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A fat Lebanese man emerges from a room behind the cash register holding an AK-47 as though it were a full cup of coffee.
“Four fifty,” he says, sucking on a toothpick. “American. And if you want help getting it across the border, that can be arranged.”
His storefront is about the size of a walk-in closet, barely large enough for the five shoppers here today, and made to feel even more cramped by the half-dozen targets hanging from the ceiling.
“Four hundred,” I counter.
“Four twenty-five,” he replies.
“Four hundred,” I repeat, feigning confidence and experience.
“Four fifteen is absolutely as low as I will go,” he grumbles, “but I will give you the first 15 bullets for free.”
Here, just inside Paraguay, close to where that country ends and Argentina and Brazil begin, is Ciudad del Este—most famous for its markets, both illicit and legal, which I’m shopping my way through with startling ease...
The downtown market is dense and compact, a maze of concrete spanning a five-block-by-five-block square. Despite its size, the market is extraordinary for its diversity. There’s the upscale Monalisa shopping mall, where the nouveau riche stock up on authentic Montblanc pens and Bulgari jewelry, alongside sidewalk kiosks offering pirated copies of Die Hard 4.0 in bulk and where San Francisco 49ers fans can buy shoddily sewn “Startar” jackets. Thanks to the fact that Paraguay has lower import tariffs than either of its neighbors, Ciudad del Este essentially functions as a massive outdoor duty-free shop—a destination for anyone looking for a bargain.
At the markets, business is international. Everything comes from somewhere else, stopping in Ciudad del Este for a brief respite on card tables and in malls before being packed into the luggage of tourists and smugglers who flock here by the hundreds daily, stocking up on My Little Pony dolls, PlayStations, bootleg DVDs, brass knuckles, and, of course, machine guns. This can make it a dangerous place. Even the city’s police admit that Ciudad del Este has become a haven for criminals. And though little evidence has ever been made public to support the allegation, the governments of Argentina and the United States have long maintained that both al-Qaeda and Hezbollah have received funding from businesses operating in the city.
...Brazón, who followed his Paraguayan wife to Ciudad del Este 25 years ago, is part of a sizeable immigrant population drawn to the city by its open markets and promises of wealth. In addition to migrants from its neighboring countries, Ciudad del Este is home to a sizable Muslim population, as well as Japanese, Taiwanese, and Koreans. Downtown, billboards of Asian models advertise cheap clothes and jewelry, while a nameless Chinese restaurant three blocks off the market’s center counts as one of the best I’ve ever sampled. Another afternoon, on my way to an Arab restaurant for lamb shawarma, I overhear two women haggling in Mandarin over the bulk price of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers figurines. When my check comes, it is tallied up in U.S. dollars, though I could pay in Brazilian reals or Paraguayan guarani if I had them handy.