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Weekly Report - 14 May 2020 (WR-20-19)

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PARAGUAY: Worried by ‘Brazilian threat’

The 700km porous border that Paraguay shares with Brazil has historically been a source of concern for the Brazilian government as it has long been exploited by criminals to smuggle counterfeit goods, illegal drugs, and people from Paraguay. But with the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak expanding at an alarming rate in Brazil, now it is the Paraguayan government that is worried about the permeability of the border and the threat that the arrival of infected individuals from Brazil poses to Paraguay. The response by the Paraguayan government led by President Mario Abdo Benítez to the pandemic has so far succeeded in limiting the number of infections and deaths in the country but all this could be in vain unless it can tighten controls at the border with Brazil.

The Abdo Benítez government was quick to impose drastic measures to contain Covid-19. This included the closure of all the country’s borders in early March (except to essential trade). The Brazilian government led by President Jair Bolsonaro, which has been more erratic in its response to the pandemic, only followed suit a few weeks later. However, the arrival of infected individuals from Brazil, which has less stringent containment measures in place that vary from state to state, became a major concern after the Abdo Benítez administration started allowing Paraguayan nationals stranded in Brazil following the closure of the border to return to Paraguay from 1 May.

All the returnees are tested for Covid-19 and placed in quarantine centres immediately after crossing the border. Many of them have tested positive, leading to a jump in the number of cases registered in Paraguay. On 1 May alone, 67 returnees from Brazil tested positive for Covid-19 taking the total number of cases in Paraguay to 333. Since then, more people repatriated from Brazil have tested positive, with another 124 cases reported on 9 May.

Paraguay’s health minister, Julio Mazzoleni, warned that these individuals appear to have a “very high viral load” even though many are asymptomatic. Mazzoleni added that “we are extremely worried by the high circulation of the virus in Brazil”, which currently has over 180,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases and over 13,000 deaths, the highest figures in Latin America. Paraguay has just over 700 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 11 deaths.

In response to the risk represented by the arrival of large groups of infected individuals from Brazil, the Paraguayan government has adopted stricter sanitary and security protocols at the shared border. This involved the deployment of additional army units to reinforce controls at border crossings and even the digging of a trench along dry border areas to make illegal crossings harder. But despite this there are still reports of people getting around military checkpoints and freely crossing the border.

The most eye-catching case involved José Carlos Acevedo, the mayor of the capital of Amambay department, Pedro Juan Caballero (PJC), which lies on the border. On 10 May Acevedo defied soldiers at a checkpoint and crossed into the Brazilian city of Ponta Porã that lies opposite PJC.

Video footage of Acevedo ignoring orders for him not to cross the border, and threatening to get the soldiers dismissed for trying to stop him, fuelled indignation and was widely condemned. Acevedo was detained and placed in quarantine upon returning to PJC. He has also been formally charged with breaking quarantine rules.

President Abdo Benítez reacted to the incident by replacing the head of the army’s internal defence operations. The Paraguayan government is currently in the process of phasing out its quarantine to alleviate the economic damage it has caused and slowly return to normality. But Abdo Benítez has said that “Brazil is probably the one place where the coronavirus is expanding the most in the world and that is a big threat for our country”. He insisted that controls at the shared border would need to remain strict until the threat is neutralised.

Sending a message

President Abdo Benítez designated Colonel Félix Ignacio Díaz as the new interim commander of the army’s internal defence operations in replacement of General Leonardo Ibarrola on 11 May. General Ibarrola had only been in the post since September 2019. But Abdo Benítez seemingly felt the need to send a clear message to the army that they are expected to apply the quarantine rules to everyone without exception. This after the local press reported that during his confrontation with the soldiers at the checkpoint, Acevedo phoned an unidentified army commander and demanded that he order the soldiers to stand down or face disciplinary action.