Authorities in Paraguay and Brazil have recently stepped up activities targeting contraband flows through Lake Itaipú, a natural border between the countries, and one used by criminals to smuggle all manner of merchandise, from drugs, arms and cigarettes to food, fuel and fertilizers.
On June 29, Brazilian police raided a warehouse near the lake and seized 24 containers of agrochemicals allegedly trafficked into the country from Paraguay, according to a press release.
This ended a month in which Paraguay’s Navy zealously swept the lake for clandestine ports, disabling at least 18 with explosives and heavy machinery. However, given the area’s long-standing role as a contraband corridor, it was unclear whether this would have any lasting effect.
InSight Crime spoke with Paraguayan reporter Roberto Irrazábal, who in 2019 was awarded Amnesty International’s prize for human rights journalism for his investigation into the connections between Brazilian soy farmers and contraband smuggling around Lake Itaipú.
InSight Crime (IC): What are the geographic, political, and economic advantages that make Lake Itaipú the smuggling center that it has become? How did smuggling start there and how has it evolved?
Roberto Irrazábal (RI): Lake Itaipú has three principal geographic advantages. Firstly, it is a natural border between Paraguay and Brazil, extending 1,524 kilometers in length — from the city of Hernandarias to Saltos del Guairá in Paraguay and from Foz de Iguaçu to Guaíra in Brazil — which makes fluvial controls very difficult.
Secondly, the lake is surrounded by wooded territory in both countries, which belongs to the binational Hydroelectric Dam. Traffickers take advantage of these forests to hide their merchandise.
Thirdly, those forests are bounded by private property, which on both sides are mostly monocultural farms owned by Brazilian citizens. The great advantage of this zone is that smugglers are always warned about operations against them by the ringing of bells, allowing them to ditch their cargo and escape every time. In many cases, they even later recover the cargo with the help of corrupt customs officials.
IC: In which section of the lake, if any, are contraband flows greatest?
RI: In my opinion, going by my own investigations, illicit traffic occurs along the whole 1,524 kilometer border. This is backed up by testimonies and maps showing the location of clandestine ports. That said, the zones where the police and Attorney General’s Office have conducted the most operations, at least on the Paraguayan side, are those close to the cities of Saltos del Guairá and San Alberto (also known as Tiger port and Indian port).
IC: Who are the smugglers operating on the lake, and what kind of boats are used?
RI: The people actually moving the merchandise from one side to the other are low-income individuals who are contracted by powerful businesspeople, most of them Brazilians, who buy and traffic the products that enter Brazil.
Before crossing, the products are stashed somewhere near the lake. Then they try to cross. If the smugglers get caught, often the companies and owners can put in a claim, which often ends in them getting the cargos back.
The majority of the smuggling vessels are medium-sized speedboats with powerful motors, but there are also large trucks that cross with cargos of soy and other products. This is facilitated by poor controls in both countries.
IC: Authorities speak of clandestine ports, which you yourself have written about. Can you tell us about these?
RI: The clandestine ports are built by clearing a section of the woods surrounding the lake and then setting up small piers. The Itaipú Hydroelectric company has actually authorized many of these points, under the excuse that they are supposedly watering spots for animals, for example.
Once the dock is mounted, criminals start operating at night. Intelligence work by the anti-contraband unit has found that even Navy personnel, whose job it is to combat smuggling in these waters, work with the contrabandists.
Cargos come from nearby stockpiling points, cross the soybean plantations, enter the woods around Lake Itaipú, load the cargo onto boats, cross to the Brazilian side, unload into the forest and cross the next set of soy plantations bound for big Brazilian cities like São Paulo. The Itaipú authorities and Attorney General’s Office have intervened a few times, destroying these ports, but they are soon rebuilt.
IC: In June, Paraguayan authorities used explosives and heavy machinery to destroy several clandestine ports. In your opinion, how effective is this method in reducing smuggling?
RI: Smugglers respond to the destruction of these ports by rebuilding them, sometimes in the same spot, other times in a different area. The vast distances and poor controls mean they have lots of options.
Destroying these ports is absolutely necessary, but so is setting up a stricter binational control system in the whole area. Right now [coordination is so bad] that there have been [accidental] shootouts between Brazilian and Paraguayan military in the middle of anti-smuggling operations.
There were some interesting proposals during the government of Fernando Lugo (2008-2012), but once Horacio Cartes took power in 2013, they all fell apart. That’s not an unimportant fact given most of the cigarettes seized in anti-contraband operations belong to his tobacco company, Tabesa.
Nor is it a coincidence that the area’s first big anti-smuggling operations took place after the 2018 accession of President Mario Abdo, one of Cartes’ political rivals, or that they were reduced once the two men created a political alliance.
IC: What other methods are Paraguayan and Brazilian law enforcement using on Lake Itaipú?
RI: I don’t have much information on Brazilian measures, but I am aware of several Brazilian military boat operations that attacked smugglers. I think these interventions are more effective and frequent than those launched by the Paraguayan military, some of whose personnel are actually involved in the smuggling, along with politicians and others.
In Paraguay, you hear news about operations every now and then, but they tend to come at “political moments.” The methods are not at all effective when you consider that the smugglers almost always escape and that they never reach the businesspeople directing the cargos.
IC: What would more effective methods look like?
RI: Firstly, given the waters and forest are binational, I think a joint Paraguay-Brazil control policy has to be established. Secondly, the vast spaces demand a monitoring system with more technology and personnel. And thirdly, we need to involve more agencies in both countries, as to create an intertwined control system that makes it harder to corrupt officials, like park rangers and the military.