Recent Scandals Highlight Paraguay's Narco-Corruption Problem

Latin America and the Caribbean

On July 6, the Paraguayan Public Ministry announced that authorities had dismantled a network of corrupt officials working within the National Directorate of Civil Aviation (Dinac) and the National Antidrugs Secretariat (Senad). The Public Ministry said these officials had conspired with criminals to bring old aircraft from the United States into the country to be "whitened" (registered under false pretenses) and used for drug trafficking.

Local news outlets have reported that the airport in the town of Pedro Juan Caballero, near the Brazilian border, appears to have been used for little else besides making dozens, perhaps hundreds, of illicit flights throughout South America each month. Senad Director Luis Rojas said that his agency had seized more than twenty aircraft linked to local businessmen and politicians that were potentially used to transport hundreds of kilos of drugs and other contraband on each trip.

This is hardly the first time that Paraguayan officials have been accused of corruption and complicity in the international drug trade. According to a 2006 cable released by Wikileaks, then-US Ambassador to Paraguay James Cason described Senad as "the most effective law enforcement agency in the country," but Director Rojas himself has admitted on various occasions that more than half of Senad has problems with corruption. The corruption within Dinac appears to be at least as widespread.

While political corruption by criminal groups is not unique to Paraguay, it is a particularly significant challenge for the country. Paraguay is the largest producer of marijuana in South America and has long been a transit country for drugs and other illicit goods bound to international markets. According to the State Department, a "multi-billion dollar contraband trade" exists in the region near the Brazilian border, "fed in part by endemic institutional corruption." One Paraguayan official described the growing problem as an "uncontainable avalanche."

The U.S. removed Paraguay from its list of major narcotics transit or producing countries in September 2010 because illicit substances from there are mostly "trafficked to the neighboring countries of Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay but not to the United States." Still, it would be a mistake for the U.S. ignore narcocorruption in Paraguay just because drugs from there don't usually end up in America.

The recent anti-corruption sting was preceded by several incidents highlighting the issue of criminal corruption in Paraguayan politics. Thousands of citizens took to the streets earlier this year to protest against "narcopolitics" and to demand the resignation of President Horacio Cartes, who himself has been accused of smuggling and money laundering in the past.

Last month, a recording surfaced that revealed the contents of a November 2014 meeting between Senad's Rojas, Paraguayan Senators Arnaldo Giuzzio and Arnaldo Wiens, and Brazilian drug trafficker Ezequiel de Souza, who had been detained by Senad in a November 2012 operation that resulted in one of the largest drug busts in Paraguayan history.

In the recording, De Souza implicated a number of senior Paraguayan politicians as having ties to his drug trafficking ring and claimed to have personally paid bribes to many judges and public officials, including Interior Minister Francisco de Vargas. The Paraguayan congress is currently investigating this matter, but the testimony provided by various officials so far has been convoluted and often contradictory.

U.S. security assistance to Paraguay has fallen from its peak of about $9 million in 2009 to less than $1 million per year since 2014, but formerly secret cables released by Wikileaks show that maintaining close counter-narcotics cooperation between the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Paraguay's Senad, as well as "broader law enforcement" cooperation, has long been a top priority for the U.S. government in that country.

U.S. humanitarian and development aid to Paraguay also declined after 2009, when the Millennium Challenge Corporation pledged $30.3 million to the country aimed at addressing corruption. Still, this long-standing problem continues to hinder Paraguay's ability to deal with other persistent issues like poor infrastructure, inequality and poverty.

Transparency International named Paraguay the most corrupt country in the Americas in 2014, behind only Venezuela and Haiti. There has also been an alarming spike in targeted attacks against journalists covering corruption issues in Paraguay, with three reporters killed last year and another killed this March.

President Cartes has said his government will "cut off the hand" of corrupt officials, but enforcement-centric approaches are not always the most effective means of addressing crime and security issues. Instead, Paraguay will likely need continued support from its regional and international partners to help the country adopt systemic reforms aimed tackling the roots of corruption.