Paraguay’s Top Anti-Drug Agent Talks Marijuana Trade

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There is an assault rifle with an underslung grenade launcher propped against the wall by Luis Rojas’ desk. The drug czar knows he faces an enormous task fighting Paraguay’s marijuana industry and cocaine transit through this landlocked nation, but admits that the government does not yet know the scale of the problem.

The head of the National Anti-Drug Secretariat (Secretaria Nacional Antidrogas – SENAD) is 43, and has worked his way up the ranks, holding positions as Director of Operations and Chief of the Technical Intelligence Unit. In tactical terms, there are few people in Paraguay who have the sort of counternarcotics experience the SENAD boss has.

The following are excerpts of an interview InSight Crime conducted with Rojas. 

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“Let me say first of all that Paraguay is the principal producer of marijuana in the region. This we know. What we do not know is if we have 5,000 hectares of marijuana or 8,000. The American government thinks it might be even more; the United Nations says we have 5,000 hectares. Where do these figures come from? We do not know, we have no data. We have not invested a single dollar in finding out what the real situation of marijuana is in the country.”

Where is this marijuana being grown? Is it concentrated in certain areas, or spread across the country?

“Mainly along the border with Brazil. [The provinces of] Amambay, Canindeyu, these are the zones with the greatest concentration, although they are not the only ones. We also have marijuana cultivations in [the province of] Alto Parana.”

What are your main tools in the drug war in Paraguay?

“Crop eradication is one of the key tools. But so you understand, eradication has two sides, one positive and one negative. The positive side is that eradication is cheaper than attacking the drug trade further up the chain. However we know that when we carry out large-scale eradication operations in Amambay, there is a corresponding rise in violence and robberies in the area. That is how much the drug trade supports the local economy.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Paraguay

“Carrying out crop eradication also pushes up the price of marijuana, making it a more lucrative business for the drug traffickers. We know that we are investing 90 percent of our resources in repression of the drug trade, and not attacking the problem at its roots, which are also social.”

Is the current government of President Horacio Cartes aware of this and the challenges you face?

“The government has the courage, and the political will, to portray the situation as it really is.”

In Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) earn money from the cocaine business, as does the Shining Path in Peru. Is there any evidence linking Paraguay’s rebel group, the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP), to the marijuana trade?

“Let me lay out two scenarios. We are not certain enough for me to yet build a criminal case, but looking very objectively at the available data… Have we destroyed marijuana plantations in EPP zones? Yes. Have we found EPP writings in plantations? Yes. What link could the EPP have with marijuana? The charging of ‘taxes’ on crops.”

SEE ALSO: Coverage of EPP

How does the marijuana business work? Who runs it in Paraguay?

“Before, marijuana was a subsistence crop for poor farmers. It is not any more. The farmer has today become an employee of the marijuana traffickers. He is paid per day to grow and look after the crops. Above him, generally, there is a broker, who gets the clients in Brazil and makes the deals with the local producers. These are generally Paraguayan drug traffickers, some politicians, and tend to work with Brazilian traffickers, who buy the product. So the Paraguayan producers organize the production, then collect the pressed marijuana from several different sources. It is then sold to the client.

What other markets are there apart from Brazil?

“There is Chile, which is perhaps the most lucrative market for Paraguayan drug traffickers, and also Argentina.”

How much is a kilo of marijuana worth?

“The production cost is between $25 and $35 a kilo. At the border that kilo can be sold for between $60 and $100. In São Paulo that kilo is worth around $200, in Buenos Aires at least $250, and in Santiago up to $1,000.”

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While there are no reliable figures for marijuana production in Paraguay, based on the figure of at least 5,000 hectares, this South American nation could produce anything up to 10,000 tons of marijuana annually. At $100 a kilo — the price at the frontier — that could generate up to $1 billion for Paraguayan organized crime. This is a huge amount in a nation whose gross domestic product (GDP) is, according to the World Bank, less than $30 billion.

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