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A witness in the ‘Lava Jato case’ commits former Paraguayan president Horacio Cartes

Darío Messer, imprisoned in São Paulo as the alleged leader of a gigantic money laundering network, knew in May 2018 that he would be arrested in the anti-corruption operation Lava Jato. It is still being investigated how he had access to this privileged information, thanks to which he managed, at least that time, to escape from Justice. However, he could not prevent their accounts and assets from being frozen, financed with the money of politicians and businessmen that he helped divert and hide. On the run, penniless and under surveillance, Messer turned to a friend. “Unfortunately, my assets have been frozen and I need your help to cover legal expenses,” he said in a letter written in his own handwriting. That friend was the then president of Paraguay, Horacio Cartes (2013-2018).

Messer has now agreed with the prosecution to reduce his sentence in exchange for telling everything he knows about his dirty business. In his statement, he said that Cartes responded quickly to his request because it was “a reckoning.” He also revealed that Cartes gave him $ 600,000 to finance his escape and that he asked him not to turn himself in to the authorities while he was president. Cartes’ lawyer in Paraguay, Pedro Ovelar, told the newspaper ABC of Asuncion that in Messer’s statement there are “lies and misrepresentation.” “The only thing that proves [el testimonio] it is the friendship and affection of Horacio Cartes with the Messer family, not with the activities that Messer could have had in his life ”, said the lawyer.

Messer’s testimony was billed as an “unprecedented collaboration in Brazil.” This time, he would have agreed to lose 1 billion reais ($ 184 million) of his estate to shorten his sentence. The agreement provides for the return of 80 properties, including the farms it has in Paraguay. The statement did not disclose how long Messer will have to remain behind bars. Initially, the agreed sentence is 18 years and nine months, which can be reduced depending on the information it reveals.

The cause Lava Jato investigated Messer for being the alleged boss and main guarantor of a money laundering network that concealed the illicit origin of 1.2 billion dollars in kickbacks and dirty money, with transactions carried out in 52 countries. Until his first arrest last year, Messer held parties in his penthouse in the upscale Leblon neighborhood of southern Rio de Janeiro, frequented by celebrities such as former soccer player Ronaldo. He is also being investigated for alleged payments made to the lawyer Antônio Figueiredo Basto, known as the “king of agreements with the Prosecutor’s Office”, with the promise of guaranteeing him protection and privileged information on the investigations of the Federal Police and the Public Ministry.

Figueiredo Basto has always denied these accusations, but he faces a lawsuit for the illegal shipment abroad of 2.5 million dollars. It is still being investigated whether this money was in fact used to pay corrupt police officers and prosecutors, as Messer allegedly alleged.

After finally being arrested in July of last year, Messer spent nine months in jail. In March, he obtained the right to await trial under house arrest for the risks of contracting coronavirus in prison. In the two statements by Messer that have been revealed so far, he briefly describes his career and tells how the former Paraguayan president helped finance his season as a fugitive from Justice with $ 600,000 that would come from Banco Basa, controlled by the former president and his family.

Before the agreement was signed, prosecutors already had proof that Messer had requested and received money from Cartes. An order of preventive detention was even issued against the former Paraguayan president, but the Superior Court of Justice annulled it. Messer applied for financial aid when Cartes was still president of Paraguay. He told prosecutors, however, that he was only granted it in January 2019, when he was just a senator.

A letter as proof

Before the accusation agreement, prosecutors had located a reproduction of the letter Messer had written in June 2018 requesting financial assistance from Cartes. The image was on the mobile phone seized from Messer when he was arrested. After signing the agreement, Messer gave more details of that request for help. He told prosecutors that it was “Horacio’s duty to pay him,” because he was part of a “reckoning” with the then Paraguayan president.

To get the money, Messer mobilized a network of allies. The first contact was made by the smuggler Roque Silveira. Failing to get a positive response, Messer requested the intervention of the Uruguayan money changer Najun Turner, who had introduced him to Cartes in the 1980s. Since May 2018, Turner and Silveira helped Messer escape from Operation Change and Short, for which a preventive detention order had been issued against him.

Messer admitted to prosecutors that he knew in advance that he would be arrested. When the Federal Police wanted to arrest him, Messer was already at his home in the Paraná Country Club, in Hernandarias, a city in Paraguay. From there he moved to the Isla Alta ranch, another property of his in Paraguay, and “without having anywhere to go,” in his own words, he asked Turner for help, who in turn called Silveira.

His friend got a plane to pick him up and take him to Salto Del Guairá, the city where Silveira lived. There, Messer would have hidden for a month. During this period, Silveira traveled to Asunción and met with Cartes to ask him for help with his friend’s “legal expenses.”

Messer assures that he got to speak directly with Cartes on Silveira’s phone. “I was still president then,” he said. Messer claims that Cartes asked him not to turn himself in while he was president of Paraguay. And agreed. “Horacio asked the collaborator not to surrender to the authorities while he was still president, but he does not remember whether it was personally or because of Roque,” the statement reads.

After that season with Silveira in Salto Del Guairá, his friend introduced him to another family who took him, also by plane, to Pedro Juan Caballero, where he was hidden for almost four months in a rented house protected by an armed security guard. Only then could Messer receive visits from his girlfriend, Myra Athayde, and his lawyer, José Augusto Marcondes de Moura Júnior. “I was his lawyer. When he and his son wanted to make an agreement with the prosecution, I left it, ”Moura Júnior told EL PAÍS.

Messer returned to Brazil by plane on his birthday, September 22, 2018. He lived in a flat on Alameda Lorena, in the Jardins neighborhood, in São Paulo, before moving to another flat on Rua Pamplona, ​​in the same neighborhood, where he was arrested in July of last year.

While crossing Paraguay and Brazil fleeing from justice, Messer negotiated several times with the former Paraguayan president to receive the payment he expected. In the final leg of the negotiations, it was decided that Cartes would discuss the matter with Julio, Messer’s brother, who works as a doctor in New York. Messer sent his girlfriend, Myra Athayde, to the United States to meet her brother so that he could reach an agreement with the former Paraguayan president. According to her version, Athayde went to Paraguay in January 2019 and finally received the $ 600,000 from the executive Eduardo Campos, president of Banco Basa, controlled by the Cartes family.

Messer told Brazilian prosecutors that a lawyer assured him that $ 600,000 would be enough to obtain through bribes in Paraguay the house arrest and the rejection of his extradition to Brazil. However, the judges would have waived the bribery due to the repercussion of the case. According to Messer, the sponsored escape was the last exchange of favors with Cartes. He also revealed that it was a trade: In 1994, Messer’s family helped Cartes save Amambay bank, now Basa, with a $ 13 million loan. Part of this money was returned to Messer through the El Toro, Colorado and Nueva Esperanza farms, which were assets of the bank.

In the last four decades, Messer’s association with Cartes, who has called him “soul brother,” has grown in strength. The money changer says he was visiting Cartes at the presidential residence. He also alleges that he asked Cartes to appoint him honorary consul of Paraguay in Israel, the country in which Messer was hiding from Operation Friday the 13th, in 2010. The diplomatic position could have avoided problems for the money changer and the former Paraguayan president, but today it would be one more proof of the exchange of favors between the two.