The Chaco: Another Ciudad Juarez?

One of South America’s most remote areas has become a focal point in the fight against transnational organized crime, comments Eliot Brockner for ISN Security Watch.

By Eliot Brockner

The border towns of Ponta Pora in Brazil and Pedro Juan Caballero in Paraguay seem an unlikely place for a major meeting on combating organized crime.

Yet on 3 May Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo met at this remote outpost in the Chaco, the rugged, sparsely populated stretch of desert that spans for hundreds of kilometers on both sides of the Paraguay-Brazil border, to discuss the role of cities like Ponta Pora and Pedro Juan Caballero in the growing threat of transnational security.

The towns and vast expanse around them form part of a handful of border locations that are under an increasing multinational threat from the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP). The EPP has been linked to foreign criminal gangs and terrorist organizations such as Brazil’s First Capital Command (PCC)and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The root of these alliances and consequent violence is largely drug related. Paraguay is a major producer of marijuana, which the country exports in large quantities to neighboring countries, including Brazil.

The EPP has also been linked to kidnapping, violence and extortion against large landowning ranchers who control soy and livestock production in Paraguay. In addition to marijuana, soy and livestock are two of Paraguay’s major exports and one of the few sources of income for the impoverished nation.

Drugs, money and weapons routinely pass through both sides of the porous border in and around cities like Pedro Juan Caballero and Ponta Pora en route to the slums of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, where the lucrative domestic and international – Brazil is a major point of exit for European-bound narcotics – drug trade is often the only viable source of gainful employment.

The original purpose of the 3 May meeting was to discuss a discrepancy surrounding payment and distribution of energy produced at Itaipu, a hydroelectric dam run jointly by Paraguay and Brazil. One week before the meeting, however, a 26 April attack on Paraguayan Senator Roberto Acevedo in Pedro Juan Caballero cast a spotlight on growing insecurity in the region. Two people died in the attack, and Acevedo was severely injured.

Paraguayan and Brazilian authorities believe the attack was carried out by the EPP with the help of PCC operatives working in the region. A day before the 26 April attack, Lugo announced an aggressive campaign against the EPP, declaring a state of exception for five departments where the EPP is believed to be most active. On 6 May, a leading EPP operative was captured in one of the departments bordering Argentina and Bolivia that was not part of the original list.

Paraguay alone cannot confront the threat, and the two nations agreed to mutual security measures to combat it. Perhaps as a sign of a commitment to this cooperation, Brazil announced they would cede to some of Paraguay’s demands regarding Itaipu, including paying a higher price for excess energy and ceding ground on a plan for a Brazilian company to be responsible for an electrical grid that would transmit energy throughout Paraguay. Mutual cooperation is a necessity; on 3 May, Acevedo warned that a lack of effort to combat organized crime in the region could turn it into “another Ciudad Juarez.”

Eliot Brockner is a Latin America analyst at iJET Intelligent Risk Systems. Based in Washington, DC, he covers security, politics, and diplomacy in the Americas. He is a regular contributor to the blog Latin American Thought.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).

ISN Security Watch

ISN Security Watch

The ISN is one of the world's leading open access information and knowledge hubs on IR and security issues, based at ETH Zürich, Switzerland.

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