Paraguayan authorities have reportedly seized over a dozen airplanes that they believe were used for drug trafficking, perhaps the clearest indication yet of the country's key role as a transit point in the region's cocaine air bridge.
In a joint operation carried out on July 6, officials from Paraguay's Public Ministry and anti-drug agency (SENAD) seized 18 planes in airports located in the eastern border city of Juan Pedro Caballero, as well as in Luque, which is part of the greater metropolitan area of capital city Asuncion, reported ABC Color.
The planes were likely used by criminal groups for drug trafficking operations, according to top anti-drug prosecutor Marcelo Pecci. A network of corrupt officials are suspected of having secured the fake documents needed to allow the airplanes -- reportedly brought from the United States -- into Paraguay, reported EFE.
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While Paraguay is South America's largest producer of marijuana, there is a possibility that the airplanes were used to smuggle cocaine from producer countries -- such as Bolivia and Peru -- into Brazil.
As early as 2011, a representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) warned of Paraguay's importance as a stop-over point in the so-called cocaine air bridge connecting Bolivia and Peru with Brazil. In November 2012, Paraguayan authorities seized five suspected drug planes and nearly two tons of cocaine in the eastern border province of Canindeyu. Paraguay has secondary surveillance radar installed for detecting air traffic, although the head of the National Directorate of Civil Aviation has said this is not sensitive enough to detect low-flying drug flights.
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Another possibility is that the planes were meant to be supplied to drug traffickers in other countries. The head of the country's anti-drug force has previously commented that Paraguay is a major supplier of older airplanes to criminal networks.
The seizures will likely once again stir up debate over whether Paraguay should implement a controversial law that would permit security forces to shoot down suspected drug planes. Paraguay's Senate approved the legislation last October, but in February the country's lower house removed the shoot-down provision from the bill.
Allegations that a corrupt network of officials facilitated the aerial drug trafficking operations is another illustration of the deep involvement of Paraguayan authorities in the country's drug trade. Several congressmen and numerous police officials have been implicated in narco-corruption scandals in recent months.