Paraguay: Civic protests emerge over government corruption

politics | May 19, 2014 | By Peter Tase

On May 14, 2014, the weekly Primera Plana of Paraguay published an investigative article on the constant abuses of power allegedly committed by Sandra McLeod – the mayor of Ciudad del Este, which is the largest metropolitan area in the South American republic. Javier Zacarías Irún, her husband, was the  immediate predecessor in the post and has also faced numerous charges of political favoritism and corruption. Ciudad del Este lies in an area with easy access to Argentina and Brazil that is rife with narcotics, money laundering, and shadowy activities of terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda.
 Abuses of power are nothing new in Paraguay’s largest city, where corruption, impunity, waves of contraband pass through the local airport are commonplace, as well as juicy bribes for judges and prosecuting attorneys since 2001. During his two terms in office, Zacarías was constantly been charged with corruption, official impunity, and bribes. His style of public service is being carried on by his wife, the current mayor, and his brother Justo Zacarías Irún – who happens to be the governor of Alto Paraná province, of which Ciudad del Este is the capital. McLeod is facing a re-election campaign in 2015.
They have all faces charges that the wealthiest province of Paraguay is being turned to fulfill the personal interests of the Zacarías family. For more than a decade, the Zacarías clan have overseen elevated levels of poverty, neglected public works projects and infrastructure, and ignored public education. The Zacarias family is perhaps the only family in the Americas that has left behind the principles of genuine public service and is dedicated to using tax payers’ money to buy votes and bribe judges and other law enforcement officials for their own immoral and personal gain. 
Indeed, Alto Parana has proved to be the least transparent province in South America.  According to Juan Pio Balbuena, the director of Primera Plana newspaper, “the Auditor General’s Office of the Republic of Paraguay, since 2001, has been unable to intervene and have access and review the accounting books and exert a candid investigation in the city hall of Ciudad del Este because, years ago, Javier Zacarías Irun bribed a supreme court judge, Manuel Seifildin, who issued an order that prohibited the intervention of the Auditor General in the local government offices of Ciudad del Este. Later on, this judge was charged and later impeached for dereliction of duty and corruption for allowing an illegal cargo of perfume to be offloaded at the regional airport. The Zacarias clan was never bothered by the justice system because it controls – by using bribe money taken from the public coffers - all the prosecuting attorneys and judges in the region.”
On May 26, more than 25,000 citizens will take the streets to protest against the Zacarias family and Mayor McLeod. According to Crecencio Molinas, an attorney who is a leader among the protesters,  “The Citizens’ Front has issued a statement in relation to the difficult moments that Ciudad Del Este is experiencing now and expecting that Ciudad del Este will be completely locked down during next week’s protests against the most corrupt family in Paraguay.”
According to Molinas, the protest has been called because of the “abuse of power exerted against every citizen in Ciudad del Este, we have taken the decision to establish the Citizen’s Front which is formed by many associations that are committed to build a better city, which is better organized, democratic and above all transparent. We want a city with a high quality of living and not a city run by corrupt leaders who abuse with the funds of FONACIDE and with public money.”
800 Taxi Drivers on Strike
Besides being the largest and wealthiest city in Paraguay, Ciudad del Este is the leader in the collecting tax revenue. Unfortunately, even while the amount of money collected by Mayor McLeod grows every year, the level of corruption is also growing, complicated by a lack of transparency and an overwhelming misuse of public office and public funds.
Additionally, Ciudad del Este’s city government is facing criticism from former municipal employees for failure to obey national labor laws, as well as protests by the local Association of Taxi Cab Drivers  and the public. At issue, is Mayor McLeod’s abuse of power, trafficking of influence, as well as her failure to address infrastructure issues such as road repair. For more than thirteen years, Ciudad del Este has been monopolized by the Zacarías dynasty. Poverty is increasing, tax revenues are going up, and roads and other infrastructure deteriorate. Citizens complain that the condition of the public thoroughfares is at its worst, even though high taxes are paid by grain producers who export from Ciudad del Este approximately 100,000 tons of grain to the whole world. Historically, Zacarías and McLeod have proved to be arrogant and corrupt civil servants who have abused power every day in public office.
On May 13, at least 800 taxi drivers participated in a peaceful protest in front of the court house of Ciudad del Este to show support for five taxi drivers who were brought before the court by the municipal government on charges of  civil disobedience and for violating public order on April 24. The suspected individuals are among the leaders of the Federation of Taxi Drivers of Ciudad del Este (FETACE) and  United Taxi Drivers of the East (TAUDE). They are Herminio Corvalán, Enrique Rolón, Roberto Fletes and Valerio Martinez. 
The accused are enjoined to stray no further than two hundred meters from the city hall. For their part, Mayor McLeod and her family are allowed by the Paraguayan court system to circulate freely even though she and her husband have misappropriated large sums of money for more than a decade. According to Rolando Segovia Paez, a distinguished Alto Parana political leader, “the Mayor of Ciudad del Este and her husband, a corrupt politician, initiated an evil persecution against the taxi drivers of Ciudad del Este, who struggle to earn their daily living by doing an honest and decent work and driving on roads that are perhaps the worst inner city streets in Latin America.” Segovia adds that “there are a large number of young intellectuals in Alto Parana who are capable of contributing to a better life in Ciudad del Este and should say ‘No’ to Sandra McLeod’s anti-constitutional candidacy, instead they should support the other candidate of the Colorado Party who will be determined in the next few weeks for the municipal elections of late 2015.” 
According to Segovia, “the Citizens Front energetically repudiates these unjust acts against the taxi drivers and overall outrage foisted by the mayor of Ciudad del Este, Sandra McLeod, against her fellow citizens and this movement will to file a complaint of these corrupt acts before the government authorities such as the Attorney General’s Office, National Congress and other governmental agencies that will put an end to the abuse of power and traffic of influence led by the Zacarías Irún Family as well as do everything possible to prohibit the misuse by Mayor McLeod of the Attorney General’s office and the regional court system.”
Over 300 public servants illegally fired by Zacarias clan
In addition to her troubles with taxi drivers, Mayor McLeod is running into a very costly settlement with 23 public service workers and another group of 300 public employees who were fired without any justifiable cause in 2001 during her husband’s tenure in office. The compensation is due to be more than $300,000, and should have been allocated in the city budget for 2012. The amount increases every year due to the interest accrued on the unpaid amount. Unfortunately McLeod’s administration has not proceeded with the payments yet.
The 323 public servants have waited for more than 13 years even though a regional court ruled in their favor. According to Hernán Romero, a political commentator, “it seems that the judges have taken a staunch decision in favor of the 23 employees, but on the other hand the Zacarias Irun dynasty considers themselves to be above the law and have ignored the Paraguayan justice system for over 13 years by not paying the right amount of compensation to these former employees who have won the court case against such a corrupt political club in Alto Parana.”
Spero columnist Peter Tase writes on international business and diplomacy.



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