Photograph: Jorge Sáenz/AP

Violence has escalated along the triple border between Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, as smugglers attempt to get round strict frontier controls imposed to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

One marine was killed in a fierce shootout between smugglers and the Paraguayan military last week, in an episode which then allegedly led to the detention and torture of 35 civilians.

Related: Uruguay and Paraguay buck Latin America coronavirus trend

While Brazil and Argentina are struggling with surging coronavirus caseloads, Paraguay boasts some of the lowest rates of Covid-19 infection in Latin America – thanks in part to the fact that its borders have been closed since 24 March.

But the lockdown has hit businesses in the country’s second city, Ciudad del Este – both legitimate and otherwise – which rely on Brazil for 90% of their sales.

Smuggler groups – who move billions of dollars in drugs, cigarettes and electronic goods across the tri-border from Paraguay each year – have adapted to continue their trade despite pandemic restrictions.

In addition to the more than 250 clandestine smuggling ports on the Paraná river, smugglers are reportedly using remote control speedboats and drones to take high-value goods over the river.

Such tactics appear to be working. According to Brazilian police, drug confiscations in the border state of Paraná – almost all smuggled in from Paraguay – were up 500% in the first half of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019.

The naval commander of Ciudad del Este said that Paraguayan border forces – as well as those of Brazil and Argentina – were seeing escalating violence and a strong presence of notorious Brazilian gangs such as Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) in the region.

“The situation here has been getting more and more dangerous”, he told local press. “Every night in multiple locations … we are being fired at”.

However, Paraguay’s anti-contraband minister, Emilio Fúster, told local press that large-scale smuggling was largely enabled by official corruption.

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“There are agents who have become corrupted through the illegal trafficking of all types of different products,” he said.

On 16 July, tensions came to a head when a patrol boat from the Paraguayan navy was fired upon by suspected smugglers in what military sources have described as an ambush. One marine, was shot and later died.

Following the gun battle, military personnel arrested 35 people, including several adolescents, from the poor riverside neighbourhood of San Miguel in Ciudad del Este, claiming that they had aided the smugglers.

Witnesses said that arrests were made at gunpoint and that officials had entered homes without permits. CCTV video was circulated of men being beaten while they were forced into the back of a 4×4 vehicle.

Photos and videos were subsequently circulated of deep wounds on many of the men’s bodies. One man said that he had been tortured.

“We all have marks from violence and torture,” he said. “They poured hot water and alcohol on my head. A vein exploded inside.”

José Galeano of the Paraguayan National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture said the marines had clearly committed human rights violations.

“They may have been affected by the loss of their colleague, but under absolutely no circumstances should this have happened,” he said. “These men were flung about like bits of meat.”

Adm Carlos Velázquez, head of the Paraguayan navy, has called for an official investigation and suspended the local naval commander.



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