Colombia Criminal Groups Distribute Cigarettes Linked to New Paraguay President

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Criminal groups in Colombia are responsible for the distribution of millions of illegal cigarettes tied to Paraguay President-elect Horacio Cartes, highlighting the dubious business links which have made his rise to power so controversial.

According to an investigation carried out by El Tiempo, a company controlled by Cartes is responsible for producing 2.24 million cigarettes which are illegally distributed in Colombia, representing a 14 percent domestic market share.

The investigation revealed that cigarettes produced in the Tabacalera del Este factory in Paraguay and destined for export via the Caribbean islands of Aruba and Curacao actually end up being smuggled throughout Colombia.

According to Colombia’s tax and customs police (Polfa), the distribution is run through criminal networks such as the Oficina de Envigado and the Urabeños, reported El Tiempo.

The cigarettes, including brands such as “Ibiza” and “Marine,” fail to comply with regional packaging requirements and avoid tax. In Colombia they arrive legally to a special customs zone in the northern region of La Guajira, but many end up being smuggled to surrounding regions. Representatives from Cartes’ factory denied any knowledge or wrongdoing related to the case.

According to Colombia’s tax and customs authority (DIAN), illegal cigarettes avoid $16 million in tax each year.

InSight Crime Analysis

This is not the first time cigarettes from Cartes’ factory have come under scrutiny. In 2004 legal proceedings were undertaken in Brazil to combat their smuggling in the tri-border area with Paraguay and Argentina. Cartes was himself named in those proceedings as being linked to illegal funds entering Brazil.

Meanwhile, according to El Tiempo, a large proportion of the five million illegal packs seized last year by Colombian customs authorities were brands produced by Cartes’ company.

Furthermore, this latest investigation found that the cigarettes were ordered by companies connected to the Aruba-based Mansur family, which has been linked to high-profile cigarette smuggling and seen family members indicted in the US on money laundering charges.

These latest revelations are just more in a long line of questionable business links and activity linked to Cartes. The man due to assume the Paraguayan presidency in August, following his election in April, has previously been a target of investigations by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), as revealed in cables released by Wikileaks. He controls a major bank which US authorities identified as the keystone in a regional money laundering operation.

Cartes has also been tied to gold smuggling, money laundering and financing illegal groups, while in 2000 a light aircraft containing 343 kilograms of cannabis and 20 kilograms of cocaine was seized  by Paraguayan police after it landed on a farm he owns.

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