Ciudad del Este – South America’s black market hotspot

The tiny country of Paraguay doesn’t often pop up on the “must-see” list for those traveling to South America. Sitting landlocked between Argentina to the south, Bolivia to the west and Brazil to the north and east, Paraguay has been described as “the forgotten country of Latin America.” But Paraguay has nevertheless attracted quite a bit of attention lately, less for tourism than because it is an important hub in the global smuggling trade.

A vast bazaar of illegal weapons, counterfeit goods and illicit substances is spread out for sale in the markets of Ciudad del Este, Paraguay’s smuggling capital. The city is conveniently located at the convergence of the borders of three countries (Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay), making it the ideal transit point for tax free and often illegal goods headed to all points beyond. GOOD magazine has an interesting profile on Ciudad del Este in its most recent issue. Author Sacha Feinman dives into the city’s back alleys and sidestreets, where he discovers everything from AK-47′s to Montblanc pens to bricks of marijuana can be easily obtained for purchase. Feinman also befriends some of Ciudad del Este’s many porters-for-hire, who package illicit goods and carry them over the city’s 1,600-foot “Friendship Bridge” to neighboring Brazil. Instead of crossing through customs, the men drop their packages off the side to the riverbank below, where waiting teenagers sort through the packages for distribution. So much for filling out that customs form…

As long as the Paraguayan and Brazilian authorities continue to turn a blind eye to the thriving smuggling practice, Paraguay’s black markets will continue to thrive. For a country that doesn’t see much tourism (or other industry for that matter) it seems to be as much an economic necessity as it is a fact of life. Do exercise caution if you’re even considering a visit. Aside from all the petty lawlessness, Wikitravel warns that Paraguay is currently experiencing its worst outbreak of Yellow Fever in over 60 years. Yikes.