‘No Contraband Case Has Ever Gone to Trial in Paraguay’

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Paraguay has only one judge in charge of handling contraband cases, a startling admission in a country where smuggled contraband goods like sugar and cigarettes are endemic, highlighting the judicial system’s inability to successfully prosecute this type of crime.

Humberto Otazu, the only judge designated by the Supreme Court as competent enough to handle contraband cases, told Paraguayan news outlet ABC Color that so far, no contraband smuggling cases have reached the stage of oral trials. Major smuggling cases involving large companies — like 1,400 tons of sugar seized in June 2014 — are still underway in the judicial system, but minor cases of street vendors selling contraband goods are rarely ever prosecuted, the judge said.

Paraguay’s main anti-smuggling body, known as the UIC by its Spanish acronym, has apprehended around $2.7 million in contraband goods and arrested 53 people this year, according to ABC.

President Horacio Cartes — who has come under scrutiny for his own connections to the contraband cigarette trade — created the UIC in 2013. Since then, prosecutors say they have seized around $260 million in contraband.

InSight Crime Analysis

Contraband smuggling is a lucrative trade in Paraguay. According to statements made by a government official in 2013, the country loses some $100 million a year to smuggling. However, figures from the UIC suggest that this underestimates the scope of Paraguay’s contraband market.

The coordinator of the UIC has called the country’s contraband trade an “uncontainable avalanche.” And while all manner of goods, including electronics, fruit, vegetables, beer, and oil, make their way across the country’s porous borders with Brazil and Argentina, the most flagrant cases involve sugar and cigarettes.

In one Brazilian state, authorities seized over eight million packs of contraband cigarettes in 2013, most of which are smuggled over the border from Paraguay. Cigarettes from one of Paraguay’s largest tobacco companies, Tabesa, which is owned by President Cartes, have flooded illegal markets in Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Contraband  

Notably, one case involving the seizure of 160 tons of sugar in March 2014 — which implicated several Paraguayan companies — faced a major setback when the customs agency decided to dismiss their administrators charged with the investigation.

Exacerbating the problem is the inadequacy of the country’s judicial system to handle even the most basic cases. In 2013, a network of corrupt judges that allegedly gave drug traffickers lenient sentences was uncovered in the Triple Frontier region, a major contraband hub. Meanwhile, in the department of Amambay, which lies along the Brazilian border and is a major hub for cocaine and marijuana trafficking, there is only one anti-drug prosecutor.

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