbú.
Reports of a laboratory dismantled in 2014, revealed that this group had transitioned to the production of crack. In 2019, authorities estimated that Javier Armando Rotela, nicknamed the "Czar of Microtrafficking," controlled 50 percent of the country’s crack sales.
The Rotela Clan’s increased participation in the crack trafficking market reinforced their presence in prisons nationwide, particularly within the last two years, prison authorities told InSight Crime.
Institutional weaknesses have also allowed for this expansion; weaknesses that are perhaps more visible in Tacumbú, where disputes began following the murder of Wilson Diana.
“A problem can arise at any moment due to the overpopulation; the facility is for 1,500 inmates and there are almost 4,000,” Jorge Fernández, former director of Tacumbú, the country’s most overpopulated prison, told InSight Crime.
The issue of overpopulation in Paraguayan prisons, above all in Tacumbú, one of the largest facilities, resulted in the dissemination of clan members to other prisons around the country, putting them more in contact– and in conflict– with other criminal groups like the PCC.
Since the incident in San Pedro, prison authorities have tried to separate these two clans in some of the country’s most important prisons, although this is not always the case.
Meanwhile, this Paraguayan clan has not had any issue in recruiting new members. As González told InSight Crime, the majority of the group’s members come from vulnerable “spheres” of society, are often crack addicts, and generally enter the prisons as repeat offenders or due to misdemeanors related to drug consumption.
On top of this, the problem is confounded by the lack of programs on the national level to address addiction problems from a public health perspective. “The people that enter because the rob for drugs should be destined to an addiction center, but the first thing that the judges say is that they come here,” stated Fernández, the director of Tacumbú prison.
Authorities currently calculate that, within the prisons, the Rotela Clan could reach between 1,000 and 5,000 members, making it the largest criminal group in Paraguay, according to González.
However, this statistic should be taken with a grain of salt. Beyond its leaders, Javier Armando and Oscar Rotela, the number of inmates associated with the Rotela Clan could be made up of crack addicts who depend on the gang for their next high rather than real members.
According to InSight Crime field work, the Rotela Clan does not appear to have a clearly defined hierarchical structure or internal loyalty as strong as its Brazilian rivals like the PCC. Prison authorities in Paraguay have even referred to the clan's members as being "mercenaries."
Although the nature of the clan’s structure and actual control remain unclear, what is certain is that the confrontations between these two groups are far from over. Prison authorities assured InSight Crime that they are expecting a much greater act of retaliation by the Rotela Clan, as well as future clashes with the PCC, which currently maintains a presence in 15 of the country’s 18 prisons, according to information accessed by InSight Crime.