Paraguay’s New President: All Bark and No Bite?

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Paraguay’s new president says he will focus his security policy on ending judicial corruption and organized crime, but his background and the credibility of those around him have cast doubt on just how feasible his proposals are.

Conservative Mario Abdo Benítez, who beat his liberal opponent Efraín Alegre in Paraguay’s presidential race by less than four points, began his term on August 15. The politician and businessman amassed most of his economic and political capital with the help of the right-wing Colorado Party, to which his father also belonged. The latter served as private secretary to Colonel Alfredo Stroessner during his 35-year dictatorship.

Abdo has been a vocal critic of his predecessor and fellow Colorado Party member, former President Horacio Cartes. As a senator in 2017, he led the opposition against Cartes’ presidential reelection proposal.

In terms of security and organized crime, Paraguay’s new president has publicly said that “political will is lacking and security policy management is inefficient.” He has also stated that the country needs “intelligence policies,” and expressed an interest in receiving assistance from the United States.

SEE ALSO: Paraguay News and Profiles

While the details of Abdo’s plans to combat crime remain unknown, the selection of his cabinet members can provide some insight into the new administration’s security policies.

Retired general and future minister of defense, Bernardino Soto Estigarribia, who had already held that position once under Cartes until 2015, told media outlet Última Hora of his intention to strengthen the army and increase its capabilities.

Meanwhile, Abdo’s newly selected head of the National Anti-Drug Secretariat (Secretaría Nacional Antidrogas – SENAD), former Senator Arnaldo Giuzzio, has signaled that he will give priority to microtrafficking in his efforts to fight the country’s crime. He also promised to thoroughly investigate collusion between drug traffickers and government officials.

During his term in Congress, Guizzio singled out several legislators for their alleged ties to drug trafficking. But he has been questioned as well, facing accusations of ineffectiveness and inexperience when he served in the anti-corruption unit of the Attorney General’s Office.

Abdo’s campaign manager, Juan Ernesto Villamayor, will be the country’s future interior minister. He told media outlet EFE that he will set his sights on combating the Paraguayan People’s Army (Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo – EPP) in the north of the country, adding that he would consolidate the often-criticized Joint Task Force (Fuerza de Tarea Conjunta – FTC), which was created specifically to focus on the guerrilla group.

As his campaign was winding down, Paraguay’s new president also committed to unleashing an all-out war against corruption and impunity in the country, an undoubtedly welcome promise, although difficult to keep.

The court cases that have hit the most roadblocks are related to crimes committed during the dictatorship — when Abdo’s father held one of the government’s most powerful positions. But at the same time, other cases of corruption, smuggling and drug trafficking linked to members of the Paraguayan elite have been stymied in impunity as well.

InSight Crime Analysis

It is true that, as Abdo said, the Cartes government was largely unsuccessful in its fight against organized crime. The former president himself, as well as his uncle, have been linked to drug trafficking and cigarette smuggling. But it is also clear that Paraguay’s new president represents the same interests of the political and military elites that have governed the country almost without interruption for the past seventy years.

In combating organized crime, many of the new challenges Abdo will have to face stem from Paraguay’s growing role in international cocaine trafficking, including the increasing presence of Brazilian criminal groups, namely the Red Command (Comando Vermelho) and the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC). They have taken root primarily in the tri-border area Paraguay shares with Brazil and Argentina, and in some instances the Brazilian gangs have co-opted police and government officials.

While Abdo has not yet made any specific proposals on the fight against transnational organized crime groups, the new head of state has already reached out to the presidents of Brazil and Argentina on regional security issues, and they seem to have coordinated their respective zero-tolerance approaches to crime.

However, many have not hesitated to sharply question the promises of Abdo’s newly chosen ministers to simultaneously strengthen the FTC and the army. Their skepticism is likely due to the ineffectiveness the institutions have already demonstrated in attempting to quell the activities of both the EPP and marijuana growers in Paraguay’s north, despite their generous budgets.

Also unclear is what incentive Abdo has to remedy the judicial corruption that has benefited his family for so many years. While his father admittedly spent two years in prison for illicit enrichment, many of the more violent crimes for which he was accused during the dictatorship have gone unpunished since his death in March 2013.

Abdo’s relationships with previous Paraguayan administrations landed multimillion-dollar state contracts for his businesses, which include Almacenamiento y Distribución de Asfalto (Aldía S.A.) and Creando Tecnología S.A. (Createc S.A.). Between 2010 and 2014 the two companies received state contracts for approximately $18.5 million and $3.8 million, respectively.

Although media outlet ABC Color reported that Abdo’s businesses were not granted government contracts between 2014 and 2017, in part due to his differences with the Cartes government, shortly after his victory in Paraguay’s primaries in December 2017, Aldía was awarded another state contract for $1.7 million.

But it is not just Abdo’s clear conflict of interest in being both a state contractor and the president that causes potential concern. Add to this the fact that multiple members of his cabinet have been accused of involvement with corruption cases, and some have even favored impunity for egregious human rights violations and other crimes committed during Paraguay’s dictatorship.

The future of the country’s fight against corruption appears to have little chance of the bright start that was promised.

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