Recent judicial and diplomatic action taken by the United States against Paraguayan officials could mark a new, slightly more tense period in bilateral relations.
In early April, the US State Department announced that Paraguayan congressman Ulises Rolando Quintana Maldonado had been banned from entering the United States due to his involvement in “significant corruption.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that Quintana, as a legislator, had engaged in acts that “facilitated transnational organized crime, undermined the rule of law, and obstructed the public’s faith in Paraguay’s public processes."
The announcement came just weeks after InSight Crime published an investigation that uncovered how the congressman had conspired with an alleged drug trafficker named Reynaldo "Cucho" Cabaña to protect cocaine shipments in exchange for illicit funds.
Other Paraguayan politicians have also run afoul of the US in recent months. In September, the US Justice Department announced that former Paraguay legislator Cynthia Elizabeth Tarragó Díaz had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering. Tarragó traveled to the United States on multiple occasions, where she accepted around $800,000 from purported drug traffickers before laundering funds through a network of accounts, according to the US Department of Justice news release.
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The United States government has for years been actively calling out corruption and organized crime in other parts of the region, most notably in Central America, but it has been noticeably coy as it relates to Paraguay.
That could be changing. Although it has no direct legal repercussions, the announcement to strip Quintana of his visa could be a sign that the US may take at least a more vocal role going forward.
Former US Ambassador to Guatemala Donald Planty told InSight Crime that the move shows the United States is prepared to take concrete steps to penalize official corruption on an individual basis. He said it also represents "a sharpening of US anti-corruption policies in Paraguay."
Paraguay is often overlooked but has become a major drug trafficking hub. The country produced an estimated 40,000 tons of cannabis in 2019. Criminal groups also move ever-larger amounts of cocaine and may now be branching into cocaine production.
Drug trafficking networks operating out of the nation rely on the support of corrupt officials, who help protect and even secure illicit loads.
Such was the case with Congressman Quintana. As a Paraguayan government investigation revealed, when the operative driving to pay Quintana for a 53-kilogram shipment of cocaine was stopped by police at a surprise checkpoint, the head of the trafficking ring, Cucho, called Quintana on the telephone. After paying a bribe, the driver was released.
Authorities believed the politician also ensured judicial protection for Cucho who, in return, allegedly helped finance his political campaign.
Corrupt officials like Quintana have largely remained in the shadows. And when caught out, they often evade facing justice, making recent actions taken by the United States all the more significant.
After spending time in Paraguay’s Viñas Cué military prison, Quintana was allowed to leave pretrial detention in October 2020 when the Court of Criminal Appeals suspended the ruling that was keeping him there.
The politician later announced his intention to run for mayor of Ciudad del Este, the same city from where the 53 kilograms of cocaine crossed the border into Brazil before Cucho himself was arrested, and Quintana went on the run.