Paraguay Furore over Footballer with Fake Passport

Ronaldo and his brother Roberto were first detained for entering the country on fake Paraguayan passports, President Mario Abdo Benítez ordered that internal investigations be carried out into the country’s immigration authorities, and the national police’s identifications department.
Paraguay Footballer Fake Passport Ronaldinho

The Assis Moreira brothers were first detained for questioning on 4 March, after cloned passports and fake Paraguayan ID cards were seized in their hotel room in a resort just outside of Asunción. They denied being aware that the documents were fakes, saying they assumed they had been given Paraguayan nationality as a gift.

It looked like the brothers were going to be released, but after a guarantees judge transferred the case to a different prosecutor on 6 March, they were placed under preventive arrest. Their request for house arrest was rejected on 10 March, and they are currently being held at the Agrupación Especializada police headquarters, which double as a prison, in Asunción. Wilmondes Sousa Lira, a Brazilian businessman who was travelling with them (also on fake documents), has been detained as well. He stands accused of sourcing and delivering the false documents.

Two Paraguayan women, believed to have provided the original Paraguayan passports for cloning, have been put under house arrest. Meanwhile, an arrest warrant has been issued against the businesswoman who had invited Ronaldinho to Paraguay, Dalia López. Ronaldinho had reportedly been invited to participate in the launch of a children’s health campaign led by an NGO of which López is president, Fundación Fraternidad Angelical. Sousa Lira has pointed the finger at López as the true mastermind behind the passport scam.

As media curiosity around López has intensified, it has emerged that she is a member of the ruling Associación Nacional Republicana-Partido Colorado (ANR-PC), and is personally close to politicians who are part of the Honor Colorado faction which is loyal to former president Horacio Cartes (2013-2018). The government’s tax secretariat (SET) has also confirmed that López, and companies she is linked to, have been targeted in an ongoing SET investigation into a large-scale tax evasion and money laundering scheme.

The perplexing case raises many questions, not least as to why the Assis Moreira brothers would need fake Paraguayan passports, much less use them to enter the country. They both had their Brazilian (and Spanish, in Ronaldinho’s case) passports seized in late 2018 over their failure to pay a fine in an environmental licensing court case dating back to 2015; however, it appears that their ID documents had been returned after they reached an agreement to settle the fine with Brazilian authorities last November.

In any case, Brazilian nationals are free to travel to Paraguay on a national ID card, as both countries are Mercosur members. Yet the brothers reportedly presented their Brazilian passports at São Paulo airport upon leaving Brazil, and the cloned Paraguayan ones at immigration upon arriving in Asunción.

Another question is why no-one at Asunción’s Silvio Pettirossi airport noticed that the documents were false. Alexis Penayo resigned as head of the Dirección General de Migración (DGM) on 5 March over criticism of the immigration authorities’ failure to spot the cloned passports and detain the Brazilians.

In the press conference during which he announced his resignation, Penayo said it was unfair to heap the blame purely on the immigration officers (as the passports were cloned, the passport numbers were valid and accepted by the scanner) and was critical of his colleagues in the interior ministry, saying he was ignored for several hours after he passed on concerns that the documents had been falsified.

Different sectors of government are coming under scrutiny. Two employees from the national civil aviation authority (Dinac) have been detained, as have two from the immigration authorities.

On 9 March, the minister at the head of the national anti-corruption secretariat (Senac), René Fernández, announced that President Abdo Benítez had ordered that administrative investigations be launched into the DGM, as well as the national police’s Departamento de Identificaciones (investigations into suspected wrongdoing in public agencies must be led by the executive branch, although it will benefit from the support of the public prosecutor’s office).

Last week Acevedo had defended the national police’s identifications department, while Dinac president Édgar Melgarejo has condemned the “arbitrary” detention of low-ranking employees who were simply carrying out instructions.

Ronaldinho’s fame – the ex-Barcelona player was twice winner of the FIFA world player of the year award – has given the incident far more visibility than would usually be the case. The whole episode may merely serve as another reminder of the endemic problems of incompetence and corruption within the Paraguayan government and public service.

However, the unanswered questions over who provided the fake passports, and the reason for which the Assis Moreira brothers used them, as well as surrounding the investigation into López’s financial activities, and the possible complicity of government officials, may lead to bigger discoveries, and Paraguayan prosecutors say they are considering all hypotheses in this “immense case”.

Reaction in Brazil

The office of Brazil’s Justice Minister Sérgio Moro confirmed on 9 March that he had been in contact with the Paraguayan authorities over the Assis Moreira brothers’ situation and that his ministry was following the situation closely. “Paraguay is sovereign to make decisions,” Moro reportedly said. The Brazilian press has since reported that the businessman believed to have, with Dalia López, invited Ronaldinho to Paraguay, has previously been targeted in Brazil’s large-scale ‘Lava Jato’ corruption probe.

Fake documents

Paraguay’s Interior Minister Euclides Acevedo has had to deny claims made in the press that he knew about the existence of fake documents prior to the Assis Moreira brothers arriving in Paraguay.