In an unprecedented move, authorities in Brazil have requested the extradition of former Paraguay President Horacio Cartes to face money laundering charges related to the sweeping Odebrecht scandal, raising questions about how the case may now proceed.
Cartes, who served as Paraguay’s head of state between 2013 and 2018, is alleged to have sent $500,000 to a money launderer identified as his “soul brother,” Dario Messer, a Brazilian businessman and financial operator who was formerly a naturalized citizen of Paraguay, Brazil’s Attorney General’s Office announced November 19.
Prosecutors allege that Messer headed a sophisticated money laundering network that reportedly washed some $1.6 billion through thousands of offshore accounts in more than 50 countries. The money Cartes provided to Messer was reportedly to help him avoid capture. However, Brazilian authorities arrested Messer in July of this year for money laundering, charges he also faces in Paraguay.
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This extradition request makes Paraguay the latest country to be ensnared by the infamous Operation Car Wash (Operação Lava Jato) probe. The far-reaching corruption investigation centers around allegations that Brazil’s state-owned oil giant Petrobras granted overpriced contracts to a cartel of construction companies, which then used the money to doll out kickbacks to oil executives and politicians.
In total, Odebrecht admitted to paying around $800 million in bribes to government officials and political elites across Latin America to secure the contracts. Related investigations have implicated four former Peruvian presidents and the administration of former Ecuador President Rafael Correa, among others.
Lawyers for the former Paraguayan president have since submitted a writ of habeas corpus to the court to contest his extradition request, Ultima Hora reported.
InSight Crime Analysis
The request by Brazil is extraordinary as it marks the first time a country in Latin America has requested the extradition of a neighbor's former head of state, suggesting that Brazilian authorities are confident they have strong enough evidence to convict Cartes.
The extradition request from Brazilian authorities is just the latest allegation that ties Cartes to yet another vast criminal network, and it’s unlikely that local authorities will dispute the order.
The former head of state has been accused of having ties to powerful criminal groups operating in the Brazil-Paraguay border region, as well as having intimate links to the sale of contraband cigarettes in Brazil and elsewhere across Latin America. In January 2018, for example, authorities in Brazil seized 500 boxes of contraband cigarettes originating from the Tabacalera del Este company, which is owned by Cartes' family.
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But despite this, prosecutors in Brazil seem to only have two pieces of hard evidence: a letter Messer allegedly wrote to Cartes asking for money to cover his legal fees, and a couple of WhatsApp messages found on Messer’s seized cell phone that authorities claim confirm Cartes had in fact delivered the $500,000 to him, according to the local Paraguayan media organization Hoy.
Nevertheless, if proven to be true, the case would also give a new international dimension to the Lava Jato probe. Messer would have roped into his money-laundering scheme not just officials from Brazil, but also Paraguay.
However, it remains unclear where the investigation will go from here.
Lava Jato lost significant credibility after a damning investigation from The Intercept in June of 2019 revealed that it was manipulated by prosecutors, including current Justice Minister Sergio Moro, to target political opponents.