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 minutes from that average.
To get from Foz do Iguaçu to Ciudad del Este, you must cross the Bridge of Friendship.
Despite the early hour, there is a steady stream of Brazilian shoppers heading toward Paraguay. Taxis, minibuses and motorcycles choke the middle lanes, while pedestrians hug the sidewalks, which are flanked by high fences to prevent shoppers from falling off—and, according to some, to stop smugglers from lowering merchandise to accomplices below.
At several places there are large holes in the fence, but it’s unclear whether they are a result of neglect or whether they have been created to help illegal traders circumvent customs above.
The smell of exhaust alternates with that of food and the occasional whiff of urine. In the middle of the bridge lies a pile of what looks like human excrement, as if marking the halfway point between Brazil and Paraguay.
The other side
As soon as I pass passport control and enter Paraguay, it’s utter bedlam. People stuff flyers into my hand advertising competitively priced electronics, shopkeepers pull my arm and wave at implausibly cheap brand-name sneakers while others push boxes of luxury perfumes and aftershaves into my face.
A passing woman pinches my buttocks, but as I spin around to check whether she was worth being pinched by, a speeding motorcycle taxi coming from the other direction almost kills me.
I look around for cigarettes but am quickly surrounded by a group of street kids shouting at me in Spanish. I don’t understand a word but assume this is the point at which I will lose my camera, so I start looking for an escape route.
But then I realize these kids aren’t interested in my valuables—they merely want their picture taken. Relieved, I take a short video as they pretend to throw one of their own into a foul-smelling container.
They thank me with the thumbs-up sign and then gesture to keep a close watch on my wallet and camera. “Maaany bad people here,” they manage in English, pointing at the passersby.
It’s time to find a cigarette smuggler. But how? Standing in the center of Latin America’s contraband capital I suddenly realize I don’t have plan.
Perhaps I should change money first. That would also be a good opportunity to ask directions to one of Ciudad del Este’s cigarette factories. Earlier this week, a helpful reader sent me a list with names and addresses of Paraguayan tobacco companies. There are more than 10 in Ciudad del Este alone, but it’s been difficult to find a detailed street plan of the city.
Ciudad del Este is uncharted territory even to Google maps, which has no trouble displaying the stains on my driveway but doesn’t offer even a rudimentary layout of the city I find myself in today. The search engine produces a pretty good image with street names of Foz de Iguaçu, but on the other side of the bridge, it simply turns white.
View Unchartered territory in a larger map
Fifty Brazilian real buy me a wad of Paraguayan bills with many zeros on them. The largest denomination, 50,000 guaranies, equals about 10 U.S. dollars.
I show the clerk the address of one of the cigarette factories on my list. “How far?” I ask, mimicking a walking motion with my fingers.
A lively discussion erupts behind the counter, and then somebody is summoned from a back office. A young man in his early 20s introduces himself—I’ll use a fake name, Pablo, to protect him—and from the back-and-forth between his colleagues, I deduct that he either works for the cigarette factory or does some sort of business with them.
Pablo motions he will take me to the factory but wants to know what I want to do there.
I have to be careful now. On the one hand, I am dying to question a Paraguayan tobacco executive about his country’s suspiciously high cigarette exports. On the other, revealing my true intentions would probably kill on the spot my chances of doing so.
Suddenly the language barrier works in my advantage. “Empresa Tabacalera,” I say, pointing to myself. “Negocios.” That last word means “business,” I think, because I saw it in a Spanish-language newspaper at the top of a page with what looked like share prices and a photo of U.S. Federal Reserve President Bernanke. Or was it a Portuguese paper?
It doesn’t matter. Without context, the words mean nothing—and that’s exactly what I intended. They have aroused enough curiosity among my new friends for them to want to help me, but I haven’t revealed the real purpose of my visit.
I’ll share the rest of this story tomorrow—it’s pretty good. But I am tired now. It’s past midnight (again) and I have an early morning appointment (again).