Advanced Search

Brazil & Southern Cone - November 2014 (ISSN 1741-4431)

POLITICS & SECURITY: Narco politics

The 16 October murder of an investigative journalist and his assistant by suspected contract killers working for a local mayor has prompted serious concern about just how far organised criminal groups may have infiltrated authorities in Paraguay. With a string of national deputies and even a supreme court (CSJ) judge accused by local media of links to organised crime and drug trafficking, narco politics has shot up the agenda, with pressure on the government led by President Horacio Cartes to act.

Official corruption has long been a problem in Paraguay. Long the largest marijuana producer in South America, Paraguay now is also a transit - and a producer - country for refined narcotics including cocaine and synthetic drugs [RBS-14-10]. However, despite suspicions, concrete evidence of direct involvement by the local authorities has been scant. This has changed somewhat following the murder of journalist Pablo Medina and his young assistant, Antonia Maribel Almada.

Medina, employed as a correspondent for the country’s leading national daily, ABC Color, regularly wrote about drug trafficking. He was killed on 16 October near the town of Curuguaty, in the eastern department of Canindeyú, which borders Brazil. Medina was attacked as he drove home from a field assignment. His car was stopped by another vehicle and he was shot five times from point-blank range by two men. Almada (19), who along with her sister Juana Ruth was accompanying Medina, was in the passenger seat and was killed also. Juana Ruth survived by hiding in the backseat.

A shocking murder

Medina’s murder shocked the country. He was a well-respected journalist who for years had reported on the narco-trafficking underworld that operates along Paraguay’s long land border with Brazil. His brother, also a journalist, was killed in 2001 for his efforts to expose local drug trafficking kingpins (see sidebar). The local press immediately speculated that Medina too had been killed because of his work. ABC Color revealed that Medina had been working on a piece exposing ties between drug trafficking gangs led by Brazilian nationals and local government officials, and had received numerous death threats. The daily accused Vilmar ‘Neneco’ Acosta Marques, the mayor of the border town of Ypejhú, Canindeyú, of masterminding the crime.

In the last decade, there has been a marked increase in the number of marihuana and cocaine seizures in Brazil originating from Canindeyú, home to an estimated 6,000 hectares of marijuana plantations. Acosta previously had been accused of links to organised criminal activity in the area. In 2010, he was implicated in the murder of two people whose bodies were found buried on his family ranch. Acosta denied any involvement and the case was dismissed by the courts.

The fact that Acosta hails from the ruling Asociación Nacional Republicana-Partido Colorado (ANR-PC) prompted press speculation that he had sufficiently strong political connections to ensure that he would be shielded by the authorities. Yet Medina’s murder was condemned by President Cartes himself. Describing it as “not just an affront to peace in our country, but also a violation of human rights and an attack on freedom of expression”, Cartes vowed that that the authorities would find and punish the culprits.

Opening a can of worms

Under such pressure, the authorities moved quickly. Three suspected drug traffickers were arrested almost immediately. The attorney general’s office then confirmed that it was working on the hypothesis that Medina’s murder was connected to narco-trafficking. After Juana Ruth identified Acosta’s brother, Wilson Acosta Marques, as one of the material authors (the other is believed to be Flavio Acosta Rivero, nephew to Vilmar and Wilson), prosecutors declared the mayor and his brother the prime suspects. It then emerged that Wilson was wanted, both in Paraguay and Brazil, on previous criminal charges, including the illegal possession of firearms and murder.

When the authorities went looking for the Acostas, they could not be found (the authorities did find three tonnes of marijuana on the family ranch). Arrest warrants were issued for the brothers on 19 October. Local press reports suggest that Vilmar, who was born across the border from Ypejhú in the Brazilian town of Paranhos and holds dual Brazilian-Paraguayan nationality, may be hiding in Brazil with his brother and nephew. Incidentally, Vilmar’s dual nationality made him ineligible to hold public office in Paraguay. This issue was raised during the ANR-PC primaries ahead of the 2010 municipal elections, when Vilmar’s candidacy was challenged by a rival, Julián Núñez Benítez. But Vilmar got a favourable ruling from the national electoral tribunal (TSJE). Núñez Benítez (killed by unidentified gunmen in August) took his complaint to the CSJ, which has yet to issue a resolution.

With the official investigations seeming to all but confirm Vilmar’s involvement in drug trafficking, and in Medina’s murder, attention turned to his political contacts. ABC Color singled out the ANR-PC national deputy for Canindeyú, María Cristina Villalba, as Vilmar’s political patron and accused her of protecting the fugitive (and now deposed) mayor, and of being involved in drug trafficking herself. Villalba, a former Canindeyú governor (2008-2013), where she is known as ‘La Reina’, is close to President Cartes [RBS-13-11]. She vehemently rejected the accusations, insisting that she had no special relationship with Vilmar. But Villalba also rejected calls, notably been backed by the ANR-PC party leadership, for her to renounce her congressional immunity and collaborate fully with the official investigations.

More accusations

With the accusations against Villalba still ringing, on 22 October Senator Roberto Acevedo, the head of the senate’s anti-drugs trafficking commission, said that besides Villalba, various other national legislators were suspected of having links to drug trafficking groups. Acevedo, of the main opposition Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico (PLRA), who in the past has been accused of narco links himself, said that the national anti-drugs agency (Senad) had evidence of “five or six senators, from various parties” linked to known drug traffickers, with an “even higher” number of national deputies under suspicion. However, Acevedo said, these officials had not been investigated because of their “political power”.

Acevedo’s remarks prompted politicians from across the spectrum to demand that he name names. He refused, maintaining that this was up to the Senad and national anti-drugs prosecutors. The congress reacted by creating a bicameral commission tasked with investigating Medina’s murder and the extent to which organised crime has infiltrated national authorities. President Cartes responded by calling a meeting with representatives of the legislature and the judiciary on 3 November to discuss ways to combat the influence of narco-trafficking.

Since then, ABC Color has also accused a CSJ magistrate, Víctor Núñez, of protecting Vilmar, after identifying Núñez as one of the judges that threw out the case brought against Vilmar in 2010. Núñez has denied these allegations. But the ANR-PC and opposition legislators have floated the possibility of subjecting Núñez and other CSJ and TSJE magistrates to an impeachment process for their suspected links to organised crime, in what looks like the start of a major purge of government institutions.

  • Salvador Medina

Like his brother, Salvador Medina also dedicated his career to denouncing the links between the authorities and drug traffickers in the departments of Canindeyú and San Pedro. Salvador was shot dead in January 2001, as he left a radio station in Capiibary, San Pedro, where he was working. The material author of the crime, Milciades Maylin, was given a 25-year prison sentence, but the suspected intellectual actors have never been brought to justice. After Salvador’s murder, Pablo and his family received death threats and were assigned police protection, which was terminated just a few months ago.

  • A quarter of judges under suspicion

On 9 November the president of Paraguay’s magistrates’ council, Enrique Riera Escudero, admitted that up to a quarter of all judges in the country could be corrupt. Speaking to journalists following the Medina murder, Riera, who was appointed last year and tasked with vetting the judiciary, stated: “Since I have been in the post, there are around 25% of judges who should have been sanctioned for corruption”. Riera said that many remain in their posts thanks to their political connections. “We need to clean up the judiciary”, Riera said, adding that “drug trafficking is infecting all the powers of State; judges, legislators and officials are all involved”.

End of preview - This article contains approximately 1368 words.

Subscribers: Log in now to read the full article

Not a Subscriber?

Choose from one of the following options

1 credit = $0.50/£0.33