In 2020, Paraguayan politician Cynthia Tarrago and her husband, Raimundo Va, were arraigned in an American court charged with money laundering and drug trafficking. The two pleaded guilty to money laundering charges after being caught up in a sting operation by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.
FBI agents impersonating drug traffickers provided the money that Tarrago laundered. Before her conviction, Tarrago, a former TV personality, had been a rising star of the right-wing Colorado Party that has ruled Paraguay for all but five of the past 75 years.
Tarrago spoke openly of her ambition to be the nation’s first female president and had just announced her candidacy for mayor of Asunción, the capital, when she was arrested on US soil in late 2019.
She had begun appearing at important church events in Paraguay by 2016. The following year, she spoke at a global summit in Seoul, according to church promotional materials. In November 2018, she flew into New York City with her husband, Va, for another such event at the Unification Church-owned New Yorker hotel.
Cynthia Tarrago was arrested after she tweeted from a Unification Church conference in 2018 at the church-owned New Yorker hotel in New York City. It was there that she met with an undercover FBI agent and agreed to launder money, leading to her 2020 conviction.
During their stay, the couple met an undercover FBI agent, who asked them to launder drug money. They said they were game. They also told the agent “how inexpensive cocaine and marijuana are in Paraguay,” and said they “had a network that could import drugs into the United States,” according to the criminal complaint from the US Attorney in New Jersey.
By the time they were arrested on another US trip a year later, the couple had laundered $800,000 of FBI cash with the help of a Paraguayan accomplice, Rodrigo Alvarenga Paredes, who processed the funds through his money-transfer business.
Tarrago and Va were sentenced last year to 33 months in a US prison. Tarrago, who had been imprisoned since her November 2019 arrest, was credited for the time served and released in April 2022. Tarrago and Va could not be reached for comment.
Church lawyer Byun said Tarrago’s role as the IAPP’s South American president was only an “honorary position.” The church stripped her title after the arrest, according to Byun and church documents.
Last November, Alvarenga, Tarrago’s accomplice, was sentenced to two years of US probation for running an unlicensed money transmitting business. Months later, on March 29, he was arrested in Asunción, accused by Brazilian law enforcement of leading an outfit that shipped at least 17 tonnes of cocaine to Europe over two years. He is in jail awaiting extradition to Brazil.
Byun said Alvarenga has no links to the church. However, Paraguayan investigators believe Alvarenga has ties to Servín, the alleged trafficker suspected of using the runways on church land that were raided in July 2022, a SENAD official said.
“Alvarenga was a key player in the laundering of cash, and that was the link with Servín,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the active probe.
Alvarenga’s lawyer is Rodrigo Álvarez, who also represents Servín. Álvarez denied any nefarious links between his two clients but said they know each other because they are both from Pedro Juan Caballero, a violent, cartel-ridden city on the border with Brazil.
Alvarenga is fighting extradition to Brazil, his lawyer said.
A series of bumper Andean coca harvests have changed the nature of Latin American organised crime, exporting violence into once-peaceful nations such as Chile and Ecuador.
Paraguay, a country with a long history of graft, money laundering and contraband smuggling, was until recent years largely unaccustomed to drug violence. But it has seen major incursions from foreign drug cartels including Brazil’s First Capital Command (PCC), South America’s most powerful criminal syndicate. In 2020, 75 PCC members broke out of a Pedro Juan Caballero prison – despite authorities being aware of the planned escape.
High-profile murders have chilled the country. In May last year, assassins on a jet-ski murdered Marcelo Pecci, an influential Paraguayan anti-narcotics prosecutor, as he honeymooned on a Colombian beach. A week later, gunmen killed José Carlos Acevedo, the mayor of Pedro Juan Caballero.
“There’s lots of corruption here,” Acevedo told Reuters in a 2020 interview in his city hall office, just yards from where he was later shot dead. “The police are totally rotten.”
Drug money has also corrupted many of Paraguay’s politicians. In the days after the murders of Pecci and Acevedo, the nation’s President Mario Abdo Benítez, said cartels had co-opted Paraguay’s governing elite, including many within his own political circle, leading to a “complicit silence.”
“Organised crime is so permeated into our society that there’s no way we can guarantee there won’t be violence,” he said.
Abdo’s representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
The vast, isolated Chaco, sandwiched between Bolivia and Brazil, has been critical to Paraguay’s growing role in the global cocaine trade. Narco planes land there so often that locals joke about a night sky lit up like a Christmas tree.
Europe’s record cocaine seizure, more than 23 tonnes discovered in 2021, was traced back to a private river port near Asunción.
Much of the cocaine passing through Paraguay is bound for Europe, which US, European and Latin American anti-narcotics officials say has now overtaken the United States to become the world’s top market for the white powder.
Cocaine seizures in western and central Europe reached a record 315 tonnes in 2021, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2023 World Drug Report, compared with over 250 tonnes in the United States. Europe’s record cocaine seizure, more than 23 tonnes discovered in 2021, was traced back to a private river port near Asunción.
James Laverty, who until last year was the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s assistant regional director for southern South America, told Reuters the “lawless” Chaco is now one of “the world’s most important staging grounds” for cocaine.
“It definitely plays a global role,” he said.
- A Reuters report