PEDRO JUAN CABALLERO, Paraguay (Reuters) - Luis Alves da Cruz awoke around 3 a.m. to a commotion in the Paraguayan prison he called home.
A small-time Brazilian drug smuggler, da Cruz saw fellow inmates dressed head-to-toe in black. “We’re breaking out,” one of them told him. “Are you coming?”
Within minutes, da Cruz was among 75 prisoners who fled the facility in the early hours of Jan. 19 in one of the most audacious jailbreaks in Paraguay’s history.
The fugitives were members of the First Capital Command, Brazil’s largest and most powerful gang, known by its Portuguese acronym PCC. The escape underscores the organization’s growing influence in Paraguay, whose weak institutions have proven no match for the PCC and other fast-growing Brazilian criminal syndicates that have set up shop here.
Authorities at the prison in the city of Pedro Juan Caballero near the Paraguay-Brazil border knew what the PCC was planning, according to Paraguay’s Justice Minister Cecilia Pérez. Some were complicit, she said, while others looked the other way out of fear of retribution. Thirty-two prison officials, including the jail’s warden, are now under arrest.
“We’re facing a security crisis whose epicenter lies in the prison system,” Pérez told Reuters.
The Pedro Juan Caballero Regional Penitentiary did not respond to a request for comment.
Forty of the escapees, including da Cruz, were Brazilians. So far, only 11 prisoners have been recaptured. Da Cruz, was nabbed within days near the Brazilian town of Dourados. Reuters obtained exclusive access to the testimony he gave to Brazilian police.
Da Cruz, 30, told them that guards at the Paraguayan lockup had helped facilitate the escape. He said he was among those who fled through a fan-ventilated tunnel that prisoners had dug with trowels and illuminated with light bulbs tacked to the earthen walls with forks. The tight, muddy passage started in a cell occupied by PCC members and exited just beyond the jail’s exterior wall.
Senior prisoners didn’t bother getting dirty, da Cruz said in his testimony; they simply walked out the front door. Other recaptured prisoners gave similar accounts, Paraguayan police say.
“This (jailbreak) demonstrates that the PCC does what it wants, when it wants,” said Juan Martens, an academic and security analyst based in the capital Asunción who has studied the PCC’s role in Paraguay. “The Paraguayan state represents no obstacle to its plans.”
Sandwiched between Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia, Paraguay is one of the world’s top marijuana producers and a key trans-shipment point for Andean cocaine. Paraguay is poor, with a GDP per capita in line with that of Namibia. It is also riddled with graft, trailing Venezuela as the second-most-corrupt country in South America, according to Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index.
As a result, it has become an attractive operational base for Brazilian gangs, including the Sao Paulo-based PCC, Rio de Janeiro’s Red Command and a Porto Alegre syndicate with the pugnacious moniker Bullet In The Face.
Authorities say Brazilian gangsters operate with near-impunity here, both inside and outside prison. The PCC, for example, actively “baptizes” non-affiliated prisoners into its ranks, according to Gilberto Fleitas, the head of criminal investigations at Paraguay’s National Police.
He estimated there are currently 500 PCC members in Paraguay’s prisons, a figure that has doubled since last year thanks to the gang’s aggressive recruiting. Fleitas’ colleague, Ruben Paredes, believes that number to be even higher, and that around 10% of Paraguay’s 16,000 prisoners belong to Brazilian gangs. Many more operate beyond the jailhouse walls, Paredes said, buying off lawmakers and corrupt police.
“At least in prison they’re contained,” said Paredes, investigations chief of the National Police in the densely populated region that includes Asunción. “Outside, they do as they please.”
Dubbed the “city of blood,” Pedro Juan Caballero has proven a particularly alluring outpost for Brazil’s drug gangs, authorities said. The city blends almost imperceptibly into the adjacent Brazilian municipality of Ponta Porã. Reuters saw no police checkpoints or barriers separating the two towns. People from both sides of the border cross with ease.
Small planes carrying Bolivian cocaine frequently touch down on remote landing strips outside Pedro Juan Caballero, Brazilian and Paraguayan authorities told Reuters. From there, they said, the drugs move through southern Brazil and on to Europe, where demand is booming.
The fallout can be seen in the rising body count in Pedro Juan Caballero as gangs battle to control trafficking routes, authorities said. Mayor Jose Carlos Acevedo said there were more than 150 homicides last year in the city of 120,000 people. He said residents live in fear of the gangs, who have made a mockery of the security apparatus.
“The police are completely corrupt,” Acevedo said.
In a Jan. 30 editorial, Paraguay’s most influential newspaper, ABC Color, bemoaned the atmosphere, alleging it is the “golden dream” of many cops to be transferred to Pedro Juan Caballero because of the “illicit extra money” they can earn aiding and abetting drug traffickers.
The city’s police force, which does not report to Acevedo, did not respond to requests for comment.
The criminal trajectory of da Cruz, the recaptured escapee, highlights Paraguay’s challenge.
Born in an isolated village in northeastern Maranhão, Brazil’s poorest state, da Cruz told police he moved to the western state of Mato Grosso when he was 10 years old.
In 2012, he went to jail for selling drugs, but was freed under a day-release programme in 2015. He didn’t hang around. Da Cruz said in his testimony that he fled across the border to Pedro Juan Caballero, where he was arrested on drug trafficking charges in 2016 and sent to the city’s prison.
Once inside, he opted for PCC baptism and began handling administrative chores for the gang, he said in his testimony.
Da Cruz was a low-ranking prisoner, according to a Brazilian cop who requested anonymity.
But prison brought him into contact with heavy hitters. More than a dozen of the PCC’s top regional assassins lived in the cellblock alongside da Cruz, according to Fleitas, the criminal investigations chief.
They, too, were among the escapees. But unlike da Cruz, who will likely spend the rest of his sentence in a Brazilian jail, they remain on the lam, police said.
The first intelligence reports about a possible prison break in Pedro Juan Caballero surfaced in mid-December.
Joaquín González Balsa, Paraguay’s national prison director, in a Dec. 16 letter warned organized-crime investigators in Asunción that his agency had picked up chatter about a planned “rescue of inmates from criminal groups” at the lockup, according to a copy of that letter seen by Reuters. González Balsa was replaced after the escape.
Pérez, the justice minister, said the prison’s warden had come forward with similar information, leading them to believe him trustworthy. She said a subsequent sweep of the facility by prison guards and police officers in December turned up no signs of a tunnel.
“One of the prisoners who was recaptured said they dug the tunnel after the search,” she said. “The company that monitors the security cameras didn’t alert us to anything, because they say they didn’t see anything.”
Gustavo Sánchez, a representative of that security company, Asunción-based SIT, told Reuters it gave the Justice Ministry information relating to the night of the jailbreak. He declined to elaborate.
Pérez said Paraguay would step up cooperation with Brazil’s right-wing government, which is trying to hobble the gangs by hitting their finances and sending bosses to high-security federal prisons.
Fleitas, the Paraguayan criminal investigations chief, is dubious about the chances of success.
“There’s no way that anyone ... can stand up to this,” he said. The gangs “identify your family, they coerce your relatives, judges, prosecutors, police.”
Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Marla Dickerson