Wednesday, October 17, 2018
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Free trade in drugs
Mike Ceaser
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Marijuana and cocaine are economic mainstays on the Paraguayan-Brazilian border.

Stretching for hundreds of kilometers of desert, soybean fields and small towns, marked only by periodic concrete obelisks, with no river, mountains or wall, the northern stretch of the Paraguayan-Brazilian border is one of the world’s great experiments in free trade.

Much of the trade is illegal, however, and many residents have paid a high price. In January this year, several vehicles loaded with hired killers roared across the border from Brazil and into the farm town of Capitán Bado, which hugs the border in the department of Amambay. The gunmen stopped in front of a house and scrambled over the wall, unleashing a hail of machine-gun fire and hand grenades that killed 10 people, including a 3-year-old boy, and left several injured.

While the massacre was the bloodiest violence the town has seen, it was not an isolated case. For the past several years, two drug-trafficking gangs have been fighting over the local trade. The stakes are high. Much of the 40 to 60 tons of cocaine that US authorities estimate are smuggled through Paraguay each year are believed to pass through the Capitán Bado area, and most of Paraguay’s several-thousand-hectare marijuana crop is sown in the hills to the west.

The town has been the scene of a war between the Morel clan, which historically handled the local drug trade, and another group, headed by the Brazilian Luis Fernando da Costa, commonly known as "Beira Mar," who came to the region after escaping from prison in March 1997 (LP, Oct. 21, 2002).

The men killed and injured in January were remnants of the Morel gang, whose latest leader has gone into hiding. In January 2001, the two Morel brothers were shot to death in Capitán Bado. A week later, their father, the clan’s patriarch, was stabbed to death in a Brazilian prison. Beira Mar, who boasted of having ordered the murders, is back in prison in Brazil, having been captured in guerrilla territory in Colombia.

The drug trade, however, shows no sign of slowing down.

"What scares me is the quantity of arms — M-16s, HK-G3s, grenades," says Capitán Bado Mayor Edward Grau. "The power of these groups is frightening. That’s why I can’t say who is in command."

The Amambay area once thrived on logging, but after the forests were cleared, most of the mills shut down. Although the land is so fertile that it produces two soy harvests a year, prices for cassava and peanuts, which campesinos can grow on their small plots, are so low that the crops are raised only for subsistence. Unskilled labor, when it is available at all, pays just a few dollars a day.

As a result, many people have planted marijuana on plots hidden in the Amambay hills. A hectare of marijuana is worth thousands of dollars, while tending someone else’s marijuana crop can pay US$8 to $10 per day — several times the region’s standard wage.

Even children realize that it is marijuana — not the government — that provides the basics. In the rundown school, two girls in their early teens, dressed in neat gray-and-white uniforms, react angrily when the role of marijuana in the local economy is questioned. "People depend on marijuana — it’s our source of income," one says, while the other adds, "There’s no other work."

The girls do not have to look far to see how little the government provides. Their public school has no library or playground, and in many classrooms the blades of the ceiling fans hang like a bird’s broken wings. Local streets are an obstacle course of pits and potholes, and the nurse at the health clinic says she often runs out of basic medicines.

"What kind of work can you give a person who doesn’t know how to use a computer and doesn’t speak Spanish?" asked a 47-year-old, Guaraní-speaking campesino, who acknowledged having planted marijuana in past years. "Sometimes you want those things," he said of the motorcycles and other rewards the drug traffickers give farmers. With legal crops, he said, "even working like a madman, you can never earn what you can from marijuana."

Although the trade produces many casualties, marijuana is trifling in comparison with cocaine smuggling.

Miriam grew up in the departmental capital of Pedro Juan Caballero, where she slept on the floor of a single room that she shared with eight siblings. At 17, she dropped out of high school and went to work selling cosmetics door to door. One day, her best customer, a rich woman who lived in a mansion, offered Miriam "easier" work as a small-time drug smuggler or "mule."

For a time, the late-night bus rides across the border went smoothly, and Miriam was able to help her family move into a better place. But one night, anti-drug agents with a drug-sniffing dog boarded the bus. Now Miriam, 21, is in the regional penitentiary in Coronel Oviedo, facing a possible six- or seven-year sentence.

During the year she has been in prison, Miriam has received no visitors and no word from her family. She doesn’t hold it against them — they are just too poor, she said. But she is bitter about the legal system.

"They should sentence us to a year or six months, because I’m not going to do this again. There are a lot of people who kill or rape and who get out quickly," she said, sobbing.

Teófilo Rodríguez, assistant director of the prison, said that no big-time drug traffickers had ever served time in the penitentiary. The small-time smugglers "suffer the consequences, but the big drug traffickers are in air-conditioned homes, have luxury cars and are enjoying their vacations," he said.

Angel Barboza, spokesman in Asunción for the National Anti-Drug Service (SENAD), the arrests of "mules" like Miriam are a blow to the drug trade. "Those are three kilos that don’t reach the market," he said. "At least someone is being saved."

Rodríguez, however, doubts that there is any impact on the drug flow, because traffickers can easily find replacements among the poor and desperate.

Wealthy drug traffickers also benefit from a legal system widely considered to be one of the world’s most corrupt.

Congressman Juan Carlos Araujo said that when he was elected governor of the department of Amambay in 1993, his predecessor gave him a list of people who paid "tribute," such as car thieves, drug and lumber traffickers and money launderers. While he said he rejected the bribes, Araujo admitted that he did not pursue the criminals. He had been told that if he did, he "wouldn’t live three months."

The Capitán Bado police force has only one pickup truck, which is missing parts, so the chief uses his own old car for police work. Drug traffickers, meanwhile, drive powerful, new vehicles and communicate via satellite telephone, because the area has no cellular service. Beira Mar felt so invulnerable in Capitán Bado that he started building a mansion for his brother only two blocks from the police station.

Darío Rubén Jon Brand, who heads the SENAD office in Pedro Juan Caballero, acknowledges that the area under cultivation with marijuana has increased, but vows to continue the fight. Sometimes, however, the strain of arresting campesinos who are struggling to feed their families is too much for the officers.

"What do I do if I discover a little old man with 10 kilos of coke?" said one officer, who requested anonymity. "I see how miserably poor he is. Am I going to send him to die in jail? That would be inhumane."

Local leaders hope to rescue Amambay from the drug economy by developing alternative industries, but that will require better roads and investment. Cándido Figueiredo, local correspondent for Asunción’s ABC Color newspaper, doesn’t expect the situation to improve as long as there is a market for drugs in the United States.

"The United States has to win the war at home," said Figueiredo, who is constantly accompanied by an armed police officer because of death threats from drug traffickers. "As long as there is consumption, there will be production."



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