Law enforcement in Latin America and Europe have disrupted a cocaine smuggling network that reached from Bolivia to Dubai, resulting in the arrests of a Paraguay-based dealer of armored vehicles and a racehorse owner in Brazil.
Security forces coordinated by Europol raided some 40 sites on February 15 in Brazil, Paraguay and Spain, detaining some 30 suspected members of the network and seizing drugs, vehicles, firearms and cash, according to an agency news release.
The sting, called Operation Turf, concluded an 18-month investigation into the network, which was linked to seizures of at least eight tons of cocaine and $2 million in cash in Belgium, Brazil, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain.
The network moved cocaine from production regions in Bolivia through Paraguay and Brazil. The drugs were then dispatched in shipping containers to Spain and distributed around Europe. A command center in Dubai coordinated the entire operation.
A Murky Web in Paraguay’s Tri-Border Area
While little information has been released on the cocaine production infrastructure in Bolivia, the operation revealed a sophisticated transport network that moved drugs through Paraguay, coordinated by traffickers in the Tri-Border Area, where Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil meet.
According to Paraguayan authorities, the main target in Operation Turf was Brazilian businessman Marcus Vinicius Espíndola Marques de Padua. Espíndola is linked to several companies based in Paraguay’s Ciudad del Este dedicated to importing and armor-plating luxury cars. Paraguay’s National Anti-Drug Secretariat (Secretaría Nacional Antidrogas – SENAD) alleges that these vehicles – manufactured with hidden compartments – were used to move cocaine from Paraguay into Brazil, according to local media reports.
Espíndola – wanted on drug trafficking and money laundering charges – was arrested in Foz do Iguaçu, the Brazilian city across the border from Ciudad del Este.
Espíndola allegedly coordinated with another Brazilian national residing in Paraguay, Lindomar Reges Furtado, who is also wanted on drug trafficking charges in Brazil.
SEE ALSO: Drug Trafficking and Political Protection in Paraguay: The Case of ‘Cucho’ Cabaña
However, when Paraguayan authorities attempted to arrest Furtado in the Paraná Country Club on the outskirts of Ciudad del Este, their entry was blocked by the club’s security guards. The eight minute delay allowed Furtado to flee.
Furtado was the beneficiary of a protection order granted by a Paraguayan judge in February 2020 after he accused the Ciudad del Este police force of trying to extort him.
Furtado also has links that hint at deeper ties with Paraguayan organized crime.
According to Última Hora, Furtado escaped with the help of his partner, Gladys Duarte, who is a former partner of Marcio Luis Dávalos Segovia, a Paraguayan trafficker detained in Brazil in 2020. Dávalos is the brother-in-law of Tomás Rojas Cañete, alias "Toma’i," a jailed leader of a notorious drug clan in the Tri-Border Area.
Racehorses and Warehouses in Brazil
Once in Brazil, the cocaine was moved overland to ports on the country’s southern coast, principally those of Rio de Janeiro and Santos. The drugs were then concealed in shipping containers destined for European ports.
Cristiano Mendes de Cordova Nascimento, a Brazilian who owns several cargo transport companies, was also arrested in the operation.
According to a report by O Globo, Cordova, who is charged with money laundering, is better known as an investor in thoroughbred racehorses. Heliel Martins, a Brazilian Federal Police official, told the news outlet that Cordova owns about 60 racehorses, each worth around $500,000. Martins said that they believe these horses were one of the ways in which the network laundered drug profits, along with real estate, luxury cars and private planes.
The O Globo report also contained audio recordings of conversations between Cordova and Furtado, the accused trafficker who slipped out of the Paraguay country club. In the recordings, Furtado can be heard speaking about a ship headed to Barcelona.
SEE ALSO: How Brazil’s Port of Santos Became Cocaine’s World Trade Center
When O Globo contacted Cordova, his lawyer said that his client denies the allegations, adding that the facts will be clarified in due course before the judiciary.
One of Brazil’s main criminal gangs, the Red Command (Comando Vermelho), also apparently played a part in the network, according to the Brazilian Federal Police. The gang is suspected of providing storage and security for cocaine in Rio de Janeiro before its dispatch. Similar agreements may have existed with the Red Command’s rival, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando de Capital – PCC), in Santos.
During Operation Turf, security forces raided cocaine storage centers in the Vila Cruzeiro slum in northern Rio, where they were met with intense gunfire, according to O Globo. Police also arrested Alexsandro Marques de Oliveira, a former defender for Rio’s Vasco da Gama soccer club. He was accused of renting the warehouses used by the network. When contacted by O Globo, his lawyer said that there is no evidence of his involvement and that he will be proven innocent.
'Command and Control Centers' in Dubai
After crossing the Atlantic, the cocaine arrived in European ports, principally Valencia and Barcelona in Spain.
The first case Spanish authorities linked to the network was in April 2021, with the interception of 300 kilograms of cocaine in Valencia that had been imported from Santos in a container of grain. Since then, the network has been linked to more than four tons of cocaine seized in Spain, as well as previous seizures in Italy and the Netherlands.
While Spanish authorities have released few details about the networks that distributed the cocaine around Europe, Europol revealed that the process was allegedly coordinated from “command and control centers” located in Dubai.
From this base, the network leaders directed operations using encrypted messaging services, including Sky ECC, a platform taken down by authorities in 2021. Authorities also froze more than 20 company bank accounts created to facilitate the transfer of drug profits to Brazil via Dubai.
“Dubai has emerged as a key location for key organizers and money laundering activities associated with the cocaine trade in the European Union,” according to a European Union (EU) memo leaked in November 2021.
Numerous international drug traffickers are believed to be hiding out in Dubai, benefiting from its lax financial regulations. Among them may be accused Brazilian drug trafficker Sergio Roberto de Carvalho. According to Spanish media outlets, authorities are investigating whether Carvalho was the mastermind behind the network exposed in Operation Turf.
Carvalho is a former major from the military police of Mato Grosso do Sul, a Brazilian state bordering Paraguay. In 2017, he fled Brazil to Marbella, Spain, under the false identity of Paul Wouter, a Surinamese citizen. After being arrested in connection to 1.7 tons of cocaine seized in Galicia in 2018, he skipped bail and faked his own death.
It is believed that Carvalho crossed to Portugal, then in 2020 flew to Ukraine and then Dubai, his financial headquarters and last confirmed location.