Paraguay's drug bosses make a killing amid wave of journalist murders
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Paraguay's drug bosses make a killing amid wave of journalist murders

It was a day like any other for Pablo Medina. He’d been a correspondent for 16 years with national daily ABC Color, covering his home turf in Paraguay’s wild eastern Canindeyú Department.

Medina, 53, had written about labor disputes, illegal logging, and indigenous protests aplenty. Most of all, he’d stubbornly documented the growing cultivation and smuggling of drugs — mainly marijuana, some cocaine — from Paraguay across the barely-demarcated border to Brazil, a flourishing narco-trade going on with the complicity of local and national politicians.

In the afternoon of October 16, he was returning from a story about crop failure, some 50 kilometers away from his home town of Curuguaty — where he’d co-founded the local volunteer fire service. With him in the car were Antonia Maribel Chamorro, 19, his assistant, and her sister, Juana Ruth Almada Chamorro, 30.

Two men appeared at the side of the road, and forced the vehicle to stop. They spoke with Medina to confirm his identity. One pulled out a 9mm caliber pistol and shot him, at least four times. The other gunman delivered a shotgun blast to Medina’s head. Antonia Chamorro died in hospital from two bullet wounds; Juana escaped with her life.

Making a killing

Four suspects were soon arrested, but investigations remain inconclusive. Witnesses pointed to a former local mayor, Vilmar Acosta Marques, as being one of several individuals behind the killing, after Medina repeatedly identified him as a key narco figure and reported brazen smuggling techniques. Marques fled across the border to Brazil where he was arrested; after he claimed to have Brazilian citizenship, extradition discussions are set to drag on for months.

Medina wasn’t the first journalist to fall victim to Paraguayan narco-politics. In June 2014, lawyer and radio host Edgar Pantaleón Fernández Fleitas was shot dead in his office in the northern city of Concepción by an unknown gunman. Six weeks previously, radio journalist Fausto Gabriel Alcaraz Garay was cut down in a hail of bullets fired by two attackers on a motorcycle in the border city of Pedro Juan Caballero.

On March 5 of this year, broadcast journalist Gerardo Ceferino Servían Coronel was also gunned down in broad daylight in a motorbike-mounted attack on the other side of the border, some 200 meters from the largely unmarked line that separates Ponta Porã, Brazil, from Pedro Juan Caballero, Paraguay. Fernández, Alcaraz, and Servían routinely denounced corrupt local officials and drug smugglers over the airwaves.

Barring a growing crack cocaine problem in the slums of the colonial-era capital, Asunción, the country’s 6.8 million people aren’t major consumers of drugs. Paraguay is, however, a major transit country on cocaine and marijuana routes from Bolivia and Peru to Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. The Southern Cone provides an increasingly tempting market as the US-sponsored war on drugs makes Colombian and Central American trafficking routes riskier for fewer returns.

In the deprived eastern regions of Paraguay that run along the 1,300km border with Brazil, many local communities speak Guaraní as a first language, Portuguese as their second, and little Spanish at all. Traffickers move themselves, and their product, across the permeable frontier with ease.

As a result, Paraguay is now itself South America’s largest producer of marijuana, 80 percent of which goes to Brazil. Impoverished rural farmers, facing falling prices for legitimate crops such as soya, have three choices, one journalist with ABC Color tells Latin Correspondent: Move to the city, grow weed — or starve.

The deadliest place in the West

The product is incredibly cheap locally but returns are considerable: a joint that goes for 5,000 Guaraní (around US$1) in Asunción will fetch over five times that in Rio de Janeiro and 25 times that in Santiago, Chile. Paraguay is blessed — or cursed — with soil that produces a particularly potent crop, adding to cross-border demand. Local narco bosses distribute their profits to provide public services in rural areas where the state is nearly absent, boosting their support base and adding to a culture of omerta.

The problem has long infected politics at the local and national level. The representative for Canindeyú department, Congresswoman Cristina Villalba, is widely considered to be the protector and political godmother of the fugitive Acosta. Opposition politician Julio Colmán previously branded Villalba as a member of a criminal “clan,” but refused after Medina’s death to comment on her role. “Tomorrow they’ll be reading out an arrest warrant at my house if I say anything. We’re talking about narcotrafficking; it doesn’t make demands, it kills you,” he told radio Ñandutí.

The leader of Villalba’s National Republican Association, President Horacio Cartes, was himself suspected of links to traffickers before coming to power in 2013, although no formal charges were brought. Allegations continue to circulate that his huge personal fortune is based on a massive illicit operation of cigarette smuggling into Brazil.

Sporadic proposals have come from within the opposition Authentic Radical Liberal Party to legalize marijuana along the same lines as Uruguay, but these have been ignored by the party leadership. The dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989) cemented a colonial legacy of rigid social and religious conservatism, making talk of legalization deeply unpopular — despite documented links between the drug trade and the Stroessner regime, as well as its democratic successors.

Legalization would also do nothing to remove the heavy financial incentives for illegal trafficking into Brazil and Argentina, unless both Buenos Aires and Brasilia too legalized the psychoactive.

The Paraguayan-Brazilian border, meanwhile, has become one of the most dangerous regions in the Western hemisphere for reporters, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. With Paraguay’s defiant journalists showing no signs of backing down, it’s likely a question of when, not if, the next killing will take place.