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, Ciudad del Este could very well be the wealthier city of the two. One person I spoke to suggested that more money passes through Ciudad del Este every year than through New York City, making it the world’s undisputed money-laundering capital.
I told him about the completely white, unmarked Boeing 747 we saw at Ciudad del Este’s airport—the only other plane on the tarmac besides our own. “I suppose you’d need a damn 747 to get all that money out,” he joked.
We order two of those famous Argentinean steaks but, to avoid clichés, I drink beer rather than wine.
The recent success of Argentinean wines on the world market has allegedly more to do with marketing than advances in production.
“It’s still the same wine,” says a local with knowledge of such issues.
Tobacco executives think their industry should follow the example of Argentina’s wine makers. “We produce a consistent and high-quality product, but we need to create a brand,” says a Salta-based leaf merchant.
Like their colleagues in Brazil, Argentinean tobacco companies face competition from smuggled and falsified cigarettes, again mostly originating in Paraguay. But the issue is less pressing here than it is in Brazil.
A recent price war among the major manufacturers has narrowed the price gap between duty-paid and duty-not-paid cigarettes and reduced the potential profits for smugglers.
Brand piracy remains a concern, though. Albino Carlos Del Frari, president of the Cooperativa de Tabacaleros de Jujuy, was recently surprised to find a hinge-lid version of his company’s leading cigarette brand. The cooperative packages its cigarettes in soft cups.
It’s time to head to the airport. I’ll tell the rest of the story about my trip to the Paraguayan cigarette manufacturer tomorrow.