Sebastián Marset, the narco who mocks Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay

The criminal – who is linked to the assassination of a Paraguayan prosecutor, who was murdered during his honeymoon in Colombia – has been evading justice for years, by using fake names and passports

A clip from a video shared by Sebastián MarsetReuters

The surfacing (and subsequent escape) of Uruguayan drug lord Sebastián Marset in Bolivia has made headlines across three South American countries. Marset is a “high-value” criminal, as described by the Bolivian authorities: over the past decade, he has operated in Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia. He’s involved in transporting cocaine to the Northern Hemisphere, among other serious crimes. The most heinous one is the murder of Paraguay prosecutor Marcelo Pecci, which took place in Colombia in May of 2022. Marset is the principal suspect.

“We’re facing one of the largest drug traffickers seen in Bolivia and in our region in recent times, with a [fortune] in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars,” the Bolivian Minister of Government Eduardo del Castillo tells EL PAÍS. In the actions that were carried out in recent days to try to capture him in Santa Cruz – Bolivia’s largest city – the police seized assets worth about $10 million, according to the minister.

“We hope to catch him soon, or, failing that, help to catch him in other countries in the region,” Del Castillo affirms. Despite the huge operation deployed by the Bolivian police since Marset fled the siege on July 29, they haven’t been able to catch him. He’s likely with his wife and four children, along with his brother, Diego, who is also wanted for drug-trafficking. Several mercenaries are also accompanying the drug lord – these men helped him escape by attacking police officers who were about to arrest him. The Bolivian authorities claim that the head of these armed gangsters – who they didn’t identify – escaped to Brazil through the border city of Puerto Suárez. Marset may have done the same.

The fugitive had time to film a video, in which he blames his escape on Ismael Villca – the head of the Special Force to Fight Drug Trafficking (FELCN). “Thanks to the help of the FELCN director, I managed to leave, because he told me that the minister (Del Castillo) had already issued an arrest warrant against me,” the Uruguayan taunts in the recording that reached Bolivian media. However, the police and the government stand by Villca and consider the video to be a distraction.

This isn’t the first time that Marset has sent messages through the press. He already did it last year in Uruguay – a country that issued him a passport that allowed him to leave prison in Dubai, where he had been jailed at the end of 2021 for carrying a forged Paraguayan document. In that video, Marset denied that he was a drug trafficker and defended the lawyer who helped him process the document that saved him from the UAE’s immigration police. Now, he has asked the Bolivian government to release the people around him who were arrested. These include front men for his businesses, but also soccer players from the second division team he managed in El Torno, a municipality near the city of Santa Cruz. The detainees are accused of assisting in the escape of the drug trafficker.

Marset is called the “man with a thousand faces,” due to his ability to obtain false identities. The passport he obtained in Uruguay – his country of birth – bears his real name. The issuance of the passport opened a political crisis in Montevideo, with accusations thrown around between senior officials. There’s an ongoing parliamentary investigation into how he managed to obtain a new passport. Years earlier, in 2019, Marset obtained a Bolivian passport under the name of Gabriel de Souza Beuner – an alias under which he operated in Paraguay during that time, before becoming an important kingpin of the regional mafias.

After his release in early 2022 from Dubai – where a branch of the South American drug ring supposedly operates – Marset disappeared. “There was data that showed that he was in Asia or the Middle East. Later, it was believed that he was in Central America,” explains the head of Interpol in Paraguay, Carlos Duré. But, in fact, Marset was in Bolivia, where – according to Duré – he had a structure set up years before. And he didn’t operate with the Bolivian document he had, but with a Brazilian one, under the name of Luis Paulo Amorím Santos.

His arrival in Bolivia at the beginning of 2022 coincides with several important events in his biography: in February of that year, a police operation dismantled his network in Paraguay. In May, the international arrest warrant against him was issued. That same month, the Paraguayan prosecutor who directed the operation – Marcelo Pecci – was assassinated in Colombia, where he was spending his honeymoon. This crime has been attributed to Marset. Colombian President Gustavo Petro directly linked the drug lord to the assassination of the prosecutor.

During the year that he lived in Santa Cruz, Marset acquired the El Torno soccer club. This was in the style of Pablo Escobar, who, in the 1980s, financed Atlético Nacional in Colombia. According to the prosecution, the Uruguayan was engaged in money laundering through real estate deals. This business allowed him to lead a luxurious life, as shown by the list of mansions and vehicles that have been seized from him. He also had weapons: the police seized 17 automatic rifles and one pistol. In one of his houses, more than $400,000 was found inside a closet, in a black bag.

The Marset case has brought international and domestic complications to the Bolivian government. The Paraguayan authorities revealed to the press that, back in February, they had already warned the Bolivians about his presence in their country, along with two other “big shots” who had committed crimes in Paraguay. According to Paraguayan officials, the Bolivians weren’t receptive to this information… although they offer a different version:

“We received information that this subject was in our country in June, at a meeting of [the region’s] interior ministers,” says Eduardo del Castillo. He acknowledges that there was a Paraguayan-Bolivian police meeting in February, but claims that the issue of Marset wasn’t touched on. After the drug lord’s escape, Bolivia dispatched the Vice Minister of Social Defense and Controlled Substances to Paraguay. The official reason is to exchange information about the fugitive.

The Bolivian government has also been subject to domestic criticism in recent days. Carlos Romero – the former minister of government from 2012-2014 and 2015-2019 under the administration of ex-president Evo Morales – has become a constant thorn in Del Castillo’s side. Their battle of words is part of the declared war between the two factions of the ruling Movement for Socialism (MAS). Former minister Romero claims that Marset’s arrest could have been made at any time, since the 32-year-old man was walking freely through the streets of Santa Cruz. He also accused the police of incompetence for allowing the suspect to escape, while denying responsibility for the fact that Marset has Bolivian identity documents (which he obtained during Romero’s tenure).

This isn’t the first time that the Bolivian politician has accused the incumbent government of protecting drug traffickers. In the past, Del Castillo has warned that he will initiate criminal proceedings against Romero for slander. The Bolivian minister points out that more regional collaboration is needed to obtain better results against drug trafficking. “Countries isolated against a transnational crime have limitations. We must take a step forward and regionalize the fight,” he emphasizes.

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