Paraguay has enjoyed relative stability following its transition to democracy in the early 1990s. However, the nation is the region’s largest producer of marijuana and traffics more illegal cigarettes than any country in the Western Hemisphere. Organized crime in Paraguay benefits from rampant, widespread corruption, and criminal opportunities come from being wedged between South America’s two largest drug consumers in Brazil and Argentina, and being adjacent to one of the region’s burgeoning narcotics hubs in Bolivia.
While Paraguay does not suffer high homicide rates, it is a major route for the trafficking of drugs and firearms. In addition to local criminal organizations, foreign crime networks — especially Brazil’s PCC — also operate in Paraguay, and a small but persistent guerrilla group has added to the nation’s security challenges.
Paraguay is one of two landlocked nations in South America. It measures 406,752 square kilometers, slightly smaller than the US state of California.
Aerial traffickers have long used Paraguay as a destination and launching point for drug shipments, in part because of its strategic location in the heart of South America and in part due to chronic corruption within the aviation security apparatus.
Paraguay is mostly flat and largely rural, providing ample area for cannabis cultivation. Porous land borders with Bolivia to the northwest, Argentina to the southwest and Brazil to the east are home to overland smuggling routes. The country’s extensive river system, including the Paraguay River, which cuts through the middle of the country running north to south, serves as a major drug transportation method.
Paraguay was populated by the indigenous Guaraní people before being conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century. After gaining independence from Spain in 1811, the country was ruled by a series of strongmen for most of the next century.
Paraguay’s last dictator, Alfredo Stroessner, established what would become South America’s longest-lived authoritarian regime in 1954, when the military general came to power with the support of the armed forces. Corruption flourished during Stroessner’s rule and Paraguay became a sanctuary for war criminals like Nazi doctor Josef Mengele as well as drug smugglers including Auguste Ricord, another Nazi collaborator who was also a co-founder of the French Connection heroin ring. Stroessner’s own son, Gustavo, also a military general, was accused in 1987 of involvement in an international cocaine trafficking scheme.
An internal military coup toppled Stroessner in 1989. The leader of the coup, General Andrés Rodríguez Pedotti, was elected president and began to introduce some democratic reforms. With backing from powerful military elements, the country’s first civilian president in decades, Juan Carlos Wasmosy, took office in 1993.
Amid the partial political opening, several previously-banned leftist movements began to take shape, including the Free Homeland Party (Partido Patria Libre – PPL). In the 2000s, elements of the party turned to criminal activities, particularly kidnapping, to support their political ambitions. This culminated four years later with the kidnapping and killing of Cecilia Cubas, the daughter of former President Raúl Cubas.
Authorities captured key PPL leaders in 2005 and the remaining members reformed the group as the Paraguayan People’s Army (Ejercito del Pueblo Paraguayo – EPP). Mainly operating in the central departments of Concepción and San Pedro, the EPP guerrillas continued kidnapping but also began extorting farmers and ranchers.
Despite Stroessner’s ousting, the right-wing Colorado Party to which he belonged continued ruling Paraguay, in part with the help of ingrained corruption networks. In 2008, however, former Catholic Bishop Fernando Lugo was elected with the backing of an opposition coalition. Despite not having held any prior political office, Lugo won with a campaign promising to address economic issues and corruption.
Lugo made fighting the EPP a key part of his security strategy, despite the relatively small threat the guerrillas posed in comparison to other criminal organizations, in part to dispel fears about his loose association with some members of the guerrilla group. Meanwhile, corruption and criminal violence continued to plague the country, and the EPP only seemed to grow stronger.
Lugo was impeached in 2012 following a clash between police and landless farmers in which 17 people were killed. Some regional leftist leaders sympathetic to Lugo alleged that his ouster was a type of coup orchestrated to benefit drug traffickers and other criminal interests with ties to the long-ruling Colorado Party.
In the wake of Lugo’s removal, amid allegations of electoral fraud, Colorado Party candidate and businessman Horacio Cartes won the presidency in 2013 despite a long history of being associated with criminal activities ranging from money laundering to drug smuggling to cigarette trafficking. Some of Cartes’ family members have also been accused of involvement in organized crime.
Like his predecessor, Cartes focused a significant portion of his security rhetoric and resources on the EPP, with little to show for it. At the same time, government officials during the Cartes administration began to acknowledge other pressing security issues, such as the rise of homegrown Paraguayan crime bosses and domestic cocaine production, the growing presence of Brazilian gangs and widespread security force corruption.
Amid concerns over crime, lawmakers granted Cartes sweeping powers in security matters shortly after he took office. And in 2014, Congress approved a law allowing authorities to shoot down suspected drug planes as well as another law authorizing the creation of a national intelligence system.
The EPP suffered a short-lived internal split in 2014, but appeared to grow in boldness, carrying out a series of high-profile attacks in 2015 that left security forces in disarray. In addition to some probing attempts by Mexican crime groups to establish a presence in Paraguay, other small armed groups also sprouted up around this time, complicating the security situation.
Meanwhile, Paraguay continued to suffer from rampant — and sometimes violent — corruption reaching from city halls to the national Congress, and touching high-level officials in the police and the military. A 2016 study found that Paraguay’s illegal economy was equal to 40 percent of the country’s GDP, underscoring how pervasive a wide range of criminal activities had become in the country.
The intersection of crime and politics in Paraguay came into the spotlight in 2016, when officials said Jarvis Chimenes Pavão, a Brazilian drug boss imprisoned in Paraguay, had orchestrated an assasination plot targeting Cartes. Around the same time, other politicians reported being threatened by criminal actors.
However, the relationship between politics and crime in Paraguay was one that involved not only coercion, but also cooperation. As politicians’ dealings with criminals continued to be revealed, lawmakers tried (and failed) in 2017 to pass a reform aimed at protecting themselves from graft investigations.
Also in 2017, the power and sophistication of Brazilian crime groups in Paraguay was put on spectacular display when the neighboring country’s most powerful crime group, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), carried out the biggest armed robbery in Paraguay’s history.
As Cartes’ five-year term was coming to a close, in April 2018, Colorado Party candidate Mario Abdo Benitez was elected as the country’s next president. Abdo Benitez is the son of the former private secretary for ex-dictator Stroessner. Abdo Benitez’s security policies remained vague during his campaign.
Three years into Abdo’s term, Paraguay’s main criminal threats appear unchanged, as official corruption and impunity remain endemic, violence inside prisons is worse than ever and production of illegal cigarettes is soaring.
In addition to the local EPP guerrilla group, several other criminal organizations operate in Paraguay, some of the most powerful of which are based in neighboring Brazil.
Despite the EPP’s relatively small size — numbering from a few dozen to perhaps 150 fighters at most — the group has been a significant concern for successive governments. Its primary source of income is extorting rural landowners, often through kidnapping. The EPP uses the proceeds to fund its activities as well as to buy support from communities in which it operates. Recent evidence suggests that the EPP may also be making attempts to expand its role in the marijuana industry, specifically near the border town of Pedro Juan Caballero, a strategic drug trafficking crossing point on the Brazil-Paraguay border.
In September 2020, the group kidnapped former Paraguay vice president Óscar Denis, with no news of the politician’s fate to date. The group demanded food supplies for 40 communities in the Paraguayan department of Concepción as well as the release of two jailed EPP leaders. It appears the group is now under the control of a faction known as the Indigenous Brigade (Brigada Indígena).
Brazil’s two most important criminal organizations, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) and the Red Command (Comando Vermelho), are known to work with Paraguayan drug trafficking groups.
Starting in 2010, the PCC appears to have had a “Paraguay Project” in place, sending numerous members to the country to establish a foothold. The PCC was also blamed in 2017 for the most lucrative heist in Paraguay’s history. While the gang has not established uncontested territorial control along the Paraguay-Brazil border, it now has hundreds of members inside Paraguayan prisons, is recruiting locals into its ranks, is seeking to establish control of cocaine and cannabis trafficking and has been involved in prison massacres against its rivals, the Rotela Clan.
The Rotela Clan is one of Paraguay’s leading criminal gangs, having begun as a microtrafficking group in poorer neighborhoods of Asunción and Concepción but has grown to become a national force, controlling much of the drug trafficking inside and outside prisons. It is currently engaged in a brutal feud with the PCC which has left it greatly weakened.
Although Paraguay does not have any hegemonic criminal organizations, significant amounts of drugs flow through the country, suggesting there are important networks — likely facilitated by extensive corruption — that help other crime groups transport drugs throughout South America and as far away as Europe. One example is that of Jarvis Chimenes Pavão, a Brazilian drug trafficker who ran a sophisticated trafficking operation despite being imprisoned in Paraguay. He allegedly maintained ties to the PCC.
Corruption has also aided contraband smuggling networks bringing illicit goods into Paraguay.
Paraguay’s national police force is overseen by the Interior Ministry and has about 26,000 officers, a rate of about 370 police per 100,000 residents. Like much of the rest of Paraguay’s government, corruption is a perennial issue for the police. Officers have been accused of involvement in crimes as varied as drug trafficking and illegal logging.
The Paraguayan military consists of an army, navy and air force, with a combined troop strength of around 16,000, mostly concentrated in the army. Military spending has hovered around 1.5 percent of GDP since the late 2000s. Like the police, Paraguay’s armed forces also struggle with corruption, with allegations of involvement in drug trafficking dating back to the Stroessner dictatorship.
For several years, a police-military unit known as the Joint Task Force (Centro de Operaciones Tácticas, better known as Fuerza de Tarea Conjunta – FTC has been heading the fight against the EPP guerrilla group. However, a lack of consistent leadership has plagued the FTC, and it has achieved few concrete successes.
Paraguay’s judiciary is an independent branch of government under the constitution. The Supreme Court is the highest court. Below it are trial courts and appellate courts, some of which are specifically dedicated to handling criminal matters.
A separate military court system handles matters related to the armed forces.
Paraguay’s civilian court system has been plagued by corruption an inefficiency. In general, the judicial system is understaffed, leading to difficulties in successfully prosecuting cases. Judges have been accused of showing leniency or failing to prosecute drug smugglers, suggesting corruption may play a role.
Paraguay has Latin America’s highest percentage of prison inmates in pretrial detention, meaning they have not been convicted of a crime. Pretrial detainees account for nearly 80 percent of the 13,000 imprisoned people in the country, according to data from 2015. As of 2017, the overcrowding rate stood at 143 percent.
A number of high-profile escapes have highlighted the corruption and dysfunction within the prison system. Moreover, powerful drug traffickers have been discovered to be living in “VIP” prison cells while continuing their criminal activities, illustrating the lack of control authorities maintain over life behind bars.
However, violence inside Paraguay’s prisons has risen to unprecedented levels in recent years as the PCC and Clan Rotela battle for control of crack trafficking and other criminal economies. In June 2019, 13 prisoners were killed in two days of violence at the prison of San Pedro, with the dead allegedly being members of Clan Rotela. And in February 2021, at least six prisoners were murdered in the prison of Tacumbú.
The former prison director at Tacumbú, Jorge Fernández, told InSight Crime about the extensive problems he had faced there, including overcrowding of prisoners, a lack of guards and resources and little technology and infrastructure to help crack down on contraband.