Amambay is at the heart of Paraguay’s most worrying organized crime trends: cocaine trafficking, marijuana production, and the rise of violent criminal groups.
The department leads the country’s marijuana production and is a vital drug corridor, with both marijuana and cocaine flowing through the department’s land border into Brazil. It is also ground zero for the expansion of Brazilian gangs into Paraguay, most notably the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) and the Red Command (Comando Vermelho – CV), which have taken root in Pedro Juan Caballero and Capitán Bado.
The department’s high murder rate – nearly ten times the national average – appears to be a symptom of these criminal dynamics.
First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital PCC): Amambay is the PCC’s historic foothold in Paraguay and the department where it has most presence. The gang’s primary drug trafficking operations are carried out along Amambay’s border with Brazil, from Capitán Bado north to Bella Vista Norte. The PCC’s incursions have led to violent clashes with other criminal actors. Although the group does not exert hegemonic control on the department’s drug trafficking routes, the PCC is among the most influential criminal actors in the region. The group’s influence may stem from its mutually beneficial alliances with local actors in Amambay. The PCC, for instance, is a major buyer of marijuana from local producers; in return, the gang offers protection and criminal know-how to local groups.
Red Command (Comando Vermelho – CV): the CV is involved in marijuana and cocaine trafficking in northern parts of Amambay, from Capitán Bado down to Salto del Guairá. The CV generally operates in small cells. In Capitan Bado, the town where the group first set foot in Paraguay, in the 1990s, the CV is battling against the PCC.
Paraguayan People’s Army (Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo – EPP): The EPP operates in a small area of Amambay bordering Concepción and San Pedro, the two states where the group has its strongest presence.
Arms Trafficking: Amambay appears to be a transit point for firearms trafficked into Brazil by Brazilian criminal organizations, namely the PCC and the CV. Nine of every ten homicides in the department are committed with a firearm. Hired assassinations are also common. Criminal actors tend to use small arms rather than high-caliber weapons. The market is vibrant and large, running in the millions of dollars.
Cocaine: Both the PCC and the CV traffic cocaine in Amambay and clash for control of drug trafficking routes. Independent traffickers and family clans also operate in the department, sometimes in collaboration with Brazilian gangs, sometimes on their own. Drug-laden planes arrive from Bolivia with hundreds of kilograms of cocaine and coca paste. Drug laboratories have also been discovered in the department, used to increase the volume of the paste and sell it in Brazil for a higher price (double or sometimes triple). Traffickers are increasingly smuggling in coca paste rather than the finished product. Crack laboratories are widespread, supplying the local and Brazilian consumption markets. Despite this, cocaine seizures tend to be low. In 2019, authorities seized less than one kilogram of cocaine, possibly a result of widespread corruption. Still, the market is huge, in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Cannabis: In 2019, Paraguay’s National Anti-Drug Secretariat (Secretaría Nacional Antidrogas – SENAD) eradicated 1,312 hectares of cannabis crops in Amambay, the highest amount of any department. Two hectares of cannabis plants can produce an average of 1.5 tons of the drug, with two harvests a year. This means that at least 1,968 tons can be produced in those fields annually. Crop eradications are minor and have become increasingly difficult for authorities. Corruption has also reduced cannabis eradication. SENAD also seized 770 tons of processed cannabis in 2019. Pedro Juan Caballero is a key transit point for marijuana, controlled by the PCC and other major traffickers on the Paraguay-Brazil border. Cannabis produced in Amambay has markedly high THC concentration levels, so criminal groups can charge more for the drug than in other parts of the country. In sum, the market is massive, in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Environmental Crime: Timber trafficked from Amambay supplies the Brazilian market, though it is not clear how much wood is being illegally extracted. Small groups tend to manage eco-trafficking operations, as opposed to larger criminal organizations.
Money Laundering: Drug traffickers launder money via livestock businesses. Buying stolen cars, soya crops, and real state acquisitions are other tactics used to conceal illicit funds in the department.
Sources: This profile is based on a field investigation in Pedro Juan Caballero, Amambay, and four trips to Asunción where InSight Crime interviewed Interior Ministry officials, the Attorney General’s Office, the National Anti-Corruption Secretariat (Secretaría Nacional Anticorrupción – SENAC), the National Anti-Drug Secretariat (SENAD), the Secretariat for the Prevention of Money or Assest Laundering (Secretaría de Prevención de Lavado de Dinero o Bienes – SEPRELAD), Paraguay’s anti-human trafficking unit, prison officials, the National Directorate of Civil Aviation (Dirección Nacional de Aeronautica Civil – DINAC), police intelligence officials, antinarcotics prosecutors, customs officials, the governor’s office, representatives of environmental state institutions, non-governmental institutions working on human rights, community leaders, and local journalists, most of whom requested anonymity. InSight Crime also drew from information provided by Paraguay’s Interior Ministry, the General Directory of Statistics, Surveys and Censuses, and local press.