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Paraguay prosecutor Marcelo Pecci shot to death in Colombia

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia — The Caribbean resort was the perfect place for the newlyweds’ honeymoon, a getaway in Cartagena, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Colombia. They were a well-known couple from Paraguay — he, a highly respected prosecutor; she, a television journalist.

They had posted videos of their wedding and selfies before beachfront sunsets. On Tuesday morning, they shared a photo hugging beside a tiny pair of red shoes in the sand. They were expecting a baby, Claudia Aguilera announced on Instagram: “The best wedding gift.”

It would be one of their last photos together. They were on the beach at Barú about 10:30 am when hit men rode up on personal watercraft and one opened fire on Marcelo Pecci. The bullets struck the prosecutor in the face and the back, killing him. He was 45.

“He just looked at him and shot him,” Aguilera told the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo. “He didn’t say anything,”

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The brazen killing of Pecci, a key South American partner of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, has shocked Colombians and Paraguayans alike, and appeared to underscore the dangers of investigating drug trafficking in Latin America. The identity of the suspects and the motives are unclear, but authorities believe Pecci was targeted for his work investigating “international terrorism.”

The US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs expressed its dismay. “He’s fighting organized crime stands as an example to us all — especially his efforts to bring to justice those who engaged in money laundering, drug trafficking, and corruption,” the agency said.

The killing, on the other side of the continent from Pecci’s home country, showed the increasingly international nature of organized crime in the region, authorities and analysts said.

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Pecci was one of the most powerful prosecutors in Paraguay, a country of about 7 million people landlocked between Brazil and Argentina. In recent years he had investigated such high-profile cases as the shooting of a drug trafficker and a model at a concert near Asunción in January and the probe that jailed famed Brazilian soccer player Ronaldinho in 2020 for entering the country on a fake passport.

Pecci was also part of Ultranza, Paraguay’s largest-ever operation to tackle the flow of drugs to Europe. He recently ordered the seizure of properties owned by a Brazilian drug lord known as Cabeza Branca.

His killing set off an international investigation, with Colombian and Paraguayan authorities working closely with the FBI, DEA and Interpol. On Wednesday, Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, the director of Colombia’s national police, released a sketch of a possible suspect wearing a hat commonly worn on Colombia’s coast. Authorities said the alleged suspect has a Caribbean accent.

“This is an assassination against justice,” Vargas said. “There is a very organized crime system here.”

One police officer involved in the investigation said the hit man was probably Colombian, suggesting the job was outsourced to hired assassins in the country. The lead suspect is not from Cartagena, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation. Authorities are investigating any links the suspect might have to criminal organizations.

“The truth is that it was not difficult to know where the prosecutor was,” the official said. “Everything was published on social media, and reaching that area is not complex.”

Personal watercraft have re-emerged as a common means of approach and escape for cartel hit men in Mexico, including broad-daylight attacks in tourist areas.

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Pecci and Aguilera were assigned a security detail back in Paraguay, but they had no bodyguards this week as they relaxed on the beach. Aguilera told El Tiempo that the couple had felt calm. “We had no threats,” she said.

Paraguay is historically peaceful country, but it’s South America’s largest producer of marijuana and has suffered a recent uptick in violence tied to Brazilian drug cartels. Its location between Brazil and Argentina, the continent’s largest economies, “could make it a prime spot for these groups to gain a foothold,” said Greg Ross, an analyst at the Latin America-focused political consultancy Hxagon.

“The fact that there’s a possibility that Colombian organized criminal groups have a role in this is quite striking,” Ross said.

The killing comes at a particularly tense time for Colombia, just weeks before its presidential election. During the past week, Colombia’s largest drug cartel terrorized cities across 10 departments, including Cartagena’s department of Bolívar, with an “armed strike” to protest the extradition to the United States of its leader. For four days, Clan del Golfo paramilitaries blocked roads, closed businesses and ordered citizens to stay in their homes.

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Officials said it might be the first time a Paraguayan prosecutor has been killed in connection to his work. Paraguayan prosecutor Alicia Sapriza, speaking to reporters in Cartagena, said Pecci’s death “hits us very hard.”

“We have no precedent for a colleague with such a brilliant, irreproachable track record, who has waged such a head-on fight against organized crime, to have been a victim,” Sapriza said. His death of him, she said, marks a “before and after” for investigative work in Paraguay.

One former colleague of Pecci said prosecutors in Paraguay are in a state of fear and panic.

“Here, we do not have all the infrastructure, we do not have cameras,” said the former colleague, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter. “Airports do not have radars, ports do not have control systems. … We are not prepared.”

A former partner of Pecci in Paraguay’s National Anti-Drug Secretariat described him as an honest man and a “prosecutor like few others.”

“It is a great shame what happened,” he said. Like many others, the former partner expressed shock that Pecci was gunned down far beyond his country’s borders.

“They could have killed him in Paraguay if they had wanted to,” he said. “That’s what’s striking.”

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