Paraguay’s Vice President Hugo Velazquez, who resigned last week after being sanctioned by Washington for “significant corruption,” said Thursday he would remain in his post after all.
He told reporters he had initially offered to resign as he “assumed” there was a domestic investigation against him.
But on Wednesday, he received notice from the Paraguay prosecutor’s office stating “that there is no case against me,” he said.
Velazquez, 54, said President Mario Abdo Benitez respected his decision to withdraw his resignation, which would also have entailed him pulling out of the running for presidential elections next year.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week said Velazquez would be barred from entering the United States due to his “involvement in significant corruption, including bribery of a public official and interference in public processes.”
Several family members were also sanctioned, as well as Juan Carlos Duarte, a close friend and legal adviser to the company that runs the major Yacyreta hydroelectric power station.
The allegations relate to Duarte offering “a bribe to a Paraguayan public official in order to obstruct an investigation that threatened the vice president and his financial interests,” said Blinken.
Velazquez has denied wrongdoing.
Last month, the United States announced a ban on former Paraguayan president Horacio Cartes, accusing the businessman-turned-politician of corruption and links to “terrorist” groups.
Paraguay’s Vice President Hugo Velazquez announced his resignation Friday and pulled out of the running for next year’s presidential election after he was sanctioned by Washington for “significant corruption.”
The US State Department had earlier released a statement from Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying Velazquez would be barred from entering the United States due to his “involvement in significant corruption, including bribery of a public official and interference in public processes.”
Velazquez was hoping to stand for election next year as Paraguay’s presidents — including the current leader Mario Abdo Benitez — are limited to a single five-year term.
The mother of a 10-year-old girl and the father of an 11-year-old girl have made contact with their daughters who last year were brought from Germany to Paraguay without their consent, the parents’ lawyer said Monday.
“On behalf of our clients Anne Reiniger, mother of Clara (Egler), and Filip Blank, father of Lara (Blank), we announce that as part of the search for their daughters from their respective first marriages, fruitful conversations have taken place place,” Stephan Schultheiss said in a statement to the press.
Clara, 10, entered Paraguay on November 27 with her father, Andreas Rainer Egler, 46, and his new wife Anna Maria Egler, nee Scharpf, 35.
Anna Maria Egler’s daughter from her first marriage, 11-year-old Lara Valentina Blank, was also with them.
The case has caused a stir in Germany. Last week, Clara’s mother and Lara’s father authorized the police to start a search for the missing girls, and Interpol has issued arrest warrants for Andreas and Anna Egler.
The pair of fugitive parents recently sent a video message and contact was established between the parties, the lawyer said.
“We are looking together for a solution that does justice to the rights of all parties involved, but above all to the best interests of the children,” said Schultheiss.
Anne Reiniger and Filip Blank have promised to drop charges if the fugitive couple agree to return the children and work out a custody agreement.
The owner of a vehicle used by a couple traveling through Paraguay with two missing German girls was questioned Wednesday by police, as representatives of distraught parents urged the fugitives to turn themselves in.
The owner, identified as Diego Martinez, confirmed having lent a truck a month ago to the wanted couple, Paraguayan Andreas Rainer Egler, 46, and his wife Anna Maria Egler, 35.
They disappeared after traveling to Paraguay late last year with his daughter Clara, 10, and her daughter Lara Valentina Blank, 11.
But neither Clara’s mother nor Lara’s father had given their consent to the journey, and now the girls are officially listed in Germany as missing.
“The suspect made several contradictory statements,” said Commissioner Cristian Caceres of the police’s anti-kidnapping unit, which brought Martinez to the capital Asuncion for questioning.
“First, he said the couple was introduced to him by a relative, but then he said it was a client,” Caceres said, describing him as a car mechanic in the city of Villarrica, 150 kilometers (95 miles) southeast of the capital.
Martinez was eventually released in the afternoon, said Carina Sanchez of a unit specializing in human trafficking and sexual exploitation of minors.
“The man provided a lot of information,” she said. “There were some issues that forced us to arrest him, but it was for the sole purpose of providing all the information he has regarding this couple.”
Martinez’s vehicle, a Nissan pickup, was rented by Egler, a German citizen who is accused of illegally taking the girls last November to Paraguay, where they were last seen in January.
Egler is now listed as a fugitive along with his new wife. Anna Maria.
Clara’s mother, Anne Maja Reiniger-Egler, is in Asuncion leading the search. At a Monday press conference she gave permission for details of the case to be published in local media.
– Life on the run – Reiniger’s lawyer said Wednesday the tactic had already borne fruit and that the fugitives had sent a post on messaging app Telegram calling on Clara’s mother to stop the search.
“You demand that our clients agree to abandon and leave their children behind. Mrs Anne Maja Reiniger and (Lara’s father) Mr Filip Blank hardly recognize their girls in the videos,” said lawyer Stephan Schultheiss, addressing the couple in German and Spanish.
In the message to the fugitives, the lawyer warned that the search was being carried out whether his client wanted it or not.
“The authorities are investigating in Paraguay, Germany and through Interpol, all over the world,” he said.
“The well-being of the girls is not compatible with a life on the run that you have chosen. End this extremely stressful situation for everyone. Please show yourselves,” Schultheiss said.
The lawyer reiterated that Clara’s mother and Lara’s father were not seeking punishment.
“They want to find a solution that allows everyone a peaceful future and a return to normal life. The opportunity is open to you,” he declared.
Schultheiss has said it was believed the couple could have hidden among anti-vaccine German colonies in Paraguay.
“We are convinced that the girls and the couple are still in Paraguay,” said Mario Vallejos, head of the anti-kidnapping unit. He feared, however, that they could leave for Argentina or Brazil through the joint border at Iguazu.
Lawyers of Brazilian great Ronaldinho, are hoping the former world player of the year will be allowed to go home after more than two months of detention in Paraguay over a forged passport.
“We’re hoping to convince the prosecution to allow Ronaldinho and his brother to return to their country. We can do nothing but wait for the investigation to end,” a defense source told AFP.
Former Barcelona, AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain star Ronaldinho and his brother, Robert de Assis Moreira, are facing up to five years in jail if convicted.
The brothers spent more than a month behind bars after they were accused of entering Paraguay in possession of false passports.
The 2005 Ballon d’Or winner and his brother posted bail of $1.6 million and have been under house arrest at the plush Palmaroga Hotel in the historic centre of the Paraguayan capital Asuncion since April 7.
The public prosecutor has six months to investigate the case, and has ordered the arrest of 18 in connection with it.
“There is not one single serious proof that incriminates him,” Rogelio Delgado, president of Paraguay’s footballers union told AFP.
“Although he has a luxury prison, it’s very unfair that he’s still being detained,” added Delgado, a former Paraguay international.
The 40-year-old Ronaldinho has been keeping a low profile since being released from behind bars, not least because of coronavirus lockdown measures.
“I was completely caught off guard when I found out that these passports were not valid,” Ronaldinho told Paraguayan newspaper ABC last month in his only public statement since his release.
Ronaldinho, considered one of the greatest footballers of all time, was crucial in Brazil’s 2002 World Cup win.
He and sibling Robert — who is also his business manager — initially encountered no problems after arriving in Asuncion from neighboring Brazil on March 4.
However, shortly after their arrival, the pair were taken into police custody when investigators raided their hotel following discovery that their passports were fake.
Ronaldinho, given a rock star’s welcome to Asuncion by around 2,000 children and teenagers, said the documents had been given to him by sponsors of a charity working with disadvantaged children.
The investigation has since expanded into a case of possible money laundering.
Brazilian football great Ronaldinho will remain in pre-trial detention in Paraguay after being refused bail or house arrest on accusations of entering the country with a fake passport.
A court rejected a request for conditional release for the 39-year-old World Cup winner and his brother, who were spending a fifth day in a police cell in Asuncion, said prosecutor Osmar Legal.
Judge Gustavo Amarilla cited the seriousness of the case and the discovery of new evidence, as well as the involvement of public officials and entrepreneurs who helped Ronaldinho get into Paraguay.
Amarilla acknowledged the harshness of the measures taken against the brothers but said it was his responsibility to ensure the they did not flee the country.
“There are many procedures that need to be done with the presence of both of them,” the judge said.
Legal said he opposed house arrest because the property offered as a guarantee was only valued at $750,000 to $800,000.
“It’s a tiny amount given the economic solvency of one of the (accused),” he said.
The brothers arrived in Asuncion from Brazil on Wednesday and showed their passports to immigration police, who did not immediately notice any problem.
Hours later, when the passports were determined to be fake, investigators raided the football star’s hotel room and seized the brothers’ identity cards and travel documents.
Ronaldinho said the passports had been given to him by people who had invited him to attend conferences sponsored by charities working with disadvantaged children.
A Brazilian businessman has also been arrested in connection with the fake travel documents, while two Paraguayan women have been placed under house arrest and the country’s migration director has resigned.
Ronaldinho’s Brazilian lawyer Sergio Queiroz has said the brothers were carrying Brazilian documents and were given the Paraguayan passports “to facilitate the possibility of doing business” in Paraguay.
“Ronaldinho did not commit a crime because he did not know that the passport they gave him was faked,” he said.
However, the body overseeing the creation of companies in Paraguay told AFP there was no regulation preventing Brazilians for applying for a business permit.
The administrator of the charity that invited Ronaldinho, Dalia Lopez, has admitted requesting the passports but said she didn’t know they were forged.
A warrant has been issued for her arrest.
Amarilla said the investigation is looking into possible criminal association and money laundering.
He said the brothers’ phones needed to be examined, in order to “know the true intention for their presence” in Paraguay.
Ronaldinho, considered one of the greatest footballers of all time, was a star of Brazil’s 2002 World Cup win and played for European giants Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan, among others.
There had been rumors he needed to use the Paraguayan document because his real passport had been seized by Brazilian authorities in late 2018 after he failed to pay a $2.5 million fine for building a pier in a protected lake.
But it was returned to him a year later following an agreement with the public prosecutor in Rio Grande do Sul state.
As both countries are part of the MERCOSUR trade bloc, travelers between Brazil and Paraguay need only carry an identity document rather than a passport.
Brazilian football legend Ronaldinho did not deliberately use a fake passport and should be released by authorities in Paraguay, his lawyer said.
The two-time world player of the year and his brother Roberto, who was detained with him, spent their third night behind bars in the capital Asuncion on Sunday after using forged travel documents to enter the country.
Their Brazilian lawyer Sergio Queiroz said he would ask for the pair to be released and allowed to return to their home country when they next appear before a judge on Monday.
“We are also investigating the responsibility of the authorities who allowed them to enter the country with falsified documents,” Acevedo said.
Ronaldinho and his brother had their Brazilian passports withdrawn in November 2018 after failing to pay a $2.3 million fine for environmental damage incurred during the building of a property in Rio Grande do Sul, in southern Brazil.
Nearly 80 prisoners, many of them members of a Brazilian drug and arms trafficking gang and described as “highly dangerous,” have escaped from a Paraguayan prison near the border, police said.
The escapees, Brazilians, and Paraguayans made their getaway through a tunnel from the prison in the border city of Pedro Juan Caballero, police spokeswoman Elena Andrada said.
“Our best men have gone to the border to attempt to recapture the prisoners,” she said.
The number of escapees totalled 76, including 40 Brazilians and 36 Paraguayans, officials said.
Justice Minister Cecilia Perez issued a sharp condemnation, telling reporters that it must have taken prisoners “several weeks” to build the tunnel and adding, “It is evident that the staff knew nothing and did nothing.”
The prison’s warden was dismissed and dozens of guards were arrested.
Most of the escapees belong to a criminal gang known as First Capital Command, one of Brazil’s most powerful criminal enterprises.
Andrada said the burning hulks of five vans used in the escape were found in Ponta Pora, a Brazilian city separated from Pedro Juan Caballero only by an avenue.
Pedro Juan Caballero lies about 300 miles (500 kilometers) northeast of the capital, Asuncion.
Perez voiced “a strong suspicion that officials are involved in this corrupt scheme” and said that the escapees are considered “highly dangerous.”
The escapees included men who had taken part in a massacre last June at the San Pedro prison, Andrada said.
She said the inmates had dug a tunnel “like we see in the movies, complete with internal lighting.”
Investigators have also found hundreds of sandbags.
Brazil meanwhile moved to tighten security in the border area to help recapture the inmates, Antonio Carlos Videira, Mato Grosso do Sul state’s justice and public safety secretary told reporters.
The Department of Border Operations, the Military Highway Police and other security troops backed by a helicopter have been mobilized, he said, according to Anuncion’s ABC daily.
Brazilian Justice Minister Sergio Moro echoed the offer of support in recapturing the prisoners: “If they return to Brazil, they get one-way tickets to federal prison,” he tweeted.
Paraguay’s Interior Minister Euclides Acevedo said police special ops staff were combing the area of the escape, backed by helicopters.
Heavy flooding in Paraguay has displaced 70,000 families and is threatening to further inundate the capital Asuncion in the coming weeks, the country’s weather bureau said.
Water levels on the Paraguay River are rising at a rate of 4-5 centimetres (1.5-2 inches) every day and is only 46 cm (18 in) below a “disaster” level, according to official data from the Department of Meteorology and Hydrology (DMH).
Crossing that threshold would “have a very strong impact” because of the number of Asuncion residents who have moved into the city’s floodplain, said DMH deputy director Nelson Perez on Sunday.
The city’s water service infrastructure was clogged with garbage which was exacerbating the floods, Perez added.
Unusually heavy downpours over May, including two days which together exceeded Asuncion’s average monthly rainfall, have exacerbated the flooding, said DMH meteorologist Eduardo Mingo.
Some 40,000 people in Asuncion have already been affected by the floods, official data reported.
A further 10,000 people have been displaced in the southern town of Pilar on the Argentinian border.
The government has mobilized armed forces to help displaced residents relocate to shelters, but hundreds of families have opted to stay behind in their inundated homes.
Paraguay will have a woman president for the first time in its history, at least temporarily, after outgoing leader Horacio Cartes stepped down Monday ahead of schedule.
Vice President Alicia Pucheta, 68, will complete Cartes’s mandate after he resigned to become a Senator.
On August 15, fellow conservative Mario Abdo Benitez, elected in April 22 polls, will begin his five-year term as president of one of Latin America’s poorest countries.
The parliament is due to confirm Cartes’s resignation and proclaim Pucheta as interim president on Wednesday.
Opposed to the legalization of abortion, Pucheta is from the right-wing Colorado Party, which has been in power in Asuncion for decades.
Opposition Senator Desiree Masi said she does not see Pucheta’s nomination as an advance for women in Paraguay.
“A woman who has shown her complete submission to those in power does not represent us,” she said. “One day, a woman will be come to power as she should, through the ballot box.”
But Lilian Samaniego, a senator from the Colorado Party, hailed the former lawyer’s accession to the position as an example to “motivate Paraguayan women to continue to fight for real equality of opportunity with men.”
Paraguay has just eight women among its 45 senators, and 11 among the 80 members of the lower house.
Cartes’s resignation had been expected since he was elected to the Senate in the April elections. The new senators are to be sworn in on June 30.
Landlocked Paraguay — sandwiched between Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil — enjoyed consistent economic growth during tobacco magnate Cartes’s five years in power, but failed to shake off persistent poverty, corruption and drug trafficking.
It remains a land of contrasts, still marked by the 1954-1989 dictatorship of general Alfredo Stroessner.
Despite an official campaign against endemic corruption, Paraguay remains 135th out of 180 countries on the 2017 corruption index of Transparency International.