PEDRO JUAN CABALLERO, Paraguay – PEDRO JUAN CABALLERO, Paraguay (AP) — Paraguay today is what Colombia was a few decades ago: a country with vast stretches of territory beyond the reach of police, where a band of leftist guerrillas now has access to drug-trafficking cash to fund its war on wealthy landowners.
President Fernando Lugo has a tiny national budget and little help from the vested interests that have ruled Paraguay for decades as he tries to fight the flow of drugs through his country — as much as 40 tons a year of Andean cocaine and 15 percent of the world's marijuana, according to U.S. and U.N. drug control reports.
The former Roman Catholic bishop, who ran as a political outsider defending the poor, also must confront the Paraguayan People's Army, an increasingly violent band of guerrillas who, like Colombia's leftist rebels, can now use drug trafficking to finance their war.
So Lugo is turning to the president of Brazil, an economic powerhouse whose citizens have become major drug consumers, and whose organized crime gangs use increasingly violent tactics to control the transport of drugs along 500 miles (800 kilometers) of Brazil-Paraguay border that has no natural boundaries — let alone regular police presence.
Lugo and Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula Da Silva met Monday under a heavy police presence in a rough outpost called Pedro Juan Caballero on the Paraguayan side and Ponta Pora in Brazil.
Police say fugitives, guerrillas, money launderers, drug traffickers and traders in contraband of all sorts come there to settle accounts. It's a place so dangerous, Silva said Monday, that he was told he was crazy to meet Lugo there.
"But I think we need to show ourselves here, because honest people outnumber the drug traffickers," he said.
Silva hugged Sen. Roberto Acevedo, who said last week that the border now resembles parts of the drug-plagued U.S.-Mexico frontier after he narrowly survived an assassination attempt. Acevedo was shot in the arm and face in an attack that crossed a new line — the first hit believed ordered by Brazilian gangs against a Paraguayan politician, who publicly criticized them.
"It seems to me to be an insanity that someone would think violence can be used, like it was used in Paraguay, to provoke fear in the Brazilian state or the Paraguayan state," Silva said earlier, in reference to the attack.
The leaders shared no details about a security strategy that both governments said was on the agenda. Lugo responded to just one question — why his government can't catch the traffickers.
"The criminals don't show their faces," he said, adding that investigations are continuing.
Much of the cocaine sniffed in Europe and marijuana smoked in South America flows through Paraguay, whose subtropical forests conceal trafficking camps and towering marijuana plants — grown by poor and marginalized Guarani Indians forced off their ancestral lands by wealthy farmers and ranchers.
Paraguay produces 5,900 tons of marijuana a year, according to the U.N. Office of Drug Control — in part because there are few economically viable alternatives for the growers, who make five times more money with cannabis than with any other crop.
The local trade had been relatively quiet, authorities say, until the Brazilians moved in several years ago, bringing the raw violence of their urban slums.
Paraguayans now worry that the traffickers are combining forces with the Paraguayan People's Army, who share the same territory and many of the same supporters — including some marijuana farmers.
The body count is clearly rising. An average of eight unidentified corpses now turn up each month in and around the border town, victims of turf battles by rival drug gangs, police say.
Congressman Elvis Balbuena believes Paraguay is headed toward the violence of Colombia, where guerrilla groups began as simple gangs of delinquents, adopted a fight for social justice and became much more powerful and violent with money from drug trafficking.
"I am sure that the Paraguayan People's Army is not fighting for social justice, but is actually a criminal band acting as an armed force for the major drug traffickers operating in the north," Balbuena said in an Associated Press interview.
Brazil's former drug czar told the AP that the real problem is the lack of government controls in Paraguay, where traffickers also benefit from a thriving black market in everything from cigarettes to electronics. Money laundering and other financial crimes are rarely prosecuted.
"To survive, organized crime needs a support center, which is normally in a city or town that has banks and other facilities like transportation. To combat drug trafficking you have to hit the traffickers pockets," said Walter Maierovitch, a former judge who once led Brazil's anti-drug programs.
Lugo's ministers are frustrated by the Paraguayan Senate's vote last week to delay until 2013 a personal income tax that would generate nearly $37 million a year that Lugo desperately needs to fund troops and provisions of martial law he has declared across five states in pursuit of the guerrillas. It also would finally begin to show how fortunes are being made among Paraguay's tiny elite, which Lugo's ministers suspect includes people who have a hand in the drug trade.
Balbuena — who thinks legalizing marijuana would help solve the problem — also wants to see top crime figures arrested. As it is, he says, soldiers mainly arrest the poor.
"The rural poor are used by international drug trafficking gangs to grow cannabis. They do it because they're so poor that they are unable to survive decently growing other crops," he said. "So the law persecutes and punishes the rural poor, but the 'big fish' are never captured."
Lehman reported from Sao Paulo, Brazil; Associated Press Writer Michael Warren in Buenos Aires, Argentina also contributed to this report.