Shipping containers at European ports that concealed record amounts of cocaine have come from an unlikely source: the landlocked country of Paraguay.
The latest haul -- 11 tons of cocaine discovered at the Belgian port of Antwerp in early April -- led to a series of raids by Paraguayan authorities on properties and offices connected to four firms allegedly linked to the shipment, Última Hora reported. One of the largest seizures recorded at the port of Antwerp, the cocaine was concealed in a shipment of leather that disembarked from Villeta, a river port near Paraguay’s capital of Asunción.
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Villeta was also the exit point for five shipping containers used to smuggle a record 16 tons of cocaine to Europe. The cocaine, concealed in tins of wall filler and paint, was discovered at Germany’s port of Hamburg in late February. German officials called it the largest single seizure in Europe’s history, with a street value of between 1.5 and 3.5 billion euros ($1.8 and $4.2 billion), the BBC reported.
After that seizure, Paraguay authorities raided shipping firm Envases Paraguayos and paint factory Pinturas Tupa SA, Última Hora reported. The factory had made a number of shipments to Europe recently and used paint cans similar to those used to hide the cocaine, said Francisco Ayala, a spokesman for Paraguay’s National Anti-Drug Secretariat (Secretaría Nacional Antidrogas - SENAD).
The owner of both businesses is not under arrest but he has spoken to authorities, according to media reports. Envases Paraguayos has claimed that the export was tampered with during transit.
InSight Crime Analysis
Paraguay's emergence as a launching pad for cocaine shipments to Europe is a result of two trends -- traffickers and drug gangs setting up in the country, and their search for new maritime transatlantic drug routes.
Paraguay has long served as a transit point for cocaine to Brazil, which has a large consumer market. In recent years, though, Brazil has become one of the major pipeline countries for moving drugs to Europe. This has, in turn, made Paraguay a critical waystation for cocaine smuggled from producing countries, such as Colombia, Peru and Bolivia.
With much of the cocaine trafficked out of Brazil controlled by the country’s main criminal group -- the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) -- traffickers with ties to the gang have established themselves along the Paraguay-Brazil border.
But this month’s police raids on firms linked to the massive cocaine exports point to local businessmen who do not appear to have connections to the PCC, said Carlos Peris, a political scientist and drug trafficking expert at the Catholic University of Asunción.
Chaco, a western plain region of Paraguay that is home to large cattle ranches, contains many landing strips for drug flights, Peris told InSight Crime. Planes loaded with cocaine from Bolivia are increasingly landing in this hinterland.
Peris stated that the recent developments imply that the “market is diversifying,” and that there are “business elites involved.”
Traffickers have also penetrated Paraguay by bribing politicians and police. InSight Crime published a recent investigation on a Paraguay legislator accused of protecting a trafficker and aiding his smuggling activities, leading to warnings by security analysts that traffickers have infiltrated the highest levels of government.
Cocaine smuggled to Europe typically flows out of Brazilian ports. But Brazil has lately worked to improve controls, while European ports have ramped up inspections of the kinds of cargo, such as produce, commonly used to smuggle drugs.
The result has been a search for new routes, particularly ones out of countries that are not cocaine producers or maritime shipping hubs. Paraguay fits that bill -- a landlocked country somewhat under the radar, but with a river port infrastructure.
The Villeta port, the country’s largest on the Paraná river, opened in 2018 to service large container vessels, the same ones that traffickers like to piggyback drug operations on.
They did not waste any time. In October 2020, Paraguay authorities recorded a seizure of 2.3 tons of cocaine concealed in a container of charcoal. It was the largest seizure seen in the country in a decade.