Last year, the arrest of top customs officials in Paraguay revealed a sprawling corruption network that allowed smugglers to operate with near-complete impunity. As their trial is now set to begin, it does not appear the country has learned from this experience.
On July 3, 2020, Paraguay’s Attorney General’s Office presented formal charges against Ramón Benítez Amarilla, the former director of the now-dismantled Specialized Technical Customs Surveillance Department (Departamento Técnico Aduanero de Vigilancia Especializada — Detave), and 11 other officials for bribery, criminal association and contraband, Última Hora reported.
Benítez, a former army general and presidential candidate, was arrested in April 2019, accused of receiving systematic bribes as director of Detave to allow contraband to flow both in and out of Paraguay.
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Wiretaps revealed how Detave customs officials charged thousands of dollars per vehicle to allow and escort, all manner of contraband across the border, including food, electronics and tobacco.
Following Benítez’ arrest, President Mario Abdo Benítez decided to scrap all of Detave and switched the focus of Paraguayan customs from fixed checkpoints to mobile controls along the borders.
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The dismantling of Detave provided a look at the systematic corruption that has plagued Paraguay’s customs institutions and provided a chance for real reform. But it does not seem this opportunity is being seized.
Last February, Paraguay’s anti-corruption minister, René Fernández, told InSight Crime that “the customs system is a source of much corruption and is a big challenge for the ministry. Officials use their posts as a collection fund and charge a ‘fee’ on each load.”
While it is positive that the government is recognizing the size of the challenge ahead, there is little indication this recognition will turn into real action.
Admittedly, the normalization of corruption and contraband in Paraguay makes it difficult to uproot. During the investigation, one suspect told prosecutors that he had been bribing Benítez Amarilla since November 2018, soon after the latter was nominated as head of Detave. But sources close to the investigation told InSight Crime that Benítez Amarilla merely inherited a pre-existing scheme.
Despite these challenges, vast loads of contraband have continued to make their way across Paraguay’s borders, especially via Argentina and Brazil. For example, large cargoes of illegal cigarettes, a mainstay of contraband from Paraguay, have been found in Brazil and Argentina during the coronavirus lockdown.
And in June, the Paraguayan Industrial Union (Unión Industrial Paraguaya — UIP) denounced that borders with Brazil in the department of Canindeyú were completely open, with people and vehicles passing without any form of control, according to Paraguayan media 5 Días.
The main hotspot for contraband is the Tri-Border Area (TBA), where Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet, but this criminal economy is a constant along large parts of the country’s borders. Last March, InSight Crime researchers visited the Argentine province of Formosa across from Paraguay’s capital, Asunción, and witnessed the extent to which contraband is an economic driver.
One local official told InSight Crime that contraband at the Argentina-Paraguay border in Formosa works in two ways: low-scale contraband rackets run by individuals who smuggle small amounts of merchandise from one country to the other primarily as a means of surviving in a province with high levels of poverty, and large-scale operations run by larger organizations that mainly smuggle cigarettes, textiles and electrical appliances.