Archive for February, 2008

Bloodbath

Bloodbath

| February 29, 2008

As the plane taxis toward the runway for the flight back to Miami, I reflect on our mission. While I learned a lot about the illicit trade from legitimate manufacturers, I didn’t manage to talk my way into a Paraguayan cigarette factory supplying the black market. That means I cannot report on the types of […]

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Meanwhile, back at the gate

Meanwhile, back at the gate

| February 28, 2008

Pablo tells me to remain in the car as he walks up to the gate. He talks with the guard, occasionally pointing in my direction. I am not sure how to behave. Should I wave, pretending to be a regular visitor, or should I ignore the two, as if I am preoccupied with the latest […]

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Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires

| February 27, 2008

As I write these words, Noel and I are enjoying the evening sun on a terrace in Buenos Aires, hundreds of miles from the tri-border area. Described as the Paris of South America—but with palm trees—Buenos Aires is a far cry from the bedlam of Ciudad del Este. But contrary to what their appearances suggest, […]

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To the factory

To the factory

| February 25, 2008

Pablo motions for me to have a seat behind the counter of the money exchange booth and starts making calls on his cell phone. The director of the factory turns out to be in Asuncion, Paraguay’s capital, and my new friend seems to be trying to track down somebody who can authorize my visit in […]

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Bedlam

Bedlam

| February 24, 2008

Today’s the day. I wash and shave like a holy warrior preparing for battle. But just in case divine protection is withheld, I also put on my running shoes. Under normal circumstances, I jog a respectable-but-not-spectacular 7.5-minute mile. With a gang of irate cigarette smugglers in pursuit, I reckon I could probably shave two whole […]

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Tired

Tired

| February 23, 2008

You’d think we’d know better after more than a decade of international business travel, but we’ve underestimated the size of Brazil and overestimated the number of appointments a person of flesh and blood can squeeze into a single workday. By the time we arrive at our hotel in Londrina, it’s 3:30 a.m. Our first appointment […]

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Doubts

Doubts

| February 23, 2008

As we get closer to Foz do Iguaçu, the Brazilian border town facing Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, I am starting to have doubts. When we first proposed investigating Latin America’s black market, I knew smugglers and counterfeiters would not necessarily welcome a pesky journalist sticking his nose in their lucrative business. But I also […]

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Staggering numbers

Staggering numbers

| February 22, 2008

This morning, I received an unsigned e-mail from a person who says he has studied Paraguayan cigarette production. The writer estimates 2008 cigarette consumption at 2.43 billion cigarettes. There are 50 licensed factories, and based on export activity, the e-mailer suspects that 32 factories are producing on a regular basis. Paraguay’s total production is around […]

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Can Brazil sustain its integrated system?

Can Brazil sustain its integrated system?

| February 21, 2008

While cigarette smuggling primarily affects cigarette manufacturers, Brazilian leaf dealers are facing an entirely different set of challenges. The U.S. dollar—the currency in which they are paid for their exports—has lost some 20 percent of its value against the Brazilian real in recent years, while the cost of production has gone up. The exchange rate […]

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Chicken feathers

Chicken feathers

| February 20, 2008

Last night, we had dinner with a representative of a major leaf merchant who was too diplomatic to question our sanity but impressed on us to be very careful as we probe the black market. Apparently, manufacturing cigarettes is so lucrative that some Paraguayan tobacco executives drive armored cars to protect themselves against kidnapping—not the […]

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Reality check

Reality check

| February 20, 2008

I knew Santa Cruz had a sizable population of German heritage, but there’s something bizarre about speaking German with a tanned taxi driver while zipping past palm trees in balmy 32-degrees-Celsius (90 degrees F) weather in a very un-European landscape. Santa Cruz is said to have the world’s second-largest Octoberfest after Munich. Too bad it’s […]

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Santa Cruz do Sul

Santa Cruz do Sul

| February 19, 2008

While Paraguay obviously has the manufacturing capacity, it is not a major leaf-producing country. Where does it obtain its tobacco, and are leaf producers in a position to help curtail the illegal cigarette trade? To find out, we’ll travel to Santa Cruz do Sul, the largest tobacco-producing area in the region.

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The fourth-largest market

The fourth-largest market

| February 18, 2008

If you are looking for a bargain, Rio’s Centro Uruguaiana is the place to be. Normally expensive brand-name sneakers, faux designer purses and wristwatches sell at rock-bottom prices—as do cigarettes. Telling fake from real isn’t easy, however—even for the trained eye. That afternoon we present several cigarette packs purchased at Centro Uruguaiana to Dante Letti, […]

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Luggageless

Luggageless

| February 17, 2008

The insignia thief must have turned himself in, because we’re allowed off the plane. But while the flight attendant has her decorations back, we’re without luggage. It’s still in Miami, where we had a tight connection. Fortunately, there are two more Miami-Rio flights that day. The airline promises to deliver that afternoon. There’s something oddly […]

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Detained

Detained

| February 17, 2008

We haven’t even landed in Latin America yet, and we’re already being threatened with detention—not for investigating the counterfeit cigarette trade, but for theft. As the plane descends, a terse flight attendant announces that a pin and some other American Airlines insignia have disappeared from a cabin crew member’s uniform. If the decorations aren’t returned […]

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We’re idiots

We’re idiots

| February 11, 2008

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” The leaf merchant was not impressed with our suggestion to track down a cigarette counterfeiter in Paraguay and interview him for an upcoming article in Tobacco Reporter about the illicit tobacco trade. “You’ll never find one. And even if you do, they will kill you.” Good. That confirms […]

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