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Blacker-than-black Market

In Ciudad del Este, Latin America's lawless capital of contraband, $500 goes a long way.

A fat Lebanese man emerges from a room behind the cash register holding an AK-47 as though it were a full cup of coffee."Four fifty," he says, sucking on a toothpick. "American. And if you want help getting it across the border, that can be arranged."His storefront is about the size of a walk-in closet, barely large enough for the five shoppers here today, and made to feel even more cramped by the half-dozen targets hanging from the ceiling."Four hundred," I counter."Four twenty-five," he replies."Four hundred," I repeat, feigning confidence and experience."Four fifteen is absolutely as low as I will go," he grumbles, "but I will give you the first 15 bullets for free."Here, just inside Paraguay, close to where that country ends and Argentina and Brazil begin, is Ciudad del Este-most famous for its markets, both illicit and legal, which I'm shopping my way through with startling ease. Machines guns aren't the only thing for sale here, of course. With markets that contribute an estimated 30 percent of Paraguay's $9 billion gross domestic product, it's the sort of place where anything can be had-even 200 kilos of Paraguayan Brown, the local marijuana-provided you're willing to pay.
The downtown market is dense and compact, a maze of concrete spanning a five-block-by-five-block square. Despite its size, the market is extraordinary for its diversity. There's the upscale Monalisa shopping mall, where the nouveau riche stock up on authentic Montblanc pens and Bulgari jewelry, alongside sidewalk kiosks offering pirated copies of Die Hard 4.0 in bulk and where San Francisco 49ers fans can buy shoddily sewn "Startar" jackets. Thanks to the fact that Paraguay has lower import tariffs than either of its neighbors, Ciudad del Este essentially functions as a massive outdoor duty-free shop-a destination for anyone looking for a bargain.At the markets, business is international. Everything comes from somewhere else, stopping in Ciudad del Este for a brief respite on card tables and in malls before being packed into the luggage of tourists and smugglers who flock here by the hundreds daily, stocking up on My Little Pony dolls, PlayStations, bootleg DVDs, brass knuckles, and, of course, machine guns. This can make it a dangerous place. Even the city's police admit that Ciudad del Este has become a haven for criminals. And though little evidence has ever been made public to support the allegation, the governments of Argentina and the United States have long maintained that both al-Qaeda and Hezbollah have received funding from businesses operating in the city.\n\n\n
To protect the markets, Ciudad del Este is patrolled day and night by men with shotguns, though few are police.
"The tri-border region is suspicious because of its movement," says Augosto Annibal Lima of the Paraguayan National Police Force in Ciudad del Este. "Yes, we have guns and drugs, especially marijuana, that move through Paraguay toward another destination. … There is movement because there is a market. Paraguay sells what it has, and shouldn't be blamed for doing so. There is only one law working here, that of the market, and it is the only law that matters."He's right, in a sense. Though you can walk across the commercial center of Ciudad del Este in 30 minutes, the city is one of the largest engines of the Paraguayan economy, and in an otherwise poor, underdeveloped, landlocked country, these markets can be a boon for locals. "Paraguay doesn't have any ports," says Jose Rojas, a local journalist, "so it has historically depended on exporting to Brazil and Argentina to sustain itself. Ciudad del Este was born about 50 years ago, with the specific intention to encourage this kind of market."
To protect the markets, Ciudad del Este is patrolled day and night by men with shotguns, though few are police. Most are private security guards who lumber around looking mean or bored. Some have yet to grow into their uniforms, while others appear to be well past retirement age. "Mostly, they are there for appearance, just to intimidate," says Francisco Brazón, a Venezuelan taxi driver. "Most of them have never used those things before, and probably wouldn't know how to load a bullet if you asked them."Brazón, who followed his Paraguayan wife to Ciudad del Este 25 years ago, is part of a sizeable immigrant population drawn to the city by its open markets and promises of wealth. In addition to migrants from its neighboring countries, Ciudad del Este is home to a sizable Muslim population, as well as Japanese, Taiwanese, and Koreans. Downtown, billboards of Asian models advertise cheap clothes and jewelry, while a nameless Chinese restaurant three blocks off the market's center counts as one of the best I've ever sampled.Another afternoon, on my way to an Arab restaurant for lamb shawarma, I overhear two women haggling in Mandarin over the bulk price of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers figurines. When my check comes, it is tallied up in U.S. dollars, though I could pay in Brazilian reals or Paraguayan guarani if I had them handy.
Camilo Recalde runs along the market's border, where homes and local businesses replace the buskers and malls of downtown. There are family restaurants, Laundromats, medical clinics, and motorcycle repair shops. One shop in particular, I'm told, is a clearinghouse for drugs. Armed with the proper introduction, in I went. In lieu of a traditional greeting, the owner simply asks me what I'm looking for, and how much of it I'll need. "And, yes, we have cocaine," he adds as an afterthought.I explain that I'm an Argentine dealer named David (I'm not), and that my business partners in Buenos Aires are looking for a regular supply of cheap marijuana (I have no business partners, and if I did, they wouldn't be looking for this kind of business), and could he help me?He quizzes me, asking where I live in the city, if I have the cash on me, and if I'll need assistance getting it back home from Ciudad del Este. Satisfied with my answers, he reaches under the counter to produce a narrow tan brick of densely compressed Paraguayan Brown, barely softer than a rock. It looks like AstroTurf.He asks me again how much I'm looking for and I stutter, blurting out that 50 kilos should do it for now. He chuckles. "We usually sell more than that, 200 or so, but we can do 50. One second."He leaves the room to make a phone call, and a moment later returns: "It'll be $20 U.S. a kilo," he says. "And are you sure you don't need any help getting that to Argentina?"
Curious how things do, in fact, get out of the country, I befriend a man named Oscar. A pleasant, older guy, he's the type you'd expect to find reading the paper on a Saturday afternoon, not running a smuggling operation. Oscar's office is a bench outside a call center in a downtown shopping mall and today he's hard at work stuffing contraband Barbies into cardboard boxes. Having neatly fit what looked to be eight or nine dozen into a single parcel, Oscar wraps the box in an oversized black trash bag, then covers it with duct tape. He has been paid $50 per package to transport them to a hotel across the Brazilian border. En route, he won't be stopping at customs and declaring his goods, of course.I ask Oscar if his men insist on packaging the goods themselves, or if I could bring him a set of pre-wrapped boxes ready to be placed in my hotel room in Brazil. "However you like," he responds, "it makes no difference to me."Later today, Oscar will walk across the 1,600-foot-long Friendship Bridge to Brazil. Posted above the bridge's entrance is a silver metal sign telling crossers they're prohibited from throwing merchandise off the side. By 5 p.m., the Friendship Bridge is packed with porters huddled around their boxes, drinking beer, and handing bribes to the Paraguayan naval police strolling by.They're waiting for word that the crew of Brazilian customs police has thinned, or that a shift change is under way. Once word comes, they move fast and fluid. When they near the end of the bridge, smugglers scramble to harness their goods to the long nylon ropes that dangle from the railing, lowering them onto the forested riverbank, just a few hundred meters from the outpost of Brazil's Customs and Immigration force. Below, teenage boys sort through the packages in litter-strewn, knee-high grass.Most of them have no idea what's inside the packages they're trafficking. Maybe cheap Che Guevara berets. Or Zippo lighters bearing the face of Ronald Reagan, imploring the world to "Win one for the Gipper."

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