Seizing Assets Unlikely to Rid Paraguay of Narco-Corruption

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Paraguay is debating an asset seizure bill that some advocates say would sever the ties between politicians and drug traffickers in the country. But the rocky implementation of these kinds of laws elsewhere in Latin America provides a less optimistic forecast.

Paraguay’s Congress is considering passing legislation that would enable authorities to seize properties linked to drug trafficking. The bill, known as the “anti-narco law,” passed Paraguay’s lower house of Congress in December 2014.

The legislation has received strong support from influential political operators both within Paraguay and in the international community.

In April, the head of Paraguay’s anti-drug force (SENAD), Luis Rojas, said passing the asset seizure bill in combination with several political finance reforms would be the “ideal combination” for disrupting the financial structures of criminal organizations and their influence on politics.

“We have all learned the lesson that drug trafficking has penetrated circles of power, and we must combat it,” Rojas stated.

Senator Luis Alberto Wagnerhas also asserted that passing the asset seizure bill would help eradicate narco-corruption from Paraguayan politics. A representative of the Organization of American States (OAS) also expressed support for the initiative when he addressed Paraguay’s Congress in April.

Nonetheless, Paraguay’s Senate rejected the proposal in late May, on the grounds that some of the bill’s provisions were unconstitutional, sending it back to the lower house for further consideration.

The asset seizure proposal is reportedly the product of meetings held between representatives of the three branches of government, including President Horacio Cartes. The group was tasked with drawing up an anti-drug trafficking strategy following the October 2014 murder of Pablo Medina, a journalist who was investigating the country’s drug trade. Medina’s death was the catalyst for a wider scandal that has linked several congressmen and a score of security officials to drug traffickers.

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Since Medina’s death late last year, Paraguay has been in the process of uncovering just how enmeshed the country’s underworld and the political class have become. Last October, Rojas declared that drug trafficking had infiltrated not only Paraguayan politics, but also the military, the judicial system, and the media. In 2014, Paraguay was considered the third-most corrupt country in Latin America and the Caribbean — ranking behind only Venezuela and Haiti — in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Paraguay

However, the poor application of asset seizure laws elsewhere in Latin America suggests this measure would fall far short of bringing the type of sweeping reforms Paraguay needs. In fact, the passage of an asset seizure law could run the risk of making narco-corruption in Paraguay even worse, since the powers invested in these laws are highly prone to being abused by authorities.

Here’s several reasons why Paraguay’s asset seizure bill is not the fix-all that some are making it out to be:

1.) The risk of corruption in the security forces. Police officials in charge of seizing assets may see an easy way to use their authority for personal gain. Recent corruption cases within Paraguay’s military — and other incidents like the police theft of a seized cocaine shipment — casts doubt on whether Paraguay’s security forces would enforce the law prudently. 

2.) Asset seizure laws can be used as an excuse to attack political opponents. In Paraguay, the potential for abuse in this regard is particularly evident. After the explosion of last year’s narco-politics scandal, Paraguayan politicians have rushed to accuse their opponents of discreet — and largely unconfirmed — ties to drug traffickers. Last year, for example, Senator Robert Acevedo claimed up to six fellow senators were tied to drug traffickers, yet he refused to reveal their names.

3.) The government agency in charge of implementing the law could turn out to be totally dysfunctional. Such was the case in Colombia, where the agency in charge of handling seized assets was dismantled last year, after billions of dollars worth of seized goods went missing. It is unclear whether Paraguay would create an entirely new agency to handle asset seizures, but nor is there much reason to expect that authorities have the oversight in place to root out internal corruption. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy

4.) Bureaucracy, bureaucracy, bureaucracy. Bureaucratic challenges have softened the impact of asset seizure laws across Latin America. In Guatemala, authorities have only seized $3.2 million worth of assets in the three years since it was implemented. In Mexico, only two properties were successfully reclaimed by the state between 2009 and 2013.

This isn’t to say asset seizure laws in the region have proven useless. In addition to targeting the finances of drug trafficking groups, these laws have also been used as a tool to reveal the scope and scale of criminal operations.

Seizures of drug trafficking assets can also be a precursor to more significant offensives against criminal groups. In August 2014, Honduran authorities confiscated luxury properties belonging to members of the Valles drug transport clan. At the time, the Valles were seen as untouchable due to their alleged connections to the country’s political and business elite. Within months, many of the Valles’ top leaders had been captured and extradited to the United States. The recent downfall of another major Honduran drug family, the Cachiros, was also precipitated by the seizure of up to $800 million in properties in 2013.

Nevertheless, the likelihood that Paraguay will succeed at applying its asset seizure law where other countries in the region have failed is dubious, at best. Although some proponents would consider the passage of an asset seizure law as a sort of panacea for Paraguay’s corruption woes, it could end up doing the country more harm than good.

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