Authorities in South America and Europe have dealt a blow to a trans-Atlantic drug trafficking network in an operation that has underlined Paraguay's importance to the international cocaine trade.
Brazilian police forces arrested 15 people, seized 173 vehicles and a plane, and froze the bank accounts of 147 individuals and 66 companies on March 30, in the culmination of Operation Hinterland, a two-year-long investigation coordinated by Brazilian, Paraguayan, and European law enforcement agencies.
The operation targeted a drug trafficking network that allegedly shipped 17 tons of cocaine from Latin America to Europe. Paraguay's National Anti-Drug Secretariat (Secretaría Nacional Antidrogas - SENAD) captured the network's purported leader, Rodrigo Alvarenga Paredes, in Asunción, and said that arrests were also made in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
In a testament to the trafficking scheme's vast size, Brazilian federal police noted that the total illicit transactions identified in the investigation could reach nearly $760 million. Europol, which supported the operation, described it as "a significant victory for the war on drugs," adding that the dismantled group was "one of Brazil’s most active drug trafficking organizations."
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The investigation found that the network's cocaine was sourced from Bolivia, where it was then trafficked into Paraguay. From Paraguay, it entered Brazil in trucks through Ponta Porã, a border town in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul.
Once in Brazil, the cocaine was shipped by road to the states of Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina, where traffickers stored the product before concealing it in cargo containers and shipping it to Europe.
InSight Crime Analysis
Operation Hinterland, while certainly another blow for regional trafficking interests, is unlikely to fundamentally alter Paraguay's position within the cocaine trade. Still, its magnitude confirms Paraguay's transformation into a vital cocaine highway and the challenges facing law enforcement authorities in the country.
Paraguay's position in South America's cocaine trade has developed rapidly over the last few years. Cocaine produced in Bolivia and Peru frequently enters Paraguay by land and air. From there, it is flown or driven across the border into Brazil, where it reaches ports such as Santos in São Paulo and Paranaguá in Paraná for shipment across the Atlantic.
Cocaine also exits Paraguay by boat through the Paraná-Paraguay waterway, disembarking downriver in Montevideo and Buenos Aires, before being sent to Europe.
Recently, mega operations targeting Paraguay's trafficking routes have become more common. They are frequently successful, yet the problem persists.
In early 2022, South American and European authorities conducted Operation Turf, which took aim at a criminal network involved in at least 8 tons of cocaine shipments reaching Europe after transiting through Paraguay.
Also in early 2022, A Ultranza Py, an operation conducted by Paraguayan authorities, targeted traffickers responsible for 16 tons of cocaine sent to Europe, including one of Europe's largest-ever seizures -- an 11-ton seizure in Antwerp in 2021.
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A porous border between Brazil and Paraguay makes moving cocaine between the countries relatively straightforward. Historic cross-border contraband networks have smuggled everything from firearms to cigarettes to produce, and civilians rely heavily on the free movement of goods across the border, making crackdowns difficult.
Additionally, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) is entrenched in Pedro Juan Caballero, the Paraguayan city adjacent to Ponta Porã. There, the Brazilian group controls the marijuana and cocaine trade, solidifying its influence with targeted assassinations.
Meanwhile, corruption at the highest levels of Paraguay's government helps stymie law enforcement efforts against drug trafficking.