The son of a former Paraguayan congressman has been accused of overseeing large cocaine shipments to Europe, illustrating how corrupt elites have influenced Paraguay's emergence as a top supplier of the European cocaine pipeline.
Fernando Enrique Balbuena Acuña, alias "Riki," was arrested on January 9 amid a series of raids, according to statements by Paraguay's National Anti-Drug Secretariat (Secretaría Nacional Antidrogas - SENAD). Balbuena Acuña is the son of former Cordillera department congressman Elvis Ramón Balbuena. The father has not been accused of any wrongdoing, and he has told the Paraguayan media that he has no contact with his son.
A 7-month investigation by SENAD led to the arrest of Balbuena Acuña and three other people, including a Ukrainian national. Authorities also seized nearly a ton of cocaine on a property just 200 meters from Balbuena Acuña's home outside of the capital of Asunción.
According to SENAD, Balbuena Acuña was allegedly responsible for "the collection and shipment" of large loads of cocaine via the Paraguay-Paraná waterway. The drugs were then smuggled to Europe.
Days after Balbuena Acuña's arrest, the former director of the Tacumbú Penitentiary, the country's largest prison, was arrested for alleged participation in Balbuena Acuña's trafficking organization. Julio Acevedo, himself a former advisor to Congress, was arrested on January 11, alongside his son.
This is not Acevedo's first arrest as he previously served two years in prison for failing in his duties as prison director to shut down the production of child pornography within the penitentiary. This did not slow his efforts, however, to secure public office as he has previously campaigned for various government positions in Alto Paraguay.
The route used to move the cocaine was the same seen in record-breaking hauls seized at German and Belgian ports last year. The route starts in the Port of Asunción, traveling by boat until the cargo reaches the Paraná River, according to La Nación. Ultimately, the narcotics reach the Atlantic through Buenos Aires, Argentina, before making the journey to Europe.
InSight Crime Analysis
Though often overlooked, Paraguay has emerged as a significant exporter of cocaine to Europe and beyond.
While discussing another year of record-breaking seizures at the port of Antwerp, Belgian Customs Administrator Kristian Vanderwaeren told reporters that the nearly 90 tons of seized cocaine mainly had come from three countries: Panama, Ecuador and Paraguay.
Traffickers have traditionally piggybacked their operations on container ships sailing from Brazil's ports. However, increased port security and scrutiny of Brazil-sourced containers have led trafficking organizations to seek out other options for cocaine shipments. Paraguay fits that bill, thanks to heavily-trafficked ports that feed into the Paraná River, one of South America's major waterways.
Corruption has also made Paraguay hospitable to traffickers.
A 2021 investigation by InSight Crime revealed a slew of cases involving congress members, police, judicial officials and prosecutors accused of facilitating the drug trade. This included Congressman Ulises Quintana, who allegedly protected accused drug trafficker Javier Cabaña Santacruz, alias "Cucho." Quintana allegedly served as an intermediary for Cucho, speaking to him by phone after authorities arrested one of his operators with $190,000 in cash.
While Paraguay has clearly become a springboard for cocaine to Europe, the country also appears to be a gateway for drugs headed to West Africa.
In 2019, more than a ton of cocaine was seized over four days at Senegal's port of Dakar, including 800 kilograms discovered in a shipment of Renault vehicles.
More recently, in February 2021, the Ivory Coast recorded its largest drug bust, seizing a ton of cocaine. an unidentified source told Reuters that the cocaine originated in Paraguay.