Paraguay’s long struggle against corruption has become a major theme of the presidential elections set for April 30, with leading candidates proposing starkly different approaches to the issue.
The leading candidate, Efraín Alegre, has capitalized on corruption scandals implicating the political party of his main opponent, Santiago Peña.
Peña’s Colorado Party has seen its image tarnished by corruption-related sanctions the United States levied last year against party members, former President Horacio Cartes and current Vice President Hugo Velázquez.
Meanwhile, the controversial outsider Paraguayo Cubas is gaining popularity as he takes a hard-line stance on crime and corruption with bold, dictatorial promises.
The election comes as Paraguay battles organized crime issues beyond corruption. Turf wars between gangs have seen homicides soar. Transnational groups, such as Brazil’s First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando Capital – PCC), have set up shop in the country, and criminal groups are becoming increasingly brazen in targeting law enforcement with intimidation and assassination.
Here, InSight Crime looks at the ways these candidates say they’ll crack down on corruption and organized crime.
Leading the polls is opposition candidate Efraín Alegre of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico – PLRA). An outspoken critic of the Colorado Party, he has vowed to crack down on entrenched political corruption.
Alegre is a political veteran who served under ex-President Fernando Lugo, the only candidate to beat the Colorado Party in the last 77 years. Alegre finished runner-up in the last two presidential elections. He claims that disgraced former President Cartes, who oversees a mammoth illicit cigarette empire, is attempting to re-exert his influence over the presidency using Peña as a proxy.
Alegre has promised to strengthen Paraguay’s institutions, which have faced criticism for failing to adequately investigate the country’s leading politicians. The Attorney General’s Office, for example, has come under fire for squashing cases despite ample evidence of corruption. One of the most notorious examples is former Attorney General Sandra Quiñónez, who failed to prosecute top-ranking members of the Colorado Party, including Cartes, even after the United States brought sanctions against the ex-president. Similarly, numerous members of the National Anti-Drug Secretariat (Secretaría Nacional Antidrogas – SENAD) have been accused of corruption.
Paraguay’s institutions have the means to fight illicit activities like corruption and money laundering but are being underutilized by the current government, Professor Esteban Caballero, a political scientist at the Latin American Department of Social Sciences (Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales – Flasco) told InSight Crime.
“All these bodies have the possibility of improving their performance if they are directed and are authorized to do so by a committed executive,” Caballero said.
But there’s a hitch: even if Alegre wins the presidency, the Colorado Party and its allies are likely to maintain their grip on the legislature, blocking any policy that goes against their interests — especially policies that may threaten corrupt lawmakers.
On security, Alegre’s flagship proposal is Live Without Fear (Vivir Sin Miedo), which aims to build law enforcement capacity through investment into new technologies, including drones and security cameras, and increasing lighting in public spaces.
But this plan would likely be limited to deterring minor street crime without addressing Paraguay’s more severe threats, one expert said. Rising insecurity is being driven by gangs trying to control the international drug trafficking routes that traverse Paraguay — groups that won’t be stopped by well-lit streets.
“He’s talking about a smarter use of police resources, but the focus seems to be on … security cameras in neighborhoods and more police on the streets, which I’m not sure gets to the heart of the problem,” Laurence Blair, a Paraguay-based journalist told InSight Crime.
Instead, Blair thinks Paraguay needs to attack international drug trafficking organizations rather than low-level groups that commit petty crimes. An alternative technology for investment would be radar, which could be used to track drug flights from Bolivia.
“If Paraguay can’t monitor its own borders, I don’t see how it can really effectively tackle organized crime,” said Blair.
Peña, polling just behind Alegre, has struggled to overcome his association with allegedly corrupt elements of the Colorado Party. He has tried to distance himself from certain factions of the party and has promised a major audit of corrupt institutions to rehabilitate Paraguay’s reputation and attract investment.
But Peña’s ties to Cartes are strong. He previously served as Cartes’ finance minister and was appointed to the board of a bank owned by the former president, leading to questions about his ability or intention to reform a system in which he enjoys a privileged position.
Enacting meaningful reforms against corruption would be long and arduous, David Riveros García, Executive Director of the Paraguayan anticorruption organization, “reAcción,” told InSight Crime.
“Corruption is an institution, perhaps the only really developed institution in Paraguay,” he said.
An economist, Peña is running on a pro-business platform. He believes by reducing poverty, the incentives for people to engage in criminal activity are reduced in turn.
His proposals revolve around getting more Paraguayans into the workforce. He has promised free childcare for working and studying moms and has said he will create 500,000 new jobs, though he has avoided saying how.
However, Peña’s proposed reforms lack detail, particularly when it comes to rural development. None of his proposals feature mechanisms for the development of the poorest parts of the Paraguayan countryside, where that state is largely absent, and traffickers often thrive.
The rural border department of Amambay, for example, is a major hub for marijuana cultivation and trafficking to Brazil. It lacks formal economic opportunities, which is one reason for continued and widespread marijuana cultivation there despite extensive police efforts. The lack of state presence allows groups like the PCC to take root and extend their influence. Similarly, the rural areas of Itaipú have made become key areas for trafficking drugs, weapons, contraband, and people into Argentina and Brazil.
“The poverty and the desperation in the Paraguayan countryside are really what allows these drug-trafficking groups to take hold,” said Blair.
Peña’s direct anti-crime proposal is also underwhelming, Blair said. The candidate is seeking to fight drug addiction by dismantling points of sale and offering rehabilitation programs to drug addicts to help them reenter the workforce. But his platform lacks concrete steps to fight the corruption that has allowed international organized crime groups to traffic drugs through the country.
“This is tackling the symptom rather than the cause,” said Blair. “Drug users on the streets are not the major problem facing Paraguay. It’s that state institutions are being captured by organized criminal interests.”
Polling in third is Paraguayo Cubas of the National Crusade Party (Partido Cruzada Nacional). Though trailing by a healthy margin, Cubas has been rising in the polls as Peña has fallen.
Cubas is a lawyer and consultant who was elected to the Senate in 2018 and gained a reputation for his publicity stunts. He has assaulted a political rival and police, and called for the murder of 100,000 Brazilians in reaction to environmental damage in Paraguay. His behavior ultimately resulted in his ejection from the Senate in 2019.
Cubas said he’d take a hardline against corruption, reasoning that crime flourishes in Paraguay because political elites are themselves criminals.
There will be “no forgiving and forgetting” in cases of corruption, Cubas said in an interview with local media outlet, Última Hora. The candidate cited El Salvador, whose anti-crime crackdown has caused serious human rights concerns, as one model for his tough-on-crime stance.
Cubas’ security proposals are blunt, including consolidating the armed forces and bringing back the death penalty. He proposes the most extreme institutional reforms of all candidates and has declared he would rewrite Paraguay’s constitution.
“He’s … effectively saying he’s going to rule as a benevolent dictator. He’s going to dissolve Congress. He’s going to rule by decree,” said Blair.
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