Cocaine seizures along Paraguay’s border with Bolivia have tripled, bolstering fears that the forest hinterland of Chaco has become a haven for drug smugglers.
From January to June, authorities in Paraguay seized three metric tons of cocaine in the northwestern border departments that contain most of the massive Chaco forest — a hot, dry, sparsely populated plain. Between 2014 and 2018, cocaine seizures in the forest amounted to just over one ton, according to data provided to InSight Crime from Paraguay’s Drug Observatory. In 2018, no cocaine was seized there at all.
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The spokesman for Paraguay’s National Anti-Drug Agency (Secretaría Nacional Antidrogas — SENAD) told Bolivian news outlet Los Tiempos that there are only two explanations for the sudden spike in drugs captured in the Chaco forest: interdiction efforts have improved, or the amount of drugs moving through the area has increased.
The latest seizure of some 450 kilograms of cocaine occurred at a remote residence in the Chaco. Authorities discovered the drugs inside a small plane that had landed at a nearby clandestine airstrip after taking off from Bolivia, according to the government.
The pilot, a Bolivian national, was behind the drug smuggling operation. He was assisted by his three sons, along with a Colombian national and a Paraguayan man, authorities said.
The cocaine, which came from Peru, was likely destined for Spain. The bricks had “Madrid” stamped on them.
InSight Crime Analysis
While seizures are not a perfect proxy for measuring drug trafficking, it’s likely that smugglers are increasingly entering the forbidding Chaco forest, where planes loaded with cocaine land on hidden airstrips.
Paraguay has stepped up enforcement efforts recently, but authorities are largely powerless to stop the drug flights. The country has long lacked radar capabilities, relying on Brazil and Argentina for alerts about plane movements along its borders. The government is in the process of installing a radar tower in Concepción, in central Paraguay, but the radar will not cover large swaths of the Chaco forest.
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The drug planes, however, can refuel in the air, making it so that they can reach nearly any part of the forest. Most of the drug flights originate in Bolivia, intelligence officials told InSight Crime investigators on a recent field trip.
The flights are taking non-traditional routes, including over the northern part of the country, which would include the Chaco forest, one official said.
“The issue [for them] is to enter without being detected,” he said.
This is not hard, given Paraguay’s weak aerial controls, which may even be by design. Corrupt aviation and government officials have been implicated in schemes to run drug flights and have even been caught buying their own planes. Small aircraft loaded with cocaine have used the tiny airport in the town of Juan Pedro Caballero, near Brazil, as a launching pad for some time.
SENAD Minister Arnaldo Giuzzio admitted that the country does not have control of its airspace, telling InSight Crime that traffickers use the country “like a trampoline, or a bridge, to get closer to the Brazilian market.”
Or, as the latest bust suggests, to reach all the way to Europe.