75 Brazilian Drug Cartel Members Escape Paraguay Prison Through Tunnel

The entrance to the tunnel used for the escape.
Credit…Marciano Candia/Associated Press

At least 75 members of a powerful Brazilian drug cartel escaped from a prison in northern Paraguay through a tunnel on Sunday, pulling off an escape plan that officials had known about for more than a month but were unable to stop.

The breach is the latest and most serious sign that Brazilian cartels, which use Paraguay as a transit point to smuggle arms and drugs into Brazil, have penetrated the security agencies.

“This is a prison break without precedent,” Paraguay’s justice minister, Cecilia Pérez, said on Sunday. “This is the biggest prison break from our facilities.”

Members of the cartel, the First Capital Command, had spent weeks digging the tunnel from their wing of the Pedro Juan Caballero prison, piling dozens of bags of dirt into a cell, according to officials in Paraguay.

On Sunday around 4 a.m., aided by guards at the prison, the cartel members sneaked out, officials said.

The prison is near the Brazilian border, and “by now they’ve probably crossed over to the other side,” Ms. Pérez said. “This is very serious.”

Pedro Juan Caballero has long been regarded as a particularly troubled prison, said Dante Leguizamón, the president of the National Mechanism to Prevent Torture, an independent government agency that monitors conditions in prisons in Paraguay.

“We consider it the prison with the most severe corruption problems,” Mr. Leguizamón said Sunday in an interview. “Considering the fragility of the system as a whole and crowding conditions, this is not a terribly surprising situation.”

According to statistics compiled by the organization, the prison was until recently holding 1,005 inmates, slightly more than double the capacity for which a facility of its size is equipped.

A month ago, Ms. Pérez announced that Paraguay’s government had learned of a plot by the cartel — known as the P.C.C., its initials in Portuguese — to pay guards $80,000 to facilitate the escape of a cartel leader.

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SOURCE: The New York Times, Santi Carneri and Ernesto Londoño