Police in Paraguay are celebrating a record seizure of 2.3 tons of cocaine, more than law enforcement in the South American country - a major transit hub for the drug - has ever found in one haul .
Officers discovered thousands of bricks of cocaine, hidden in a shipment of charcoal to Israel, in a warehouse in Villeta, the country’s largest port, on the Paraguay River that marks the border with northern Argentina. Paraguay is landlocked but uses rivers and canals to transport much of its freight.
Some of the bricks were stamped with the words “Paceña Black”, a beer brand from Bolivia, which could indicate the origin of the haul. The cocaine is thought to have been purchased by Dutch criminals, possibly for distribution elsewhere in northern Europe. The government estimates the drugs seized have a total street value of around $500 million.
Officers simultaneously raided two properties in the capital, Asuncion, and detained a man suspected of organizing the shipment, Cristhian Turrini, age 49. He is reported to be a former head of the country’s national public TV network.
This week’s seizure - which shows that it’s business as usual in the drug trade despite COVID - eclipses Paraguay’s previous national record of 2.2 tons, seized in 2019. But it falls a long way from some of Latin America’s biggest cocaine seizures, including 23 tons in Mexico in 2007 and 12 tons in Colombia in 2017.
The raid came after months of painstaking undercover investigations with the support of the US Drug Enforcement Administration and anti narcotics police in Europe and Israel.
The operation began following another massive cocaine seizure last June, this time in Belgium, where cops uncovered 3.4 tons of the drug. But instead of arresting the criminal organisation behind that shipment, the different police forces decided to surveil them, leading to this week’s operation, according to local reports..
Paraguay’s President Mario Abdo hailed the seizure while also warning that the cartels have managed to embed themselves within the government and law enforcement.
“Organized crime permeates and destroys many institutions,” he said. “It is everywhere. So, it is a struggle, where you have defeats, and triumphs like this one. This is an important day, a triumph, a great blow against organized crime.”
The operation was carried out by the police rather than the heavily-armed special forces of Paraguay’s anti narcotics agency SENAD, an elite unit drawn from the police and military. Abdo explained that his government had wanted to avoid “leaks” — suggesting that he believes SENAD may have been infiltrated by the cartels.
A deeply conservative society, Paraguay has long been the scene of one of the Western hemisphere’s fiercest old-school wars on drugs.
With year-round tropical sunshine, fertile soil and a relatively low population density, the agricultural powerhouse is thought to be one of the largest producers of cannabis in South America, despite SENAD’s frequent operations to destroy vast swathes of the illicit crop. In 2018, Paraguay, with a population of seven million, seized more cannabis than any other country on earth, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (pg 72).
But Paraguay is also an important conduit for cocaine heading from the Andes to markets, particularly in Argentina, Brazil and Europe.
Only three countries produce significant quantities of cocaine. Colombia, usually the biggest producer, sends most of its wares to North America. But Peru, normally the second largest producer, and Bolivia supply markets from Oceania to Scandinavia. In both Bolivia and Peru, legal, government-controlled coca growing schemes are in place, although production far exceeds the permitted quotas.
Juan Martens, a security and narcotics analyst based in Asuncion, said the raid indicated that the cartels are expanding their activities in the country.
“Many people think that the drugs trade only affects the border area with Brazil and Argentina,” he said. “But it is everywhere in Paraguay, penetrating all institutions and classes.”
He added that the cartels were also increasingly infecting politics. It used to be that some politicians, especially lawmakers, would regularly take money from the narcos. But since 2018, he said, there are now known drug traffickers who have become members of congress.
“What the president says is just pure rhetoric,” Martens added. “He is not adopting any measures of institutional reform that are needed to root out the narcos’ influence in the police, military, judiciary and politics. The strongest proponents of repression know very well that profits are greatest with prohibition.”