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The Southern Route: How the Largest Brazilian Crime Syndicate Usurped Latin American Cocaine Routes

By Bernardo Kaiser, South America Research Analyst, with expert insight from InSight Crime specialist Vinicius Madureira

(Source: Wikimedia Commons) Port of Antwerp. The Belgian city is the largest entry port of cocaine in Europe.

On June 15 2016, Jorge Rafaat Toumani left his tire store in the Paraguayan border town of Pedro Juan Caballero, got into a black armoured Hummer and drove home. A caravan of a dozen security guards followed him. Toumani never reached his destination– he was ambushed by a small army of heavily armed men and murdered after an intense gunfight. Only one of his killers was arrested — a Brazilian mercenary — while the rest drifted away to the other side of the porous Paraguay-Brazil border.

The Brazilian Connection

Toumani was not an innocent entrepreneur, caught in the crossfire of South American violence. Nicknamed “King of The Border”, before being murdered he was considered one of the most powerful drug dealers in Paraguay. The operation to neutralise him mobilised a hundred gang members, 40 vehicles and cost over USD 1 million, with an army-grade anti-aircraft machine gun used to perforate the armour of his vehicle. There is strong evidence that the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) — Brazil’s largest criminal syndicate — was heavily involved, if not fully responsible for the murder.

With the border free of its largest ‘‘homegrown’’ drug dealer, the path was clear for the PCC to project its power into Paraguay. Established in 1993 at a maximum-security prison in Taubaté, São Paulo, the PCC emerged as a platform that inmates used to demonstrate against constant institutional abuse. Operating under organised, business-like administrative methods — such as bookkeeping and demanding a rigorous code of conduct from its members — the PCC quickly took control of most Brazilian prisons and became the largest criminal organisation in the country, with over 27.000 associates in every state besides their operational center in São Paulo.

The role of the carceral system in facilitating the gang’s growth should not be ignored. According to Brazil’s National War College researcher and InSight Crime consultant Vinicius Madureira in an exclusive interview for CYIS, “the transference of PCC members to prisons near the Paraguayan border and in Paraguay itself helped to kick start this process of expansion into the bordering state”.

An important question here is why would the most powerful criminal syndicate in Brazil invest so much money and human resources towards expanding into a much poorer, less populous neighbouring country. For starters, Paraguay is the largest cannabis producer in the world, with an estimated annual crop production of 16.500 tonnes. The largest share of this production is exported to Brazil, with over 80% of all cannabis consumed in the country being of Paraguayan origin. The financial advantages the PCC reaps in controlling all the drug production and distribution chains are obvious, with a harvest retail value reaching 2.268 million USD when placed in the São Paulo market. More importantly, however, the expansion into Paraguay represents an opportunity of seizing an even richer cash cow: control of the cocaine routes to Europe.

International Connections

Due to its geographical location right in the middle of the Southern Cone, Paraguay represents an excellent transportation hub for the cocaine produced in South America. The drug leaves its manufacturing centres — Colombia, Bolivia and Peru —, and crosses porous and poorly guarded borders to reach Paraguayan territory. From there, criminal organisations use small planes to move the product through the Brazilian Midwest towards the regional capitals for local consumption or export to Europe and beyond. This is the so-called “Rota Caipira” — the “Hick route” — nicknamed after the popular slur used against individuals that live in the Brazilian hinterlands.

The financial opportunities available to whoever controls this route are enormous. The past few years represented an apex for cocaine manufacturing, with production reaching record highs in 2019. This growth in production also represented a chance of exporting larger volumes of the drug to Europe, where cocaine seizures doubled between 2015 to 2019. The PCC has been vital to this growth, aggressively transforming Brazil into the second largest cocaine exporter to Europe. In the port of Antwerp, the largest port of arrival for drugs in the continent, over 25% of all cocaine comes from Brazil — a larger share than the one represented by more traditional exporters such as Colombia or Peru —, and EU authorities calculate that 40% of all cocaine seized passed through Paraguay before arriving at European harbours. Evidently, such a lucrative and thriving business attracts potential international partners. Notwithstanding the usual suspects –such as the Mexican and Colombian cartels–, international criminal organisations have recognised the financial opportunities made available by the growth in importance of the Paraguayan routes, mobilising to establish branches in the region. There is reason to believe that the ‘Ndrangheta, an Italian mafia based in Calabria that controls up to 80% of the cocaine traffic to Europe, has established a close relationship with the PCC, due to the recent arrests of 2 of its lieutenants in Brazil. Similarly, Hezbollah — a Lebanese paramilitary group classified as a terrorist organisation by several European countries — has been accused of entering a mutually beneficial relationship with the PCC, working with the gang by smuggling weapons and laundering money through its cells in the tri-border region between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

The involvement of transnational criminal syndicates with drug smuggling between Brazil and Paraguay foregrounds that this is not a solely Latin American issue, but one which affects the world at large, as these organisations cooperate to flood continents with high-purity cocaine and use their revenues to bankroll other illegal activities. The brunt of the human cost, however, is endured by the local population.

(Source: Porto Murtinho Notícias) The destroyed car of Jorge Rafaat Toumani, aka “the King of the Border”. His murder represented a breakthrough for the PCC expansion project into Brazil-Paraguay border).

The Consequences

Despite the PCC’s exponential growth into Paraguay, it still lacks complete control of the drug routes. As explained by Madureira in an interview with CYIS, the organisation still faces opposition from local gangs, such as those of the Jarvis Pavao crew, and other Brazilian syndicates such as the Rio de Janeiro-based Comando Vermelho (CV).

This ongoing conflict makes the region extremely volatile. Studies show that towns in the Brazilian border with Paraguay have a higher homicide rate than average. In Paraguay, this disparity is even stronger: border provinces, such as Amambay, have a homicide rate up to 30 times higher than other more peaceful provinces like the Central District, where the capital Asunción is located. Cities such as Coronel Sapucaia and Capitán Bado have been infamously denoted as some of the most violent cities in their respective countries, both with an homicide rate of over 100 deaths per 100.000 inhabitants. These numbers are directly related to the intensification of the conflict for the control of drug routes, with young men representing the largest share of those being killed.

Another insidious consequence is the degradation of democratic rule of law in the region, which risks becoming controlled by criminal interests. One notable example would be the recent arrest of Vilmar Acosta, the previous mayor of Ype-Jhu, charged for the murder of a local reporter that accused him of links with international drug trafficking. There are similar indications that criminal organisations have infiltrated the upper echelons of Paraguayan politics. According to InSight Crime investigator Juan Martens, the South American nation is on the path to becoming a de-facto “Narco-state”, with the case of national representative Ulisses Quintana — charged for having close ties with international drug trafficking — being a notable example of this process of feeble state capacity and erosion of democratic norms.

Even though Latin Americans remain the most vulnerable to the explosive growth of the cocaine industry, its consequences spill over borders with ease. Cocaine use has increased in Africa, Western Europe and South America, it’s prevalence nearly doubling in markets such as Argentina and England in the last 10 years. This was followed by an increase in the number of individuals entering treatment for cocaine use disorders in Europe — a record 75.000 in 2018 — and by a growth of cocaine-related deaths.

The Solutions

Stopping the expansion of organised crime is one of the toughest issues to solve in Latin America. A task of Sisyphean proportions, successful policies must face the entrenched corruption and partisan politics that permeate the discourse of law enforcement in the continent. This does not mean that there are no measures already being tentatively implemented. Prison reform, for example, is central to having any chance of stopping the expansion of the PCC, as well as other criminal organisations. Measures established in jails run by the federal government, such as ending overcrowding and inspecting all objects entering the prison, have largely been successful in isolating gang leaders, giving them little to no opportunities of laying down orders or commanding the gang’s criminal structure. A similar reform in state-level jails is needed, requiring a coordinated effort from both the Federal powers, the Legislative and local State authorities in order to not only expand and reform prison facilities but also reevaluate the current massive incarceration model for small drug related charges.

Integrated actions from well-trained and well-funded police departments will also prove vital to spoil the ambitions of organised crime. A recent example was the cooperation between the Brazilian Federal Police (PF) and the US DEA in arresting “Fuminho”, one of the heads of the PCC in Mozambique, disrupting the gang’s operations in East Africa. Another positive action was the establishment, in 2019, of an Integrated Border Operational Centre in the tri-border region, uniting several Brazilian State organs – including the Federal Police, the Military and the Special Department of Federal Revenue – in coordination to contain and suppress trans-national crime.

On the other side of the Atlantic, European authorities also have a role in containing the receiving side of the drug flow. In 2017, only 1% of all containers arriving in Antwerp were inspected — while reaching a 100% inspection rate might be logistically impossible, better and more precise intelligence is needed to properly assess what vessels and containers must be more thoroughly checked. In the same vein, the EU must enhance its international cooperation and information sharing systems with third parties –as already recognised in the 2021-2025 Drugs Strategy– in order to disrupt international routes before they reach European harbours.

According to Madureira, however, one must also “follow the money”: coordinated operations and the establishment of task forces to find the sources of criminal financing and money laundering are imperative in suffocating the revenues of criminal organisations. Unfortunately, many of these investigations end up stone-walled by political interests, not only domestic but international. Nevertheless, international exchange of intelligence, risk-analysis and capacitation may help. Even if these solutions seem far-fetched, the alternative is worse: complete surrendering to criminal interests.



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