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18/11/2018 | LatinAmerica - Long Overdue, Can an Anti-Corruption Surge in Paraguay Last?

Laurence Blair

Unless convictions and reforms happen quickly, the recent anti-corruption protests could run out of steam.


A narco boss bribes multiple justice ministers from prison and luxuriates in a VIP cell. A senator is recorded boasting about buying off judges, but is still re-elected thanks to a closed party list system. Taxpayers foot the bill for medical insurance covering liposuction and implants for low-level public employees. 

These are just some of the many embarrassing episodes in the past two years alone in Paraguay, a country notorious for its culture of public malfeasance and long faithful to the words of its late dictator Alfredo Stroessner that “corruption is the price of peace.” In Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index, Paraguay placed 135th out of 170 states, with only Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela performing worse in the Americas. 

Yet in recent months, there has been an unprecedented surge of protests against dirty politicians of all stripes that has already claimed several high-profile targets. Amid the public outcry, Paraguay’s new president, Mario Abdo Benitez, who took office in August, has promised to leave no stone unturned. As the head of the deeply entrenched, center-right Colorado Party—and the son of a key Stroessner lieutenant—Abdo Benitez may not be up to the task, though, and several political obstacles could still derail this long overdue anti-corruption drive. 

Public protests erupted in August after a string of congressmen were re-elected despite proven corruption charges against them. Students and other Paraguayans rapidly organized over social media and took to the streets, gathering in plazas—mainly in the capital, Asuncion—and mounting weeks-long, noisy, colorful sit-ins that covered the outside of politicians’ houses in streamers and toilet paper. Some tainted politicians were jeered out of restaurants and publicly barred from shopping malls. 

The demonstrations have had an impact. One member of the Colorado Party in the lower Chamber of Deputies, Jose Maria Ibanez, resigned in early August, days after allied lawmakers blocked his removal despite him having admitted to corruption in his previous term. A senator from another party, the National Union of Ethical Citizens, stepped down a month later over previously revealed wiretaps that indicated he had used his position as head of an anti-corruption body to enrich himself. Weeks after that, Oscar Gonzalez Daher, a Colorado Party senator, resigned over similar charges and was then arrested on charges of illicit enrichment, money-laundering and evading taxes on 65 of his 150-plus properties. 

With mounting public pressure, Abdo Benitez has appeared to direct prosecutors not to spare his political allies. In mid-September, one of his Colorado Party partners, Ulises Quintana, the Chamber of Deputies’ representative on an agency tackling corruption within the judiciary, the JEM, was detained for allegedly protecting a notorious narcotrafficker, Javier Cabana. Cabana was arrested the next day during a huge police operation along with 30 other criminals and implicated officials, including a local police chief and several public prosecutors. Quintana’s replacement on the JEM, Manuel Trinidad, then stepped down after just five days on job, facing similar charges of aiding narcotraffickers. All this came after the former attorney general and his wife surrendered to police on money-laundering charges in late August. 

Fresh protests broke out last month in the eastern border city of Ciudad del Este against a powerful Colorado Party clan, the Zacarias Irun family, which has simultaneously occupied Senate seats, the regional governorship and the city mayor’s office. As the local council voted for national authorities to intervene, prosecutors began raiding alleged front companies, shopping centers, real estate firms and local government offices all linked to the family, which has been accused of tax evasion and embezzling public money over the years, alongside unproven allegations of links to cartels and criminal groups. 

The rolling demonstrations have created momentum, but the “real test,” according to Andrew Nickson, an expert on Paraguay at the University of Birmingham, will be if these probes go beyond tax evasion and graft and investigate more deeply rooted and institutional corruption, especially within the Colorado Party, which has only been out of power for four years in the past seven decades. That includes alleged ties between the Zacarias Irun family and narcotraffickers and money laundering. 

There are reasons to be optimistic. While 12 congressmen were charged with corruption during the previous administration of Horacio Cartes—though none were later sentenced—10 are already being investigated for graft barely three months into Abdo Benitez’s term. Six of the them are members of the Colorado Party and four of the PLRA, the largest opposition party, and this time convictions seem likely to follow. A crop of highly regarded officials have been appointed to key posts, including the attorney general and the heads of the agency tackling money laundering and another anti-corruption task force, as well as two Supreme Court justices. Abdo Benitez has cleared out the upper ranks of the anti-narcotics agency, known as Senad, replacing a former boss allegedly too close to Cartes, who himself has been linked to drug-trafficking, cigarette-smuggling and money-laundering operations. And, at the nod of Abdo Benitez, his Colorado Party faction blocked Cartes from taking up a Senate seat in contravention of Paraguay’s Constitution, which would have preserved his immunity from prosecution and much of his political influence. 

So far, Abdo Benitez is staring down his wealthy and still-powerful predecessor. But if he blinks, it could sink these anti-corruption efforts, says David Riveros Garcia, president of the pro-transparency NGO reAccion Paraguay. “The outcome will be shaped more by the political infighting within the Colorado Party than by the citizens’ demonstrations.” Unless convictions and visible change happen quickly, Garcia adds, protests could run out of steam and fall victim to division as in previous, smaller iterations in 2013 and 2014. 
The potential political costs may deter Abdo Benitez from taking decisive action. Most ministries and local bureaucracies lack the capacity to actually fight corruption on the ground. Although the Cartes government enacted a raft of mid-level transparency measures in 2014, “few people will know they exist” outside Asuncion, Garcia says. 
Still, the current anti-corruption protests have been striking in their “continuity and persistence,” says Magdalena Lopez, a political scientist at the University of Buenos Aires and coordinator of the Social Studies Group on Paraguay. And they have shown so far that public mobilization can yield some positive results. 

But, she warns, it is too early to judge whether Abdo Benitez’s “timid” moves against corruption are genuine, as he is likely to prioritize those probes that damage his political rivals. And “far-reaching corruption in the private sector,” including embezzlement and the misappropriation of public land, “isn’t being touched,” Lopez says. “This is left to one side as if it isn’t, in fact, a structural element of the political corruption problem.” There are lingering questions, too, over Abdo Benitez’s own private fortune, including the state contracts awarded to his construction firms after he won the Colorado Party primary in December 2017. 

While a few prominent figures have been sacked, the government has yet to do anything to limit all the money flowing behind political campaigns, investigate notoriously crooked private-sector regulators, or put an end to a cozy relationship between the executive and the judiciary, which tends to hand out laughable fines to politicians compromised by corruption or other misdeeds. Judging by recent protests, it seems that, contrary to Stroessner’s dictum, Paraguay’s political class can expect little peace if it fails to act against corruption. 

***Laurence Blair is a freelance journalist based between London and Latin America. He is currently writing a book on South American history for Bodley Head/Penguin Random House, to be published in 2020. Follow him on Twitter at @LABlair1492.

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