Connecting the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu to Paraguay’s bargain shopping paradise Ciudad del Este, the Friendship Bridge is one of the most-used bridges in South America — and the busiest of Brazil’s border crossings. Before the pandemic hit, some 100,000 pedestrians and 40,000 vehicles would cross on an average day.
A notable free-trade zone, Ciudad del Este welcomes droves of Brazilian tourists looking for tax-free goods such as perfumes, electronics, and clothing. Thousands of informal salespeople also join the throngs of shoppers, in search of cheap products they can resell in Brazil for higher prices.
But that bustling tradition of commerce ground to a halt in March, when Paraguay closed its borders to protect itself from imported coronavirus cases, blocking off the Friendship Bridge in the process. [restricted]At the time, Asunción called Brazil’s Covid-19 response “chaotic,” and Guillermo Sequera, head of the Paraguayan Health Surveillance Board, said the border would remain closed “until the wave in Brazil was over.”
Indeed, closing the border made sense, as 40 percent of all cases in Paraguay were recorded in Ciudad del Este.
Now, the Friendship Bridge is open for the first time in seven months, with Brazil showing progressively lower daily Covid-19 death numbers. For the time being, only private vehicles and cargo trucks will be able to cross between the two countries, and only between 5 am and 2 pm. On November 1, pedestrians will be allowed to use the bridge once again.
Reopening the Brazil-Paraguay border
Closing the border came as a hefty blow to the Ciudad del Este economy. Revenue from commerce in the city dropped from around USD 400 million per month to just 5 percent of that. Sixty-four thousand people were left unemployed, accounting for almost half of the city’s population of working age.
“The bulk of sales depends on people coming over from Brazil,” said Juan Vicente Ramirez, chairman of the local chamber of commerce. “For many store owners, there was no point in opening just for local shoppers — and about 80 percent of them remained closed for the past few months.”
Strained by their economic needs, local business owners launched an intense campaign to reopen the border — a struggle that culminated in violent protests in July.
After falling out over Covid-19, Brazil and Paraguay have begun to mend fences, signing a bilateral agreement to allow the partial resumption of commerce.
Six trade centers in border towns were created — where citizens can go to buy goods from the neighboring country.
In a second stage, which has yet no date to be enforced, other border crossing points will be reopened. That is the case for the border between Pedro Juan Caballero (Paraguay) and Ponta Porã (Brazil), two cities 400 kilometers north of the Friendship Bridge, and separated by nothing more than a street.
In preparation for the reopening, the city of Foz do Iguaçu has requested federal funds to expand its healthcare network — increasing its number of intensive care units in anticipation of Paraguayan patients flocking to hospitals on the Brazilian side of the border.
Drug smuggling boomed despite closed borders
Paraguay is a massive gateway for drugs coming into Brazil, in what is called the “hillbilly route” of South American narcotics trafficking. Drugs from Bolivia and Peru pour into the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, via Paraguay, before being transported to the Port of Santos — and shipped to Europe.
In recent years, Brazil has invested big bucks to secure its border with Paraguay. The country is implementing the first phase of the Integrated Border Monitoring System (Sisfron) — a sophisticated surveillance network to patrol a stretch of 650 kilometers of the border.
But not even the increased surveillance — coupled with Covid-19 border closures — has slowed down drug smugglers, who seem to be busier than ever. Between January and August, the Federal Highway Police apprehended almost 45 tons of cocaine, 136,000 amphetamine pills, and over 1 million cannabis plants — enough to fill the equivalent of 28 football pitches.
The numbers give the impression that the drug problem is a bottomless pit. In trying to deal with the issue, Paraguayan lawmakers are taking steps to change the laws on legal cultivation of cannabis — going in the direction of Uruguay, where recreational marijuana is legal.
But the conservative Brazilian Congress resists even entertaining discussions on medicinal cannabis — let alone debating relaxed rules on recreational drugs.[/restricted]