In early January 2022, members of the Paraguayan National Anti-Drug Secretariat (SENAD, in Spanish) dismantled an international narcotrafficking organization as part of Operation Navis. Agents carried out six raids in different cities of the country. Authorities arrested at least four people, including gang leader Fernando Enrique Balbuena Acuña, alias Riki or Herrero.
“[Balbuena] was responsible for stockpiling and shipping large amounts of cocaine through the Paraguay-Paraná waterway, and then to Europe through the Atlantic,” SENAD said on its Facebook page. The trafficker was on a property in the Eusebio Ayala district, Cordillera department, where agents also found 947 kilograms of cocaine.
“The alleged drug lord led and coordinated several operators who were in charge of acquiring volumes of cocaine and stockpiling them in the Cordillera department,” SENAD said in a statement.
Traffickers would then transport the loads to the main European ports through the waterway, the Paraguayan newspaper La Nación reported. The drugs came from Perú, Bolivia, and Colombia, the news portal 1000 Noticias reported.
Riki’s capture and the disruption of his scheme were the result of a nearly eight-month investigation by SENAD’s General Intelligence Directorate.
“Closing this case was very rewarding, because it allowed us to get to know these types of structures that specifically engage in contaminating containers, and that harm our foreign trade,” SENAD Minister Zully Rolón said in an interview with the Paraguayan TV network Unicanal.
During the raids in the Luque and San Lorenzo municipalities, authorities found suitcases and bags with traces of cocaine. “This suggests that the organization was also engaged in the recruitment of ‘mules’ to transport cocaine packages to Europe inside false bottoms in suitcases,” the Paraguayan newspaper ABC reported.
Paraguayan authorities have not ruled out that this organization may have led one of the largest cocaine smuggling operations in the country’s history: two shipments totaling 23 tons that were moved through the waterway and seized in the ports of Antwerp, Belgium, and Hamburg, Germany, in February 2021.
‘Vital cog in the organization’
During the raid carried out in the town of Fernando de la Mora, authorities arrested Víctor Melnyk, a Ukrainian citizen accused of being a member of the gang. According to Argentine newspaper La Nación, Melnyk is a former soldier from a Ukrainian elite corps whom authorities arrested in September 2020, after finding him inside the trunk of a car, on the border between the Argentine provinces of Corrientes and Entre Ríos.
“This former Ukrainian soldier is a vital cog in the organization because, according to criminal intelligence, he is the one who would act as a link with drug buyers in Europe,” sources of the investigation told the Argentine newspaper La Nación.