A heist at a bank in Paraguay’s “wild west’ exposes the dark underneath of free trade
It was as outrageous as it was stunning. On the 24th of April, 2017, a gang of bank robbers attacked the private security firm situated in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, and escaped with US$11 million dollars..
Some dozen operatives, who police suspect were part of the Brazilian organized crime syndicate First Capital Command destroyed the secure offices of Prosegur, the company that is that is known for its armoured vehicles, before fleeing across the border into neighboring Brazil.
The incident was the subject of headlines not just for the modest amount taken but because of its stunning Hollywood fashion. According to local newspapers, the group was equipped with heavy weapons as well as explosives. In addition, 15 vehicles were burned to the ground. The robbers fled through a speedboat and then crossed Lake Itaipu to get to Brazil. Authorities confiscated a private escape plane.
The dramatic setting is in line with the stereotypes of Ciudad del Este, a Paraguayan commercial center in the notorious Triple Frontera area, where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet. It is among the most vibrant borders in the world. In addition, Ciudad del Este is often described as a lawless capital.
During the 90s, Ciudad del Este allegedly transported US$10 billion a year in goods – more than the totality of Paraguay’s gross domestic production.
The city was even featured in the blockbuster movie of 2006, Miami Vice as the setting for scenes in which documents that were smuggled are found in the possession of a group of criminals.
Black Friday is, unsurprisingly, a big day in Ciudad del Este. Jorge Adorno/Reuters
What is required to create free trade?
Paraguay’s Wild West (or better than that, East), though it may be well-earned, is not complete. Ciudad del Este is, above all, a laboratory for global free trade. According to Anthropologist Carolyn Nordstrom, ” a veritable smorgasbord of goods travel these (global) circuits.”
I was able to spend 2 years (2009-2010) spent in the Ciudad del Este’s informal economy, carrying out an anthropological study about commerce and credit. My research reveals that it is far from being unreachable. the Paraguayan free-trade zone has been built upon a sophisticated legal and commercial infrastructure which has made a tiny number of business and political elites very, very wealthy.
Ciudad del Este has prospered due to its distinctive legally and economically privileged status of a zone of duty-free ( zona franca). Every kind of product for the consumer, including digital cameras, shoes, to pharmaceuticals, can be brought in legally and illegally and then sold tax-free in the area.
Before the city’s establishment in 1957, commerce was flowing through Paraguay’s porous terrain and the border of water to Argentina as well as Brazil. In 1970, the “special customs zone” legislation only gave this free-wheeling frontier capitalism a legal legally binding stamp.
In the present, a number of Paraguayans are employed in affluent export companies that import and have cavernous warehouses that are duty-free. A lot of them are small-time smugglers who engage as “ant contraband” ( contrabando de Hormigas) such as biking, walking, trucking or floating products across the border to Brazil.
Tourists who shop (known in the local language by the name of sacoleiros or “bag carriers” for their huge bags of merchandise) originate mostly from Brazil as well as Argentina. Many international travelers visit to buy cheap phones or perfumes from the world when they see the stunning Iguazu Falls.
Inside the bustling malls for duty-free shopping in Ciudad del Este, which are advertised on billboards along the roads on three sides, appear similar to the ones found in international airports.
A brief overview of the history
Ciudad del Este was the creation of President Alfredo Stroessner, the progressive dictator who led Paraguay from 1954 until 1989. After many years of border disputes between neighboring nations, Stroessner wanted to secure his country’s claims to its eastern frontier.
In 1957, he founded the city of Puerto Presidente Stroessner (then known as Puerto Presidente Stroessner), constructed a highway from the capital city of Asuncion, and built the Friendship Bridge that now connects Paraguay and Brazil.