US slaps ban on former Paraguay leader over corruption

In this file photo taken on July 1, 2018, Paraguay's President Horacio Cartes delivers the last annual legislative report before handing over his government in Asuncion. Photo by NORBERTO DUARTE / AFP

Washington, United States - - The United States on Friday slapped a travel ban on Paraguay's former president Horacio Cartes, accusing the businessman-turned-politician of corruption and links to "terrorist" groups.

Cartes, who led the South American nation from 2013 to 2018 and runs a business empire that has included tobacco and soccer teams, denied the allegations as "unfair and unfounded."

The State Department declared Cartes and his three adult children ineligible to travel to the United States.

It said that Cartes "obstructed a major international investigation into transnational crime," a reference to a money laundering scandal for which Brazil has sought the extradition of the former president.

"These actions undermined the stability of Paraguay's democratic institutions by contributing to public perception of corruption and impunity within the office of the Paraguayan president," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

"Additionally, these actions enabled and perpetuated Cartes' recently documented involvement with foreign terrorist organizations," he added.

He did not specify further, but Paraguay's Vice President Hugo Velazquez has accused the former leader of ties with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which has allegedly profited on the smuggling of counterfeit cigarettes through Paraguay and its porous three-way frontier with Argentina and Brazil.

Argentina in June grounded an airplane with Venezuelan and Iranian crew after Paraguayan intelligence linked a passenger to Iran's elite Quds Force, which backs Hezbollah.

But Argentine President Alberto Fernandez later said it was a false allegation.

Cartes in a statement said he was ready to provide "all the supporting and first-source information that authorities need" to prove his innocence.

His lawyer, Pedro Ovelar, said at a press conference in Asuncion that Cartes "suffers persecution from the government" of his successor Mario Abdo Benitez, his rival for leadership of the Colorado party in internal December 18 elections.

Ovelar said the State Department's decision was based on "biased information resulting from strong lobbying by his political opponents."

Despite the alleged Hezbollah links, Cartes pleased the United States as president by making Paraguay one of the few nations to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which the Palestinians also want as a future capital.

The decision was reversed by Abdo Benitez.

© Agence France-Presse

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