Political assassinations, record drug seizures and gang wars; an avalanche of criminal concerns in Paraguay has engulfed the city of Pedro Juan Caballero on the border with Brazil.
Paraguay is still reeling from the May 10 assassination of Marcelo Pecci, one of its best-known criminal prosecutors, while on honeymoon in Colombia. A range of connected motives have been suggested, including his involvement in some of the country’s most important criminal cases.
Although the specific motive for the assassination is still unclear, one revelation suggests he had been investigating the alleged interplay between drug traffickers and political elites in Pedro Juan Caballero. Below, InSight Crime looks at the different criminal dynamics at play in this strategic border region.
Narco-Corruption at the Border
First of all, the murder of Pecci and the attempted assassination of Pedro Juan Caballero Mayor José Carlos Acevedo on May 17 may be linked, according to an investigation by Colombian media, La FM. Having obtained copies of Pecci’s recent email correspondence, La FM revealed that one of Pecci’s most recent investigations targeted a Brazilian drug trafficker, Sergio de Arruda Quintiliano Netto, alias “Minotauro.”
Minotauro was once the head of operations in Paraguay for Brazil’s largest criminal group, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), before his arrest in 2019. However, he reportedly continues to exert influence on PCC operations in Paraguay, despite being behind bars in Brazil.
A month before his murder, Pecci received a request for information from Paraguay’s Attorney General’s Office concerning Hugo Volpe Mazó, La FM reported. Last January, Mazó resigned as deputy minister for criminal policy after reports emerged he had allegedly received bribes from Minotauro, according to the investigation. This criminal relationship was centered on Pedro Juan Caballero.
Additionally, Colombia’s police chief, Jorge Luis Vargas, revealed that Pecci was leading two investigations into the PCC, likely including the Mazó one.
Record Marijuana Seizures
In the month of Pecci’s murder, Paraguay has witnessed a slew of rapid criminal developments in and around Pedro Juan Caballero.
Seizures of marijuana are skyrocketing. On May 5, anti-drug officials seized 38 tons of marijuana in Amambay, packaged for transport and with a small cache of firearms. This marked the largest-ever seizure in a single operation. The previous record did not stand for long.
On May 18, anti-drug officials seized another 50.4 tons of marijuana across five camps in the eastern department of Amambay, near the Brazil border. Such seizures are unsurprising since these locations were likely consolidation spots for marijuana crops coming from across Paraguay and ready to be dispatched into Brazil. As InSight Crime reported in 2021, Amambay is at the heart of marijuana production and distribution in the country.
The department’s capital, Pedro Juan Caballero, has thus become a natural headquarters for the PCC as it seeks to continue controlling both marijuana and cocaine trafficking through the country. It has faced continuous pushback from native Paraguayan gangs, such as the Rotela Clan. This has led to several gruesome massacres, especially in prisons, as well as regular killings in the contested border city.
Repeated Political Assassinations
There are currently no strong links connecting Pecci’s assassination to the PCC or organized crime in Pedro Juan Caballero. But such tactics are commonplace for groups operating there.
Pedro Juan Caballero is still reeling from the attempted murder of its mayor. On May 17, Acevedo was shot seven times outside the municipal building and remains in critical condition. Acevedo belongs to a family clan that has dominated politics in Pedro Juan Caballero for years. His niece, and daughter of the current governor of Amambay, Haylee Acevedo, was shot dead in the city last October. The PCC were heavily linked to that murder although the gang has denied any responsibility.
Such targeted hits have continued throughout 2022. They are often carried out in broad daylight and with little police reaction.
"Current killings are the result of an intensification of drug trafficking activity, disputes between drug trafficking organizations for control of territories, routes and businesses or the absence of a truce between rivals,” wrote Jorge Rolón Luna, former director of the country's citizen security observatory, in a 2021 report.