Cocaine cartels encroach on Unification Church’s Paraguayan paradise

The Unification church, which is known for mass weddings, has had a troubled history in Paraguay since its founder launched a religious and commercial expansion there. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo, SENAD

The South Korean religious organization founded by self-proclaimed messiah Sun Myung Moon bought a remote piece of land in Paraguay about a quarter century ago, hoping to create an oasis for followers. Now the area is a hub for global drug trafficking.

Puerto Casado, Paraguay -- Early one morning in July of last year, about 30 Paraguayan anti-narcotics officers flew into a vast wooded wilderness known as the Chaco to raid five airplane landing strips used by drug traffickers.

Situated in northern Paraguay, a small, landlocked South American nation, the isolated Chaco has in recent years become a key trans-shipment point for gangs trafficking Andean cocaine to booming European markets.

Of the five landing strips raided on July 6, 2022, four were on land owned by South Korea’s Unification Church, Reuters found by cross-referencing the coordinates of the runways with a map of the church’s Chaco holding.

Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the late self-proclaimed messiah who founded the Unification Church in 1954, became one of Paraguay’s largest private landowners when he bought the Chaco plot nearly 25 years ago as part of a religious and commercial expansion into Latin America. The church, which has often been labeled a cult by critics, is best known for its mass weddings and an opaque international business empire.

Two senior Paraguayan anti-narcotics officers provided Reuters with 11 coordinates of Chaco landing strips allegedly used by drug gangs. By plotting those points on a map of the Moon holding, provided by a church source, Reuters identified at least five different airstrips on the property, including the four involved in the July raid.

Paraguayan drug-enforcement authorities last July raided clandestine airstrips, including the one shown here, in a remote section of the country. Many of the runways are on land owned by the Unification Church of South Korea, founded by Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Photos from the Twitter account of SENAD Paraguay.

Authorities found no drugs or planes during the operation and made no arrests. But there were rustic shacks next to the runways with basic provisions, beds and radio equipment, according to two Paraguayan officials present. A few days later, a team with construction equipment and explosives arrived to destroy the runways and render them inoperable, one of the officials said.

Reuters found no evidence the Unification Church or its members were involved in the drug-running targeted by the raids, or that it controls airstrips in the Chaco, an area authorities in Paraguay describe as lawless.

Michelle Byun, the lawyer for The Holy Spirit Association for the Unification Of World Christianity, as the church’s Paraguayan branch is formally known, said in a statement that the church is aware of illegal activity on its land and is cooperating with law enforcement.

“Both the Church, with its headquarters in Korea, and its members advocate for peace,” Byun said. “In no way is the Church involved in illegal acts.”

The Chaco raids point to a serious challenge for authorities combating the surging international cocaine trade. Paraguay has scant oversight of its national airspace and no radar tracking at all in the Chaco, prosecutors say. That allows drug gangs to fly undetected into the sprawling woodland with shipments of Bolivian or Peruvian cocaine. They land their planes on clandestine airstrips, which are often little more than rutted tracks carved out of the forest. The drugs are then smuggled by land or riverboat to Atlantic ports in Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina, before heading east on Europe-bound container ships.

The Unification Church is a major power in this unruly region. Moon, its founder, first visited the Chaco in the 1990s to fish the Paraguay River. In 2000, he bought the roughly 600,000-hectare plot from an Argentine agricultural conglomerate, paying $22 million for an area roughly ten times the size of Manhattan.

A hub for drug flights

Drug enforcement authorities say this remote area of northern Paraguay, known as the Chaco, has become a hub for global cocaine trafficking. These four airstrips were raided by anti-drug agents in July of 2022. All are located on land owned by South Korea’s Unification Church.

Moon’s purchase of the secluded and inhospitable Chaco tract confused many in Paraguay.

In his 2009 autobiography, Moon described himself as part of “a global environmental movement to preserve the living creatures” of the Chaco “in the pristine state in which God created them.” He said he hoped to transform the “long-neglected land” into an earthly paradise and a base for his supporters.

But the church quickly ran into problems in the Chaco that continue today.

Ever since Moon’s purchase, residents of a small town inside the holding have fiercely contested the church’s ownership. After Moon’s death in 2012, his relatives split the church into three rival sects, two of which are waging a long-running legal battle over who owns the Chaco plot. More recently, drug traffickers have muscled in on the territory.

The July 6 raids were part of a probe into a smuggling gang led by alleged trafficker Miguel Ángel Servín, according to Paraguay’s SENAD anti-narcotics agency and the lead prosecutor in the case.

Servín was arrested in 2021, the year before the raid, on charges of drug trafficking and criminal conspiracy. The investigation began with the 2020 seizure of 3.4 tonnes of cocaine by Belgian police in Antwerp, Europe’s main port of entry for the drug. The cocaine, hidden in a shipment of Chaco-made charcoal, was traced back to Paraguay, according to the indictment seen by Reuters. Servín remains in prison, awaiting trial. Servín’s lawyer, Rodrigo Alvarez, said his client maintains his innocence.

Elva Cáceres, the lead prosecutor in the Servín case, confirmed to Reuters that some of the landing strips raided in July 2022 were located on church land. She said she was not aware of the church or any of its officials being involved in drug trafficking.

Byun, the Unification Church lawyer, provided Reuters with an April 2022 document the church sent to Paraguayan anti-narcotics prosecutors, urging an investigation into potential illicit activity. The document mentioned a May 2021 seizure of 449 kilos of cocaine on its land and also flagged the likely existence of narco runways within its boundaries.

Marco Alcaraz, one of Paraguay’s top anti-narcotics prosecutors until his retirement last week, confirmed he had received the document and passed it on to SENAD for further investigation.

Sting operation

One prominent Paraguayan with close ties to the church has been convicted of a drug-related crime: Cynthia Tarrago, a member of Paraguay’s Congress between 2013 and 2018 and the regional president of a church offshoot organization.

In Paraguay, where the Chaco acquisition has long been contentious, the church has cultivated close ties with presidents, politicians and supreme court justices. Some have been granted senior positions in the church or its many offshoot organizations.

Tarrago was one of them. In 2017, she was named president of the South American chapter of the International Association of Parliamentarians for Peace (IAPP). Byun, the church lawyer, was named secretary general. Launched in 2016, the IAPP recruits legislators from around the world who are committed to advancing church goals.

In 2020, Tarrago and her husband, Raimundo Va, pleaded guilty to money laundering charges after being caught up in a sting operation by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. FBI agents impersonating drug traffickers provided the money that Tarrago laundered.

Before her conviction, Tarrago, a former TV personality, had been a rising star of the right-wing Colorado Party that has ruled Paraguay for all but five of the past 75 years. She spoke openly of her ambition to be the nation’s first female president and had just announced her candidacy for mayor of Asunción, the capital, when she was arrested on U.S. soil in late 2019.

Tarrago had begun appearing at important church events in Paraguay by 2016. The following year, she spoke at a global summit in Seoul, according to church promotional materials. In November 2018, she flew into New York City with her husband, Va, for another such event at the Unification Church-owned New Yorker hotel.

During their stay, the couple met an undercover FBI agent, who asked them to launder drug money. They said they were game. They also told the agent “how inexpensive cocaine and marijuana are in Paraguay,” and said they “had a network that could import drugs into the United States,” according to the criminal complaint from the U.S. Attorney in New Jersey.

By the time they were arrested on another U.S. trip a year later, the couple had laundered $800,000 of FBI cash with the help of a Paraguayan accomplice, Rodrigo Alvarenga Paredes, who processed the funds through his money-transfer business.

Tarrago and Va were sentenced last year to 33 months in a U.S. prison. Tarrago, who had been imprisoned since her November 2019 arrest, was credited for the time served and released in April 2022. Tarrago and Va could not be reached for comment.

Church lawyer Byun said Tarrago’s role as the IAPP’s South American president was only an “honorary position.” The church stripped her title after the arrest, according to Byun and church documents.

Last November, Alvarenga, Tarrago’s accomplice, was sentenced to two years of U.S. probation for running an unlicensed money transmitting business. Months later, on March 29, he was arrested in Asunción, accused by Brazilian law enforcement of leading an outfit that shipped at least 17 tonnes of cocaine to Europe over two years. He is in jail awaiting extradition to Brazil.

Byun said Alvarenga has no links to the church.

Paraguayan investigators believe Alvarenga has ties to Servín, the alleged trafficker suspected of using the runways on church land that were raided in July 2022, a SENAD official told Reuters.

“Alvarenga was a key player in the laundering of cash, and that was the link with Servín,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the active probe.

Alvarenga’s lawyer is Rodrigo Álvarez, who also represents Servín. Álvarez denied any nefarious links between his two clients but said they know each other because they are both from Pedro Juan Caballero, a violent, cartel-ridden city on the border with Brazil.

Alvarenga is fighting extradition to Brazil, his lawyer said.


A series of bumper Andean coca harvests have changed the nature of Latin American organized crime, exporting violence into once-peaceful nations such as Chile and Ecuador.

Paraguay, a country with a long history of graft, money laundering and contraband smuggling, was until recent years largely unaccustomed to drug violence. But it has seen major incursions from foreign drug cartels including Brazil’s First Capital Command (PCC), South America’s most powerful criminal syndicate. In 2020, 75 PCC members broke out of a Pedro Juan Caballero prison – despite authorities being aware of the planned escape.

High-profile murders have chilled the country. In May last year, assassins on a jet-ski murdered Marcelo Pecci, an influential Paraguayan anti-narcotics prosecutor, as he honeymooned on a Colombian beach. A week later, gunmen killed José Carlos Acevedo, the mayor of Pedro Juan Caballero.

Drug money has also corrupted many of Paraguay’s politicians. In the days after the murders of Pecci and Acevedo, the nation’s President, Mario Abdo Benítez, said cartels had co-opted Paraguay’s governing elite, including many within his own political circle, leading to a “complicit silence.”

“Organized crime is so permeated into our society that there’s no way we can guarantee there won’t be violence,” he said.

Abdo’s representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

The vast, isolated Chaco, sandwiched between Bolivia and Brazil, has been critical to Paraguay’s growing role in the global cocaine trade. Narco planes land there so often that locals joke about a night sky lit up like a Christmas tree.

Europe’s record cocaine seizure, more than 23 tonnes discovered in 2021, was traced back to a private river port near Asunción.

Much of the cocaine passing through Paraguay is bound for Europe, which U.S., European and Latin American anti-narcotics officials say has now overtaken the United States to become the world’s top market for the white powder. Cocaine seizures in western and central Europe reached a record 315 tonnes in 2021, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2023 World Drug Report, compared with over 250 tonnes in the United States. Europe’s record cocaine seizure, more than 23 tonnes discovered in 2021, was traced back to a private river port near Asunción.

James Laverty, who until last year was the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s assistant regional director for southern South America, told Reuters the “lawless” Chaco is now one of “the world’s most important staging grounds” for cocaine.

“It definitely plays a global role,” he said.

Trouble in paradise

The alleged drug-running on its land isn’t the only trouble the Unification Church has faced in the Chaco.

The church grew quickly after its founding in the 1950s, expanding into the United States in the 1970s amid a wave of alternative religions. Moon and his wife Hak Ja Han Moon – known as the “True Parents of all humanity” – became famous for their mass weddings, in which they would marry thousands of believers, many of whom had just met for the first time.

Moon built a global empire, investing in everything from fishing and gun manufacturing to real estate and media. Some businesses failed, but many thrived. He grew rich.

In 1982, he was convicted of U.S. tax fraud for failing to declare $162,000 as personal income. He served about a year in prison. The conviction soured Moon on the United States. In a 1995 speech, he described it as “a nation in decay,” and said he was instead betting on “the glory-filled days of Latin America that lie ahead in the 21st Century.”

In 2000, after snapping up assets in Uruguay and Brazil, Moon purchased the Chaco terrain from Carlos Casado SA, an agricultural giant named after its founder, a 19th-century Spanish-Argentine magnate.

The acquisition handed the church full control of Puerto Casado, a small company town built to house Carlos Casado employees who for decades had toiled in semi-feudal conditions processing tannin from the Chaco’s native quebracho trees.

Overnight, everything in Puerto Casado – its houses, roads and cemetery – all belonged to Moon and his church. Anger quickly mounted as the town’s 6,000-odd inhabitants realized the homes they had lived in their entire lives, but never owned, now belonged to a self-proclaimed messiah from Korea.

When church executives flew in to close the deal, locals formed a human chain to block their plane from leaving, forcing them to sleep the night in the aircraft. Early church gestures to assuage tensions, such as an offer to hand back control of the cemetery to the town’s inhabitants, only caused greater outrage.

Its administrators also stoked resentment. Locals recalled one church official, Lorenzo Myung, who would walk around town armed with a shotgun. His son, known as Lorenzito, “was even worse ... because he was more aggressive,” menacing locals if they looked him in the eyes, said Martin Rodriguez, an 87-year-old Spanish priest who first arrived in Puerto Casado as a Salesian missionary in 1980.

Rodriguez and other locals accused the Myungs of involvement in a 2005 blaze that burned down the local radio station, housed in the town’s Catholic church, which served as the main mouthpiece of opposition to the Korean ownership.

Dora Irrazábal, a prosecutor who led the probe into the blaze, said the townspeople and church management were “at war” when she arrived in Puerto Casado. She said Lorenzo Myung, whom she recalled as an “aggressive” man, accused locals of stealing church property but provided no evidence. Locals, meanwhile, accused Irrazábal of being a church stooge after she flew in on a church plane.

“It was a tense moment,” she said.

Irrazábal said investigators found signs of arson but did not have sufficient evidence to charge anyone. The case remains unsolved.

Neither of the Myungs responded to requests for comment sent to their Facebook accounts. Byun, the church lawyer, acknowledged the tensions with locals in Puerto Casado but declined to comment on the Myungs or the fire.

The town’s early squabbles with the church have evolved into a fraught, two-decade land dispute.

In 2005, Paraguay passed a law to expropriate 52,000 hectares of unproductive church land, but the measure was overturned two years later by the Supreme Court. A 2007 law obliged the church to donate nearly 30,000 hectares back to the people of Puerto Casado and the Paraguayan government, but the transfer has yet to take place.

One protester of the church’s ownership of the Chaco terrain is Alberto David Gauto, who is currently in jail as authorities investigate him on accusations of illegally invading and occupying Moon-owned land.

A police intelligence report obtained by Reuters shows Gauto is also suspected of moving cocaine, marijuana and explosives across northern Paraguay, another sign of the growing drug trade on church land.

Gauto, the document says, claimed to a police informant that he had received training from Colombia’s FARC guerrilla force.

Gauto didn’t respond to a Facebook message. His lawyer, Emilio Camacho, also didn’t respond.

Church schisms

The church’s problems in the Chaco were symptomatic of broader hurdles it has faced over the last two decades.

In 2009, a dynastic war over the future of the church led Moon’s eldest surviving son, Hyun Jin (Preston) Moon, to form the break-away Global Peace Foundation. Moon had originally named Preston as heir, but that choice was rejected by his mother, Hak Ja Han Moon, and brother Hyung Jin (Sean) Moon, who forced him out. Hak Ja Han then elevated Sean to senior positions, only to later fall out with him, too, according to Massimo Introvigne, director of the Center for Studies on New Religions, in Turin, Italy.

Following the death of his father in 2012, and amid growing tensions with his mother, Sean Moon left the church to form the Pennsylvania-based World Peace and Unification Sanctuary, also known as the Rod of Iron Ministries, a pro-gun sect with an extreme right-wing ideology.

The schisms have impacted operations in Paraguay, where the branch led by Preston Moon has been embroiled in a complex legal battle to wrest full control of the Chaco plot from the church’s Paraguayan chapter, affiliated with his mother. Currently, both branches own separate portions of the property.

Preston Moon declined to comment.

Sean Moon said in a statement that his father meant for him to inherit “his entire foundation, including the Chaco property.”

He said he was unaware of the drug-running in the Chaco but called it one of the many “tragic consequences” of his mother’s “usurpation of the worldwide foundation built by my father.”

Byun, Hak Ja Han Moon’s legal representative in Asunción, said the church had been unfairly “demonized” by local media. But she said it was “undeniable” that the family feud had had “a negative impact” on Rev. Moon’s “futuristic vision” for the Chaco.

“Unfortunately, the internal family crisis between the True Parents and one of the sons, namely Preston, projected a bad image of the church that it has not been able to improve,” Byun said.

While the Moons tussle for control of the Chaco property, drug traffickers increasingly encroach on the territory, according to residents of Puerto Casado.

Virgilio Chamorro, a foreman at the town’s sawmill, said cocaine trafficking in the region was an open secret. Puerto Casado, he said, “has become the heart of it.”

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