Paraguay has launched the biggest operation against cocaine trafficking and money laundering in its history, unleashing a scandal that has forced the resignation of several politicians, amid growing international alarm about the country's crucial role in the transatlantic cocaine trade.
Operation A Ultranza PY started on February 22, targeting a criminal network linked to more than 16 tons of cocaine seized in Europe, including an 11-ton seizure in the port of Antwerp in April 2021, and a further 4.7 tons in Paraguay. The operation concluded a 27-month investigation involving the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Europol, Paraguay’s National Anti-Drug Secretariat (SENAD) and Attorney General’s Office and Uruguay’s Interior Ministry.
During the first week of the operation, Paraguayan authorities conducted more than 40 raids on properties allegedly used for trafficking logistics and money laundering, seeking to execute some hundred search and seizure warrants, and 43 arrest warrants.
To date, over $100 million of assets have been seized, and 24 people charged with crimes of drug trafficking, criminal association and money laundering, of whom seven have been detained.
In a press conference, Paraguayan authorities said the network had a sophisticated system to bring cocaine from Bolivia to Paraguay and then onto Argentina and Uruguay, from where they were shipped to Europe. First, it was loaded onto clandestine flights from Bolivia, which landed on airstrips in the Cabrera-Timane natural reserve in northern Paraguay. The drugs were then flown to ranches in the Presidente Hayes department, then trucked to properties belonging to the network in the Central department, where they were stored prior to dispatch.
The cocaine was shipped to Europe in containers belonging to front companies, which left from the river port of Villeta, south of the capital Asunción. The shipments moved along the Paraná River to reach the Atlantic, passing through Argentina and Uruguay.
Profits were repatriated using the Token system, which uses an identifier code to make secure international transfers, and passed through accounts in multiple countries to conceal their origin. They were then laundered through a range of businesses in Paraguay, including high-profile martial arts tournaments, luxury properties, and even churches.
Scandal Shakes Paraguay’s Elites
Paraguay’s Attorney General’s Office has identified three main branches of the network, according to Telefuturo. All have ties to figures in the rival wings of Paraguay’s ruling Colorado Party.
The leadership of the network was allegedly headed by Sebastián Marset Cabrera, a 30-year-old musician, concert promoter and footballer from Uruguay. Prosecutors claim that Marset was responsible for facilitating contacts between Bolivian cocaine suppliers and Paraguayan and international drug trafficking groups.
In 2013, Marset was jailed for five years in Uruguay, after confessing to being the intended recipient of 450 kilograms of marijuana, seized in 2012 from a plane piloted by Juan Domingo Viveros Cartes, uncle of Paraguay’s then president, Horacio Cartes.
On release, Marset left Uruguay and traveled round Central America, Paraguay and Bolivia, where investigators believe he built relationships with international drug trafficking organizations. In September 2021, he was detained for carrying a fake Paraguayan passport in Dubai, where he is currently under house arrest.
The network’s logistics branch was allegedly headed by Miguel Angel Insfrán Galeano, who coordinated the transport, storage and dispatch of cocaine in Paraguay. For this, he worked with several other members of the Insfrán family, including José Insfrán, founder and self-proclaimed pastor of the Centro de Avivamiento church, which he allegedly used to launder drug profits. Both Miguel Angel and José remain at large.
José Insfrán is a former pre-candidate for the governorate of Canindeyú and has been photographed in events alongside high-profile politicians, including congressman Juan Carlos Ozorio, who was a regular attender of his church, according to ABC. On March 2, Ozorio was arrested after journalist Alfredo Guachiré published recordings appearing to show him speaking with Oscar Agustín Sanabria – a leader of Brazil’s Red Command (Comando Vermelho), detained by the SENAD in a separate drug trafficking case in April 2021.
Ozorio admitted being close to José Insfrán, but denied having a business relationship with him, or speaking with Sanabria.
The ruling party in Paraguay’s Congress has also demanded the resignation of congressman Erico Galeano Segovia, after his name was found on bills in a raided property linked to the Insfrán clan. Galeano’s lawyers claimed he sold the property in 2018 and has no connections to its current owners.
To transport the drugs, the Insfrán clan allegedly hired Masi Job Von Zastrow, a pilot and retired army colonel who was detained in Paraguay’s Silvio Pettirossi airport, along with nine seized aircraft. Zastrow’s daughter is the partner of senator Sergio Godoy, who denied any knowledge of the criminal organization.
The network’s money laundering branch was allegedly headed by Alberto Koube, who was arrested during the raids in Asunción. Koube and his family own several companies, including Tapiracuai SA and Total Cars. These were beneficiaries of state contracts worth at least $850,000, mostly with the National Emergency Secretariat (Secretaría de Emergencia Nacional – SEN).
SEN minister Joaquin Roa was removed from his post on 24 February, after he was revealed to be the owner of a $4 million yacht bought from Koube, which was seized during the operation. In an interview with Monumental 1080 AM, Roa admitted buying the yacht from Koube and negotiating contracts with Tapiracuai SA, but said he never imagined Koube was involved in drug trafficking.
Operation A Ultranza PY comes as Paraguay is still reeling from Operation Turf, a large international investigation in February 2022, which also revealed connections between Paraguayan elites and a cocaine trafficking ring through Paraguay and Brazil. While links between politics and drug trafficking in Paraguay are far from new, the scope of the revelations in these two operations is unprecedented.
José Amarilla, a consultant on security issues in Paraguay, explained to InSight Crime that there are two possible reasons why authorities are now moving against these powerful drug trafficking networks and their political connections.
The first is the enormous pressure on Paraguay from foreign agencies such as the DEA and Europol. Carlos Peris, a political scientist and drug trafficking expert at the Catholic University of Asunción, emphasized that the investigations were driven by growing concern in Europe over the sharp increase in cocaine dispatched from Paraguay – including a historic 23 tons seized in Germany and Belgium in February 2021.
Second, the investigations may have been aided by the political confrontation between current President Mario Abdo Benítez and former President Horacio Cartes for control over the Colorado Party. In the past, both sides have used their political influence to expose their adversaries’ connections to illicit activities, in an attempt to gain political advantage.
Peris added that, although Cartes has long been subject to allegations of links to tobacco smuggling, drug trafficking and money laundering networks, the issue has become supercharged by the campaign leading up to next year's elections.
In January 2022, Cartes was formally denounced by then Interior Minister Arnaldo Giuzzio for money laundering, illicit enrichment and false testimony. A month later, Giuzzio was removed from his post after admitting to discussing state contracts and hiring a vehicle from Marcus Vinicius Espíndola Marques de Padua, an accused drug trafficker who was arrested during Operation Turf. Giuzzio insisted he had no reason at the time to believe Espíndola was involved in illicit activities. The operation also revealed links between Brazilian drug traffickers and Cartes’ family’s tobacco company, Tabacalera del Este SA (Tabesa).
Amarilla and Peris believe that, although these operations may generate a temporary disruption in cocaine exports to Europe, drug trafficking through the country will bounce back.
“[The operation] without doubt is having a significant impact that will result in a short-term reduction [in cocaine flows],” Amarilla said. “It’s like when you put cameras in a red zone in a city, for a time crime figures drop to near zero, but at some point, and I think it will be relatively soon, the dynamic returns or even grows.”
Both echoed the opinion expressed by new Interior Minister Federico González: Operations A Ultranza and Turf have only reached the “middle commands” of Paraguay’s drug trafficking networks, while the masterminds and financiers behind them remain at large.