A recent spate of violence on the border between Brazil and Paraguay suggests a battle for control of drug trafficking routes in the area, but it remains unclear whether the killings are related to a wider gang war that has roiled Brazil in recent months.
Following the murder of a jailed drug boss's brother on March 14, two further assassinations in the Brazil-Paraguay border region are raising concerns about an escalation of a battle for control over lucrative drug trafficking territory.
On March 22, a resident of the Brazilian border town of Ponta Porã discovered the dismembered body of a Paraguayan man with a criminal record in both Brazil and Paraguay, Última Hora reported. Ponta Porã was also where the March 14 killing of imprisoned Brazilian drug boss Jarvis Pavão's brother, Ronny, took place, reportedly in response to the murder of rival drug boss Jorge Rafaat Toumani last year.
On March 23, another Paraguayan man with suspected criminal ties was murdered outside his home in the city of Pedro Juan Caballero, which lies directly along the border with Ponta Porã.
Paraguayan news outlet ABC Color reported that underworld sources spoke about the existence of a list of people slated for assassination in the coming days and weeks as part of a battle between rival crime groups in the area.
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The governor of the Paraguayan state of Amambay, where Pedro Juan Caballero is located, blamed the recent violence on Brazil's two main prison gangs -- the First Capital Command (Primerio Comando da Capital - PCC) and the Red Command (Comando Vermelho) -- both of which are known to maintain a presence in the border region.
"Pedro Juan is an appendage of the violence between those groups, like other cities of the region," said Gov. Pedro González in comments reported by EFE.
Former Paraguayan Interior Minister Rafael Filizzola echoed González's statements.
"Much of the violence we have on the Paraguayan side is due to that war for power in Brazil," he said, referring to conflicts between the PCC and the Red Command that have left dozens dead across Brazil since the two groups broke a long-standing alliance last year.
InSight Crime Analysis
Despite the assertions of local officials that Brazilian prison gangs are to blame for the recent killings in the border region, there are some plausible alternative explanations for the violence.
Brazil-based analyst Lloyd Belton of the consulting group S-RM told InSight Crime via email that linking the recent violence in Ponta Porã and Pedro Juan Caballero to the PCC-Red Command conflict is "a bit of a stretch."
"Without any substantial evidence available, it's a bit hasty to cite two murders as somehow indicative of the spread of the [Red Command]-PCC war to Paraguay," he wrote.
Belton also noted that "a myriad of drug trafficking groups" operate in Pedro Juan Caballero and the surrounding border region, which has long had a reputation for criminal activity and violence.
"Overall, it does strike me as suspicious that Amambay's governor would blame the city's violence on Brazilian organised crime groups," Belton wrote. "It would seem like he is far too quickly shifting the blame and responsibility here from local security lapses and police corruption to external forces."
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Indeed, the murder of Jarvis Pavão's brother suggests a conflict between local groups competing for territorial control in the strategic border region. But many of the trafficking groups operating in the area in question are known to maintain ties to Brazilian groups like the PCC and the Red Command, for whom controlling drug routes is an important source of criminal revenues.
Journalist Laurie Blair, who has reported on Paraguay's drug trade, told InSight Crime that the recent violence "does look like a score-settling between PCC and [Red Command]," suggesting it could perhaps reflect "a battle for control of marijuana-smuggling routes."
"The fact that these are execution-style killings, and taking place both in Ponta Porã and [Pedro Juan Caballero], supports this interpretation," he wrote in an email.
However, Blair acknowledged that the publicly available evidence leaves some questions about the level of possible coordination between the Brazilian prison gangs and the criminal actors on the Paraguay border.
"Maybe these are just local chapters taking each other on, albeit perhaps on orders from higher up. So far the names of those killed don't seem to be huge, and the methods, while professional, aren't heavy on numbers or firepower," he wrote.