‘The PCC are after me’: the drug cartel with Paraguay in its clutches

amazon, ‘the pcc are after me’: the drug cartel with paraguay in its clutches
© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Jorge Sáenz/AP

Fahd Jamil Georges went by many names: the Turk, the Godfather, Boss of Bosses, the King of the Border. Over five decades, he went from running casinos to smuggling guns and drugs into Brazil from Paraguay – South America’s top marijuana producer, and a key transit point for Andean cocaine.

His former mansion in Ponta Porã, Brazil – modelled on Elvis Presley’s Graceland – is wreathed in barbed wire and electric fencing. His Cadillac boasted reinforced tyres, and bulletproof screens shielded his bed. He counted presidents and dictators on both sides of the border as close associates.

But in the end, this protection counted for little. When Jamil, 80, handed himself in to Paraguayan authorities in April last year after years on the run, he singled out the dangerous new player in town: “The PCC are after me.”

Jamil was perhaps the final domino to fall in “Project Paraguay”, a decade-long hostile takeover of this lucrative narco-trafficking pipeline by the Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Capital Command, or PCC) – a violent Brazilian cartel founded in a São Paulo jail in 1993, whose reach is fast spreading across South America and even globally.

The PCC’s triumph in Paraguay has coincided with a wave of contract killings, with the latest victims including the mayor of the neighbouring Paraguayan town of Pedro Juan Caballero, a top anti-mafia prosecutor who was shot dead while on his honeymoon on a Colombian beach, and, on Sunday, the former boss of the country’s largest prison.

The bloodletting has fuelled fears that international drug cartels in league with corrupt officials are turning comparatively tranquil Paraguay into a violent narcostate.

Since “The Turk” surrendered, “the PCC have taken over completely,” said Lt Col Ozevaldo Santos de Melo, a military police officer in Ponta Porã.

Jamil’s downfall follows the relentless elimination of the PCC’s other rivals. In June 2016, Jorge Rafaat – a powerful drug trafficker and sometime Jamil ally – was shot dead in Pedro Juan Caballero. About 40 of his associates were subsequently murdered.

The PCC soon afterwards declared war on Comando Vermelho (CV), another Brazilian cartel, emerging victorious as the largest player in the transport of drugs into Brazil – and on to Europe, where the ’Ndrangheta Calabrian mafia handles distribution.

Jamil was linked to several murders, but largely kept a lid on border violence, said Santos de Melo. “The Turk was always discreet, and not so aggressive,” he argued. “The PCC are more violent … they have no scruples. They kill innocents.”

With figures such as Jamil and Rafaat out of the picture, drive-by shootings among small-time criminals and rivals within the PCC have become more common, said Cristian Amarilla, intelligence director for Senad, Paraguay’s anti-drug force.

“It’s a mess,” he said, showing the Guardian around a seized luxury rural property, complete with artificial lake and floodlit football pitch, apparently designed to serve as a hotel for visiting Brazilian crime lords. “Today, the border is in flux. Everyone is trafficking.”

The population of Pedro Juan Caballero is just 120,000, but its murder rate – more than 70 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2020 – is comparable to that of Caracas. Amambay – the Paraguayan region containing the town – is home to just 2% of Paraguay’s population but was scene to a third of the country’s 481 homicides in 2020.

At the London Pub in Pedro Juana Caballero – which sells cold English ales and is decorated with mannequins wearing bearskins – customers are often armed, making calling time a nerve-racking proposition, said David Ovelar, a barman. “We’re on constant alert,” he added.

The PCC has a “strong” or “intermittent” presence across six of Paraguay’s 17 regions, and has carried out dramatic bank robberies in several more, according to InSight Crime, a thinktank. In a sign of its growing control over Paraguay’s prisons, 75 PCC members escaped from custody in Pedro Juan Caballero in January 2020 – some tunnelling out, others simply walking out the front door.

But Zully Rulón, the director of Senad, said claims that Paraguay is fast becoming a narcostate were exaggerated. “We’re not Colombia or Mexico, far from it,” she argued.

Rulón denied that the PCC had been able to establish a Paraguayan foothold, pointing to the recent extradition of several cartel bosses to Brazil.

But Paraguay still has no radar coverage of its vast north, making it almost impossible to intercept cocaine-laden planes dispatched by the PCC from Bolivia, Rulón admitted.

“If we had technology, our work would be a lot easier,” she added.

amazon, ‘the pcc are after me’: the drug cartel with paraguay in its clutches
© Provided by The Guardian Marcos Camacho, AKA Marcola, leader of First Capital Command (PCC), is escorted to a helicopter after getting medical assistance at a hospital in Brasília on 21 January 2020. Photograph: Sérgio Lima/AFP/Getty Images

And when a cartel leader gets arrested, said Santos de Melo, “the PCC just send another one from São Paulo”.

The PCC’s commanders are also thought to still call the shots from jail – and allegedly coordinated the assassination of Paraguay’s leading criminal prosecutor in May. Marcelo Pecci was shot dead on a Colombian beach while on his honeymoon, just hours after his wife had posted on social media that they were expecting their first child.

Four people who confessed to the crime were each sentenced to over 23 years in prison on Friday. Colombia’s police chief indicated, however, that the PCC was ultimately responsible, and had paid the hitmen $500,000 to eliminate Pecci, who was investigating the cartel’s links in Paraguay.

The PCC also boasts some 30,000 foot soldiers in Brazil where it is waging an increasingly bloody war for control of the remote Amazon region where Brazil borders top cocaine producers Peru and Colombia – and where the British journalist and Guardian contributor Dom Phillips and the Indigenous advocate Bruno Pereira, disappeared this month.

Three suspects are in the custody of police, who say there is no sign of a broader conspiracy, but local Indigenous activists insist that organised crime groups had a hand in the killing.

The cartel is also expanding elsewhere in the continent, including Uruguay, Argentina and Venezuela, has connections in the Caribbean, Europe and Africa, and launders profits through banks in China and the US.

amazon, ‘the pcc are after me’: the drug cartel with paraguay in its clutches
© Provided by The Guardian Paraguayan army soldiers are seen next to an army tank near a border prison in Pedro Juan Caballero, where PCC prisoners broke out on 22 January 2020. Photograph: Gabriel Stargardter/Reuters

The PCC are “the most formidable organised crime group in South America”, said Robert Muggah of the Igarapé Institute.

The cartel’s strength is based on its “legendary” level of control over its rank-and-file – who swear an oath of loyalty and even pay membership fees. In Paraguay, it “has extensively penetrated the state and co-opted the security establishment”, explained Muggah.

“Brazil needs to pull back from its policy of mass incarceration” in order to dismantle the PCC’s powerbase in Brazil’s overcrowded prisons, he argued. “The only long-term solution is for Brazil to accelerate the decriminalisation of drugs.”

But such policies are as distant a prospect in Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil as in Paraguay, where the governing conservative Colorado party has itself been regularly tied to narcotraffickers and organised crime.

Former president Horacio Cartes (2013-18) has repeatedly been accused of links to a vast money-laundering operation linked to cigarette smuggling and drug traffickers. Cartes, a powerful tobacco magnate, has denied any wrongdoing, saying the allegations are politically motivated.

A historic Senad operation in February involving Pecci, the slain prosecutor, seized ranches, apartments, luxury car garages and even an evangelical church allegedly linked to drug money. But Paraguay’s interior minister conceded that the criminal masterminds who had “permeated all levels of our society” remained at large.

“Narcopolitics, the narcostate, are taking hold of Paraguay,” echoed López. “Society is totally contaminated by it.”

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