Dario Messer, the financier behind one of Latin America’s largest-ever money laundering schemes, has been condemned to 13 years behind bars in Brazil.
But, in neighboring Paraguay, there is concern his crimes may go unpunished.
On June 9, a federal court in Rio de Janeiro denied Messer’s appeal against a sentence of 13 years and four months in prison on money laundering charges. The sentence had first been handed down in August 2020.
And while his prison sentence was upheld, the court waived a fine of 4 million reais (around $780,000), accepting Messer’s plea that he had already returned illicit assets worth close to 1 billion reais ($195 million). Many of these assets were the subject of complex legal wrangling between Brazil and Paraguay, where he had acquired properties, vehicles, cattle, as well as owning stocks, with a value of around $150 million.
Messer struck a plea deal with authorities, which means he is unlikely to serve out this prison time. According to a report by Globo, Messer would be allowed to serve only three years of his sentence under house arrest with an ankle monitor. With this beginning retroactively in July 2019, he could walk free as early as August 2022, the newspaper suggested.
However, the future of Messer’s legal troubles is unclear. This sentence is related to charges brought against him as part of Operation Marakata, which investigated how US dollar transactions were used to launder money through the emerald trade. In Brazil, Messer faces at least five other court cases into other money laundering activities. Conversely, in Paraguay, it is uncertain whether charges against him will ever be tried.
The scale of Messer’s money laundering network is hard to fathom. He was a key player in the schemes that emerged during Operation Lava Jato (Car Wash), an investigation into how the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht paid millions in bribes to political leaders across Latin America.
In total, Messer’s network is believed to have moved $1.6 billion dollars illicitly across more than 3,000 bank accounts in 52 countries between 2011 and 2017. He facilitated this network by gaining access to political and business elites, while hiding and living in Paraguay, where he was allegedly protected at the highest levels.
InSight Crime Analysis
While Messer is looking at lengthy court cases in Brazil, the full truth about his actions in neighboring Paraguay may never come to light without a similar judicial process.
In 2018, Paraguay opened its first investigation into Messer, alleging that he ran a separate yet large-scale money laundering network, involving former Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes (2013-2018), among others.
At the time, prosecutors alleged that Messer had laundered at least $40 million in funds, illegally obtained in Brazil, through Paraguayan companies.
As part of his confession in 2020, Messer confirmed his ties to Cartes. He alleged that Cartes sent a payment of $600,000 to Messer via his girlfriend in January 2019. The money was to be used to bribe judges and facilitate Messer’s escape to Paraguay, according to CNN. As of February 2022, Cartes is the subject of a number of investigations for money laundering and other suspicious financial transactions, according to Paraguayan newspaper, Ultima Hora.
But there is now a real risk Messer will never answer to his criminal charges in Paraguay. José Casañas Levi, a criminal lawyer who has followed the case, told newspaper El Independiente that Paraguay has strict statutes of limitations for corruption cases.
“The processes he faces here [in Paraguay] are interrupted…while he fulfills his sentence in Brazil. But his case will then only be heard here if the deadline to do so has not passed,” he explained.
Casañas Levi suggested Paraguay could still rule on what to do with Messer’s assets through an “autonomous confiscation process,” in which a suspect’s properties can be ordered to be seized independently of any criminal trial.
Paraguay currently watches over 81 of those assets and is afraid Messer could ask for them back if he faces no criminal court case in the country.