Paraguay’s “Boss,” Horacio Cartes, Stirs Up a Dictator’s Ghost

More than three decades since dictator Alfredo Stroessner was forced from office, his Partido Colorado still runs Paraguay. Its leader Horacio Cartes fuses mafia and political power — and is stepping up his authoritarian control.

Former president of Paraguay Horacio Cartes in 2014. (Luis Astudillo C. / Cancillería del Ecuador via Wikimedia Commons)

In Ciudad del Este, the sunbaked Paraguayan border town along the “Triple Frontera” with Argentina and Brazil, men make a living by stacking cars in an alley. Although the gravel lot is tiny, the men manage to squeeze in car after car, vowing to return the vehicle to the owner at the agreed time. The men take pride in their skills to create space for cars out of thin air. “Parking magic,” says the man who holds the chain with many keys, while sipping tereré (a cold infusion of yerba mate and medicinal herbs) from a gourd prepared from a cow’s hoof.

Making money out of nothing and anything is every frontier town’s blessing and curse. Ciudad del Este is Paraguay’s second-biggest city (population three hundred thousand), after the capital Asunción; it is mostly known as a gateway for tourists who make the pilgrimage to the Iguazú Falls and purchase cheap Gucci knockoffs and tax-free electronic goods from street vendors. It is also a notorious trafficking port where weapons, drugs, cheap goods, and humans cross the border into Argentina and Brazil, fueling organized crime in cities like Rosario and Rio de Janeiro.

Ciudad del Este sprang out of a fishing village in the mid-1950s to become the landlocked nation’s “port to the Atlantic Ocean.” But at first, it had a different name: Puerto Presidente Stroessner, in homage to the dictator who first brought it into being. 2024 marks seventy years since the patriarch’s climb into power, after a military coup that overthrew previous president Federico Chaves.

Ever since a civil war in 1947, US interests had zoomed in on Paraguay’s far-right oligarchy as a likely ally. Despite being a pro-Nazi and outspoken fascist, dictator Higinio Morínigo got the White House’s nod. Washington also wholeheartedly supported Alfredo Stroessner’s presidency, based on the August 1954 election — where Stroessner was the sole contestant and won 100 percent of the votes.

Stroessner’s power grab marked the preface to a terror regime that lasted until 1989. The right-wing Colorado Party was the only permitted political force, and aside from crimes against humanity, a wealthy oligarchy imposed its control on public lands and natural resources. Some of the scars never fully healed — and some of the atrocities can never be forgiven. Ninety-three-year-old Constantino Coronel knows that all too well when he raises his glass to toast life. “Stroessner turned the country into one giant prison,” he tells me. More than three decades after the fall of the dictatorship, this may not just be a bad memory.

“Ill-Gotten Lands”

Coronel is overlooking the family lot outside of Santa Rosa, in southern Paraguay, not far from the Paraná River that marks the floating border to Argentina. During the Stroessner dictatorship, journalists, labor activists, opposition politicians, and indigenous leaders were silenced, suppressed, or thrown into the nationwide web of torture chambers as part of “Operation Condor” — a state-run “anti-Communist program” funded and steered by the United States in tandem with South American dictatorships.

Coronel was in his early thirties when Stroessner came to power. He was a family provider and small-scale farmer when he cofounded the nonviolent social movement Ligas Agrarias Cristianas. Land has been the difference between life or death since the “Triple Alliance War” of 1864–70, in which Paraguay was defeated by the joint forces of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. In the aftermath of that war, access to land, waterways, and natural resources was privatized in a desperate attempt to reduce the devastating costs of the defeat. Land remained hard currency during the rule of Stroessner, who initiated large-scale “land colonialism” of “tierras malhabidas” (“ill-gotten lands”) in eastern Paraguay.

Coronel and other landless peasants were trapped in a system of state-sponsored land takeovers and monocrop production that was protected by a brutal dictatorship that reaped the rewards of that very system. “Occupation of ‘ill-gotten lands’ for subsistence farming became both a method of political resistance as well as survival,” says Coronel.

Demanding a land reform in Stroessner’s Paraguay came at a cost. Coronel spent five years in an isolation cell, survived numerous torture sessions, and was forced to various spells in exile. Seventy years after Stroessner took power, Coronel can’t think of anything that improved the lives of Paraguay’s small-scale farmers. “We fought for human dignity, and that struggle goes ever on,” he concludes.

Stroessner died in exile in Brazil, in 2006. His legacy became a border-crossing heritage of systematic corruption, organized crime, and genocide of the Aché-Guaraní tribe by displacement and the destruction of virgin forests.

Returning to Normal

In Horacio Cartes, Paraguay has found Stroessner’s heir. Cartes served as president between 2013 and 2018 and sprang out as a populist “nonpolitical” candidate when Paraguay’s first-ever progressive democratic government, led by President Fernando Lugo, was toppled on June 22, 2012.

A week before the parliamentary coup against Lugo, thirty peasant families had been surrounded by police and special military forces at land lot Marina Kue, outside Curuguaty in eastern Paraguay. Seventeen people were killed, among them eleven landless peasants whose only crime was hunger and a legitimate claim to turn an “ill-gotten land” lot into a peasant community.

Lugo, a former bishop, won the presidency on the promise to initiate a nationwide land reform. But when Paraguayan capital was challenged by landless peasants, the oligarchy stroke back — swiftly and brutally. Lugo was ousted and most of the occupation leaders were sentenced to prison in criminal cases that have been roundly condemned by UN legal experts.

Paraguay returned to “normal” after a brief “progressive moment in history,” Julio Benegas, investigative reporter and writer, tells me. “The coup speeded up the monocrop colonization of the country’s ‘ill-gotten lands.’”

His book, which is the best-researched account about the Marina Kue trauma, concludes that the victims (the landless peasants) became criminals, imprisoned by their perpetrators (the police and special forces unit). President Lugo was impeached and ousted in a parliamentary coup — following the same pattern as the coups in Honduras 2009 and Brazil in 2016 — and the Curuguaty massacre remains a taboo in mainstream media.

“Shortly after the 2012 coup, subsequent governments have tripled the external debt, without expanding the base of tribulation toward livestock farmers, soybeans, and banks,” says Benegas. “The country was completely opened for trafficking of drugs and cigarettes. The whole country was drugged.”

The 2013 elections, which brought Cartes to power and Paraguay back to “normal,” meant a sharp turn away from the promises of democracy and respect for human rights guaranteed by the 1992 constitution that followed Stroessner’s ousting. Instead, Stroessner’s authoritarian legacy has made a swift and brutal comeback, led by corruption, nepotism, and organized crime linked directly to Cartes and his allies.

“Cartismo,” as Cartes’ ever-expanding rule is called, “is a continuation of Stroessner’s state-terror regime, called ‘Stronismo,’” says Benegas. “That’s why it’s difficult to discuss the role of Cartes in modern-day Paraguay without contextualizing the legacy of Stroessner.”

Paraguayan Trump

Like Donald Trump, Cartes is a businessman-turned-politician. He entered politics in 2009, during Lugo’s progressive government. Like Trump’s loathing of even Obama-style calls for “change,” Cartes saw a real danger in Lugo’s potential unison with contemporary left-wing governments in Latin America. Along with a broader current of LGBT rights, poverty-reduction schemes, and sincere initiatives to implement a sustainable agricultural system based on legality, Lugo sought a new political climate for his country. From the start, he was deemed a threat against Paraguay’s oligarchy.

Cartes sprang out of the economic and political climate established during Stroessner and based his political capital on his own business empire: Grupo Cartes. Within the conglomerate, Cartes owns vast portions of lands, owned a football team (Libertad) between 2001 and 2012, and controls various media outlets, even aside from exporting meat, tobacco, and soft drinks through supermarket franchises. When Cartes started to climb the Colorado Party ladder, he had already spent two months in prison for currency fraud and had a plane seized by authorities on his private ranch, carrying marijuana and cocaine.

“Cartes is functional to the interests of big capital, as demonstrated by the little impact of the accusations of the US State Department; he is also the political and economic heir of the ‘Stronismo,’” Mercedes Canese Antúnez, former vice secretary of mines and energy during the Lugo administration, tells me. “As he entered the world of illegal businesses, Cartes’s practices became more authoritarian and involved greater concentration of capital and power.”

In post-Stroessner Paraguay, every president is limited to a single five-year term. Cartes tried to force through a second — but failed. But he managed to speed up Paraguay’s neoliberal turn after Lugo’s “soft years.” He still today leads the ruling Colorado Party and — various sources tell me — “owns three-quarters of congress due to bribes, threats, and exchanged favors.”

“Cartes’s position in Paraguayan politics is unparalleled,” underlines Canese Antúnez, also because “it takes place in the name of democracy.” “The concentration of power that Cartes has, the absolute majority in Congress, control of justice and the Prosecutor’s Office, in addition to the executive branch and most of the local and national governments, is unprecedented since Stroessner’s demise.”

Even right-wing intellectuals, faithful to the official narrative of “structure” and “stability” provided to Paraguay by the Colorado Party oligarchy, admit that Cartes has steered the ship out of control. Emanuele Ottolenghi, a political scientist at the neoconservative think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, states that Paraguay’s current president, Santiago Peña, owes his electoral victory in 2023 — and political future — to his “Colorado ally” Cartes.

Cartes “is not just his political mentor,” Ottolenghi concludes in an analysis. “First and foremost, he is, as they say in Spanish, ‘El Patrón’ — ‘The Boss.’”

Paraguayan Capone

Peña’s predecessor, Mario Abdo Benítez — whose father acted as Stroessner’s private secretary, while “Marito” himself was a pallbearer at the dictator’s funeral — has distanced himself from the ever-growing “Cartismo” and its control over Paraguayan politics. In 2022, Benitez equated Cartes to the most notorious organized crime boss: “I compare him to Al Capone.”

While Capone reigned as a crime boss during Prohibition — and was linked to all manner of assassinations, prostitution rings, and labor union racketeering — he was only ever convicted for tax evasion. Unlike Cartes, though, “Al Capone did not become president,” says Canese Antúnez. Unlike Capone, Cartes has reached the heights of political power, avoiding potential legal troubles through his personal control over judicial institutions. Better still, Cartes has remained a champion of US interests in its historical “backyard.”

“These Mafias are not built without the complicity of those who rule in Paraguay,” says Canese Antúnez. “Paraguay has the largest US embassy in South America. Cartes is very useful to US interests and wouldn’t have become what he is today without its support. In the end, though, they will throw him away when he no longer serves them.”

On paper, the US leadership has distanced itself from Cartes. In 2022, the State Department sanctioned several of Cartes’s companies and had him “blacklisted” as “a significantly corrupt” politician. Since then, the “Cartismo” has evolved into a family affair, where children and relatives run “El Patrón’s” business — not unlike the Trump family.

Like Trump, Cartes is linked to various crimes: money laundering, drug trafficking, and association with Brazil’s largest criminal group, Primeiro Comando da Capital. The US State Department also accuses Cartes of ties to “foreign terrorist organizations,” believed to be Hezbollah, through Lebanese trade partners in Ciudad del Este who use it as a fundraising outpost.

In October 2023, Paraguay’s attorney general, Emiliano Rolón, announced an investigation into Cartes’s “possible involvement” in the murder of anti-corruption prosecutor Marcelo Pecci the previous year. Pecci was assassinated next to his pregnant wife on their honeymoon in Colombia. Pecci was a serious threat to Paraguay’s organized crime groups through his border-crossing initiative “Ultranza Py,” an operation that had gained momentum thanks to numerous seizures of contraband shipments tied to crime groups in Brazil, Colombia, and Paraguay.

Pecci’s murder was, stated Colombia’s national police, the result of a “highly planned transnational crime system,” where actors from various countries cooperated to silence the prosecutor — and send a message to heirs with similar ambitions. After Pecci’s death, Ultranza Py has been sabotaged and “important evidence” that links the Cartes-controlled Banco Basa to a massive cocaine seizure has “disappeared” under the watch of the Cartes-controlled congress.

“There’s a reluctant acceptance in Paraguay that nothing will ever happen with any investigation,” says Benegas. “There’re no conditions or tools in place to do anything against Cartes’s political cartel.”

Is Paraguay, under Cartes’s tutelage, a “failed state” in the making? A declining economy and surging extreme poverty jar with the wealth of an oligarchy that wheels the economy and controls the media. “The control of the state is totally in the hands of Cartes,” concludes Benegas.

Killing Critics

At the cramped parking lot in Ciudad del Este, one vehicle is zigzagged out of its position in a faraway corner. The car is returned to its driver, Sandino Flecha, an investigative reporter. Before long, the car drives toward the border of Brazil.

Paraguay has never been a haven for free and independent journalism. Since Stroessner’s demise, Paraguay has seen twenty-one journalists killed due to their reporting — in the border region, ten killings in the past decade. Widespread violence, corruption, and illegal activities in Paraguay’s eastern frontier towns have led to self-censorship and editorial fear of evoking violent responses from organized crime actors with political ties.

“The takeover of the media by Horacio Cartes through his Grupo Nación de Comunicaciones has turned a gigantic holding of newspaper, radio, and TV media into a propaganda tool and the prosecution of opposition voices,” Flecha tells me.

Cartes has harassed reporters and forced government institutions to seek the identities behind sources cited in investigative pieces about his financial duperies. Not merely Cartes-owned media, but also other influential media empires owned by powerful oligarchs, make sure that investigative reporting is repressed for the sake of governmental stability. In this oligarchic climate, Flecha concludes, the idea of an “independent journalism is almost a utopia due to the level of corporate concentration and the job insecurity of the entire sector.”

“It should be noted,” he adds, “that although alternative media exist and are the ones that today place a critical focus on the ‘Cartismo’ model, they are sustained thanks to external financing through international cooperation.”

Past, Present — and What Tomorrow?

In South America, Washington’s primary interests remain rooted in the “Monroe Doctrine,” cementing the idea of the entire continent as “a backyard” to and provider of resources to the United States. During Stroessner’s brutal rule, a lucrative status quo was kept intact by a roster of military dictatorships in Paraguay and neighboring Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay. The 2012 coup ousted the thus-far only progressive initiative in Paraguay’s post-Stroessner era, paving the way for Cartes to not only become president, but to assert his claim over the foundations of the state: the congress, the judiciary, the press, and business power.

When I was given a tour through Congress at the heart of Asunción by a Colorado Party official, it became clear just how powerful the past really is. The Congress is a modern building, raised on the same cobblestones of the neoclassical fortress that protected the capital from the Triple Alliance’s assaults during the 1860s, coming from the other side of the nearby Paraná River. When Paraguay fought Bolivia in the Chaco War in the 1930s — a battle, funded by Western oil companies Royal Dutch Shell and Standard Oil, over imagined oil reserves said to be hidden under the dry desert — fatigued soldiers slept on the courtyard after returning from the front lines.

As we look across this fusion of Paraguay’s past and present, the echoes of chants demanding a better tomorrow break through the stone walls and air-conditioned passages. At the nearby Plaza de Armas, land movements and indigenous groups have set up tents and hoisted banners, reminding Paraguay’s political elite of their existence — and the lack of justice for the crimes committed during the dictatorship.

Stroessner’s crimes are not only merely protected but repeated by Cartes, one indigenous leader tells me. “Without Stroessner there would never have been someone like Cartes,” she says. Then she adds, “Without the utter silence from the majority inside the Congress, there wouldn’t be any ‘Cartismo.’”