ASUNCI0N, PARAGUAY — CONTRABAND wasn't invented by Stroessner, but he certainly perfected it," says Jose Luis Simon, author of a forthcoming book on corruption during the regime of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner. "You name it - it was smuggled through Paraguay," he says. "First, scotch whisky and cigarettes, then heroin, electric domestic goods, and now cocaine."
Despite General Stroessner's die-hard anticommunist stance, business was business. His politics did not prevent him from selling Paraguayan passports to the Montoneros, Argentina's leftist guerrillas, Mr. Simon says.
"Contraband," Stroessner used to say, "is the price of peace." And the price? Most economists agree it was worth at least the value of Paraguay's gross domestic product, which last year reached $5 billion.
Nearly everyone in Paraguay drives a stolen car, Simon says. Ninety percent are what Paraguayans call mau (or "imported") cars from Argentina and Brazil.
Environmental groups are also increasingly worried that Paraguay has become the regional center for the trade in skins of animals threatened by extinction. The trade in rare animal skins is the third-largest illicit business in Paraguay after drugs and arms, and worth $10 billion a year worldwide, says Traffic International, a group monitoring the illegal trade.
Traffic International says that each year hundreds of thousands of skins pass through Paraguay on their way from Bolivia and southwest Brazil to markets in Europe and the Far East.
Three cases that came to light in 1990 show the scale of Paraguay's involvement. On April 28, a large trailer truck was stopped on the Paraguayan-Argentine border. Inside were 73,000 crocodile and jaguar skins.
At the beginning of August, Juan Villalba, Traffic International's regional representative, denounced the Paraguayan Agriculture Ministry for violating international treaties by authorizing the sale of 35,000 crocodile skins and 4,000 ostrich skins to a private trader. Hernando Bertoni, the agriculture minister of 30 years' standing, admitted negligence and resigned.
The same month, Gen. Andres Rodriguez sacked two generals and handed them over to military justice after a plane, which crashed in May in the Chaco region, was found to have animal skins aboard. Analysts say Paraguay's thousands of miles of frontier make a clampdown difficult.
"To combat contraband, you would need to electrify all the frontiers - or create a new breed of Paraguayan," says Pablo Herken, a leading economic analyst. "Both are unlikely."