Meet Paraguay’s Bootlegger President

Drug planes landing ‘by mistake’ at his ranch. Imprisonment for currency fraud. Allegations that the bank he founded was little more than a money laundering and black market currency trading operation. Horacio Cartes may well be the only person ever designated a priority organized crime figure by the American DEA to get himself elected president.

Elected not long after Paraguay’s first leftist president in 60 years was removed by a dubious impeachment, right-wing president Horacio Cartes is in trouble this week: his effort to privatize huge swaths of state services triggered a general strike that paralyzed the country yesterday. Worse still, according to an investigation by Colombia’s El Tiempo, Dutch and Colombian investigators are convinced that his cigarette companies are closely linked to a transnational organized crime network that launders drug money for Colombian narcotraffickers, guerillas and mafia families. Excerpts from El Tiempo’s investigation:

In the second week of February, agents of the Netherlands Special Police Taskforce (RST) met with Colombian authorities to exchange judicial information. The subject of the meeting was the multi-million dollar illegal trade in Paraguayan cigarettes, which enter Colombia legally by way of the [Dutch] islands of Curacao and Aruba, and which end up in the hands of Colombian organized crime groups that presently control some 20 percent of the domestic market.

Although the information that has been divulged is considered sensitive, government sources assure El Tiempo that the RST has gathered altered and falsified invoices detailing exports of Ibiza and Mariner-branded cigarettes from the duty-free zone of Maicao, in the state of La Guajira. These are brands of the Tabacalera del Este (Tabesa) company, which is owned by the president of Paraguay, Horacio Cartes.

An even more sensitive piece of information, which will put this issue on the multilateral agenda for the presidents of Latin America: the RST has documented a meeting which took place at the end of 2012 between the trading companies under investigation, and a member of Cartes’s presidential campaign, who now occupies a ministerial post in Cartes’s government.

Colombian states lost some 67 million dollars a year in taxes on the trade, money which would have gone to clinics and hospitals. The losses in legal sales reach 209 million dollars, and even more important, the Cartes cigarettes are used to launder the fortunes of Colombian narcotraffickers, FARC guerillas and the ‘Los Urabenos’ mafia group.

According to the database of the Integrated Foreign Trade System (SICEX), Paraguay and Uraguay exported 7.5 billion cigarettes to Aruba and Curacao in 2012, the equivalent of 750 40-foot shipping containers. An estimate suggests that of these containers, 330 went on to the Colombian state of La Guajira and were never re-exported, meaning that they were swallowed up by smuggling networks.

A group of investigative journalists under the auspices of the [Peru-based] Instituto de Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS) joined the investigation in Colombia, tracing the path of the containers over a period of four months, visiting border zones, investigated sixty businesses, and demonstrating that the trafficking of Paraguayan cigarettes on the triple frontier (Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina) surpasses the volume of coca trafficking, and has very nearly surpassed its value as well.

A figure published by the Gazeta de Povo daily newspaper gives a sense of the scale of the business: since 2010, Brazil, one of the principal recipients of the trafficked goods, has seized 278 million dollars in marijuana, almost triple that in coca, and 907 million dollars worth of Paraguayan cigarettes.

One uncle of President Cartes, Juan Domingo Viveros Cartes is presently detained in Urugauy for trafficking in marijuana.

In Colombia, the Tax and Customs Police (POLFA) last year seized some $79 million in contraband goods. A large part of it was Paraguayan cigarettes bearing the Ibiza and Mariner brands.

The heads of two units of the FARC guerillas, Luis Alejandro Cuadros Solorzano, alias Leon Guerra, and Oscar Alberto Guerrero Celedon, as well as mafia capo Marcos Figueroa, alias Marquitos, and the organized crime group Los Urabenos, all use the three trading firms under investigation to launder money for their respective criminal organizations.

The FARC and Los Urabenos began by charging ‘taxes’ for each truckload of illegal merchandise which passed along the three main smuggling routes, and ended up using the business to laudnder money from extortion rackets, coca trafficking and Venezuelan gasoline smuggling.

President Cartes has not responded to official Colombian complaints, a silence he has maintained with respect to investigating journalists as well.

Special agents of the Dutch police unit RST have records of the entry in to Aruba at the end of 2012 of a member of the presidential campaign of Horacio Cartes, who went on to become president of Paraguay.

Information in the hands of the investigators indicates that this person, who now in one of the ministries, traveled to this Caribbean island to meet with a group of businessmen who import and distribute cigarettes for Tabesa, the manufacturer owned by the president and his family. The information suggests that at the meeting, businessmen from Brazil, Uruguay and Panama were present as well.

El Tiempo contacted a Paraguayan bureaucrat who fits the description of the person described in the investigation, but he denied ever having been to Aruba, and said he had no relationship to any of Cartes’s business dealings. “I have never been to this place. I have no connection to the tobacco manufacturer. My relationship to the President is solely political,” he said. In recent months, Cartes has named several executives from his private businesses as official advisors. Among them are Carlos Lopez Moreira and Osvaldo Gane Salum, both directors at his tobacco companies.

“These are people who have my absolute confidence,” Cartes said in December, after he was questioned about these appointments. “they are helping me in my efforts to have a great term in office, and that is the most important thing for me.”

El Tiempo investigative unit