Current Issue


Underregulated borders and look-the-other-way permissiveness make this South American triple frontier an insanely bustling (and occasionally very lucrative) destination for the trafficking of goods, contraband—
and garbage.

By Michael Astor
PHOTOS BY John Maierl

Unless you are a member of South America's vast underclass, the only reason you would probably ever visit the triple frontier region, joining Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay, is to see the Iguaçu Falls. Their cataracts sprawl over two miles and spew massive sheets of white foam down a 250-foot precipice, pooling on lushly jungled ledges resembling hanging gardens. The problem is that the falls, which lie near
the confluence of the Paraná and Iguaçu rivers, are a little out of the way. And the majority of people who visit this region come to trade, traffic, smuggle, avoid taxes, and generally take advantage of lax national borders, not to see the falls.
    Henrique has made the trip from his home in São Paulo to the triple frontier eight times a month for the past 13 years, and he's never seen the falls. “I'm sure they're beautiful, but I don't have time for that,” he explains as he crams loads of cheap electronics, whiskey, cigarettes, and toys into bags the size of packing crates. Henrique and his cohorts are known across Brazil as sacoleiros, or bag people. Easily some of the world's most hard-core shoppers, sacoleiros come from all over Brazil, traveling 10 hours from São Paulo, 16 hours from Rio de Janeiro, 26 hours from Brasília. Tens of thousands of them descend on the Brazilian town of Foz do Iguaçu every day to stock up on cheap goods just across the open border
Foz Do Iguaçu, Brazil, 2004.
with Paraguay. The sacoleiros make a few quick trips into Paraguay, where import taxes are next to nothing and manufactured products can cost as little as a quarter of what they do in Brazil. Then they get back on the bus.
    No passports are required, which is handy, since few sacoleiros have them. There is a US$150 maximum value on what one can bring into Brazil without paying import duties, but it's fairly obvious from the steady stream of overstuffed trucks, buses, and pushcarts crowding the Ponte de Amizade, or Friendship Bridge, that few people abide by the limit. Because inspectors stop only a fraction of the traffic crossing the bridge, smuggling is a calculated risk. Police say the border is a major smuggling route for guns and Paraguayan marijuana.
    Paraguayans cross the bridge for clothing, gasoline, and food, all of which are cheaper in Brazil. But Paraguayan
TRY TO BEND YOUR MIND AROUND AN IMAGINARY JUNCTION WHERE HONG KONG MEETS THE ARAB SOUK MEETS TIJUANA, MEXICO. customs agent Gustavo Aquino Brito denies he has an easier time of it than his Brazilian counterparts. “The contraband is everywhere,” Aquino says, looking out at the line of trucks backing up into Brazil. Every day a steady stream of cars stolen in Brazil crosses into Paraguay only to return with fresh registration papers, ready for resale. A couple of years ago, someone discovered that the BMW driven by the Paraguayan president had originally been stolen in Brazil.
     The bridge itself is a no-man's-land. Motorcycle taxis buzz between the two lanes of traffic like a swarm of bees. Pedestrians carrying heavy loads crowd the narrow walkways, passing parrots and other rare animals left there by traffickers who are waiting for the perfect moment to cross. Necklace snatchings and muggings are common. Smugglers used to haul crates of cigarettes halfway across the bridge and just toss them over to boats waiting below.
Today, the cigarette smugglers are less brazen. But when authorities erected guard posts along the span to better monitor the goings-on, the sacoleiros pelted the towers with rocks and tried to set them on fire, forcing their removal. ”This is a frontier; violence is normal,“ shrugs Gilberto Rosa, who owns the first snack shop on the Brazilian side of the bridge.
     The sacoleiros' mecca is Ciudad del Este in Paraguay; a kind of anti-Falls, as awesome in its ugliness as the Iguaçu is beautiful. There's a definite Blade Runner quality to the city, whose crumbling high-rises tumble down a hill to the bridge amid a sea of decrepit neon signs. The streets are jammed with stalls selling pirated copies of Hollywood movies and hit CDs. High-tech billboards advertising luxury goods tower above women wielding mortars and pestles, mashing herbs with names like yape and unha de gato to add a kick to their cold-water terere tea. The stores are filled with state-of-
Foz Do Iguaçu, Brazil, 2004.
A man carries foam rolls, often used by the poor as makeshift mattresses,
from Brazil to Paraguay.
the-art electronics and cheap toys made in China. During the day, the sacoleiros cover the hill like hordes of worker ants; when they're gone, an army of garbage pickers moves in on the piles of cardboard left behind, hauling it across the bridge to sell to Brazilian recyclers for a meager 50 guaranis a kilo, or less than half a US penny per pound.
     To understand Ciudad del Este, put aside whatever preconceived notions you might have about Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay, and try to bend your mind around an imaginary junction where Hong Kong meets the Arab souk meets Tijuana, Mexico. The raw and wide-open entrepreneurialism has attracted large communities of Arabs and Taiwanese. And the region has one of Brazil's only Buddhist temples, complete with a 15-foot-high, five-ton yellow Buddha who looks out, laughing, at the bridge in he distance. There is a large mosque on the Brazilian side and another in Paraguay.
The Muslim presence in this porous frontier region has fueled recurring rumors of terrorist activity. Argentine police suspect that two attacks on Jewish targets in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s were planned here, but nothing has ever been substantiated. “People say crazy things, like that Osama bin Laden's visited our mosque, just because we're Arabs,” says Khalid Ali, who lives in Brazil and works in Paraguay. “Arabs are merchants. The last people who want violence and terror are merchants. When the bridge is closed for even a few hours, you can't imagine how much money we lose.”
     Nobody has ever offered a convincing explanation as to why, only here, there is an open border between Paraguay and Brazil. Passports are required at the Argentine border, where cars and trucks are routinely searched and the only confusion to speak of exists among Spanish-speakers resigned to watching Mexican novelas dubbed into
Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, 2004.
A cart loaded down with electronic goods, toys, and gadgets to sell.
Portuguese because there's a stronger TV signal from Brazil. And Puerto Iguazú, the city on the Argentine side, is about as charming as it is dull.
     Perhaps Brazil keeps the Paraguayan border open to throw a lifeline to its poor southern neighbor. According to conventional wisdom, it wouldn't be the only Brazilian initiative to keep Paraguay afloat: the two countries share the world's second-largest hydroelectric dam. Paraguay uses only a fraction of the dam's 12,600-megawatt potential; Brazil buys the bulk of it, providing Paraguay with much-needed hard currency. Or maybe the open border is an attempt to make amends for the War of the Triple Alliance 134 years ago, during which Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay slaughtered two-thirds of Paraguay's male population and seized much of its land.
     If the open border were a software program, it would feature a massive security breach expressly designed to attract
viruses, Trojan horses, and worms. In reality, it is a magnet that attracts sacoleiros, laranjas, and camelos. Laranjas, Portuguese for ”oranges,“ are the local people who help sacoleiros haul their goods across the bridge, earning 5 reais (US$1.50) a trip. Camelos, or camels, sell the sacoleiros's goods on the streets of cities across Brazil. And while these hardworking folks are doing their best to get by, Brazilian authorities consider them a scourge because they pay no taxes and skim customers from legitimate merchants. Plus, the whole scheme fuels corruption, padding the pockets of an untold number of officials paid to overlook the obvious.
     Ciudad del Este's mayor, Ernesto Zacar╠as Irún, argues that the city's future lies in tourism, not illegal commerce. But the city is filled with people like Jose Domingos Espinola who believe just the opposite. Domingos ekes out a living selling 250 different items—from pocket flashlights to
Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, 2004.
Packaging from merchandise litters the street before it's gathered by locals to sell to recyclers.
toy cellular phones—out of a packed pushcart. He believes people's lives here will only improve when Brazil raises the tax-free limit for goods crossing the bridge to US$500. Like most Paraguayans here, Domingos has come from far away to take advantage of the opportunities. “Where I come from, San Pedro, there is nothing. This is the world's third-largest market after Hong Kong and Miami,“ he says, repeating a common claim, which seems unlikely for a tiny landlocked country without any industry. Then again, considering the thriving business with Brazil, a country larger than the continental United States with a population of 180 million, who knows? In terms of sheer volume, it just might be true.   

Back to Table of Contents