Armed men shot and killed a Brazilian journalist who covered police and drug trafficking along the Brazil-Paraguay border, underscoring the precarious situation for reporters in a lawless region dominated by organized crime groups and rampant corruption.
Lourenço "Leo" Veras -- who had assisted InSight Crime's ongoing investigations in the area, as well as other foreign media -- was killed the night of February 12 at his home in the border town of Pedro Juan Caballero in Paraguay’s eastern Amambay department, ABC Color reported.
The three masked gunmen -- who entered Veras' home as he ate dinner with his family on their patio -- shot him 12 times, primarily in the back and then a final shot to his head. Veras was taken to a private hospital but was pronounced dead a short time later, according to ABC Color.
On February 24, prosecutors in Paraguay said 10 suspects in the killing of Veras had been arrested -- nine on criminal conspiracy and weapons charges, according to an official news release by the Attorney General's Office. The 10 suspects included six Paraguayans, three Brazilians and one Bolivian.
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Among those arrested was Cyntia Raquel Pereira, who is suspected of belonging to the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), Prosecutor Marcelo Pecci said. He said Pereira had been sentenced previously to 10 years in prison in Brazil for drug trafficking and other crimes related to the PCC, a violent Brazilian gang that has gained a foothold in Paraguay.
A Jeep Renegade -- seen on surveillance cameras on the night of the murder moving about downtown Pedro Juan Caballero -- was later driven to her home, Brazilian news outlet Estadão reported. The Jeep was used by the gunmen, prosecutors said. The vehicle and several weapons -- including four Glock pistols, two revolvers, and a shotgun -- were seized by authorities during the arrests.
Prosecutors also said they have identified the gun used to kill Veras. Ballistic tests have shown that it had been used in other crimes, said Pecci, who is part of a special investigative unit dedicated to the case. Veras' family members, who witnessed the killing, have also provided prosecutors with descriptions of the assailants.
It’s not yet clear why Veras was targeted, but the gunmen reportedly bound his mouth after he was shot, as if to send a message about the journalist's work. As the director of Porã News and a freelance reporter for many media organizations in the border region for years, he had received past threats for covering the police and organized crime groups operating in Pedro Juan Caballero and Ponta Porã, which sits just across the border in Brazil’s Mato Grosso do Sul state.
“We urge authorities ... to conduct a thorough investigation to find the murderers [and provide] immediate protection for colleagues in the area against the prevailing insecurity and lack of guarantees for reporters,” the Paraguayan Journalists Forum (Foro de Periodistas Paraguayos -- FOPEP) said in a press release, according to ABC Color.
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Cases of murdered journalists are rare in Paraguay, but Veras’ killing brings the total number of reporters killed to 18 since the country's transition to democracy in 1992, La Nación reported. What's more, Reporters Without Borders, which tracts the killing of journalists worldwide, has raised concerns about a “worrying lack of progress” in ensuring the protection of journalists operating in the country.
The organization identified the border region with Brazil as being particularly dangerous for reporters who often come under attack from criminal organizations that benefit from a “climate of near-total impunity.”
Veras is not the only journalist along the Brazil-Paraguay border to be targeted. Cándido Figueredo, a correspondent for ABC Color, told InSight Crime on a recent field trip about the constant threats he faces from organized crime groups. Bullet holes from past attempts on his life marked the walls and doors of his home, which he now only leaves accompanied by private security.
"There is a lot of fear, reporters are taking [Veras' death] as if it was a wake-up call for everyone," Blanca López of Paraguay's C9N News told InSight Crime.
Veras' murder follows the dramatic January 2020 escape of 76 PCC gang members from the Pedro Juan Caballero Regional Penitentiary. When authorities began recapturing some of those who had escaped weeks later, criminal groups apparently ordered local journalists to stop covering the case, López said.
Though its roots are in Brazil, the PCC has spread into Paraguay, especially in the border region. PCC gang members have also wreaked havoc in Paraguay's prisons, using extreme violence in its clashes with other gangs and using the jails to recruit new members.