Smuggling is just a way of life at Friendship Bridge

A long line of men and women bundled in coats and holding umbrellas, shuffle past a border patrol station, not even bothering to stop and check in. The officers ignore them as they pass.

The border crossers walk under a large sign announcing plans to improve the Friendship Bridge, then step onto the span and out over the dark green Parana River.

They are heading east into Paraguay, carrying empty bags and suitcases. On the other side of the bridge, lines of people head west, back into Brazil, with the same types of bags, but overflowing.

One family stops to look over the rails and take a picture, but most move with the hurried stride of people who have done this many times before.

On the other side, just past another border checkpoint — also ignored — one large, shining building stands out from the dirt roads and plastic tents around it. This is the Shopping Del Este mall, in Paraguay, where lower prices lure Brazilians by the hundreds across the border every day.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Brazil smuggling: An article in the Aug. 9 Section A about Brazilians crossing the border for tariff-free shopping referred to the shoppers heading east into Paraguay and west back to Brazil. Paraguay is west of Brazil. —
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A shop near the front door offers Beats by Dr. Dre headphones. They're priced at less than $200, about $70 lower than they would be in Brazil, where they will almost certainly be going.

"You can buy up to $300 worth of items here and bring them back without declaring them or paying taxes," explains one saleswoman, switching from the native Spanish she speaks with co-workers to the fluent Portuguese she speaks with almost every customer. "But if you want to buy more than that, we can write you a receipt with whatever dollar value you want."

Most Brazilians come to Paraguay for one reason: The small, landlocked and much poorer country does not impose the tariffs on foreign goods that Brazil does, leading to a brisk cross-border trade in goods such as DVD players, video game consoles, cameras, televisions, whiskey and even bedding.

The Ponte da Amizade (as the bridge is called in Portuguese) or Puente de la Amistad (Spanish), connects Foz do Iguacu, Brazil, and Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, two communities that thrive on the cross-border trade.

The bridge — one of the few crossings on Brazil's 10 borders that is easily accessible — may be the site of the most casual smuggling operation on the continent. Even the word for the activity in Brazil, muamba, connotes a kind of carefree activity that bends the rules only slightly as authorities look the other way.

There is no common equivalent for muamba in Paraguayan Spanish, just as there is no equivalent for another term fundamental to the flow of goods over the wide river.

Laranja, the Portuguese word for orange, refers colloquially to someone used as a stand-in for some nefarious activity. On the border, it means being a mule of sorts, carrying the legal limit of $300 in goods across the border on behalf of someone who is buying in bulk.

Though the scheme technically involves breaking the law — by declaring goods purchased by someone else, or by paying someone to do so — there is little risk of arrest.

"Man, everyone I know used to be a laranja at one point," Brazilian Claudio Hermosilla says as he drives his van toward the bridge early one morning. "I did. You would just keep going and coming across the bridge all day, every day, until they actually stopped you one time. Then you'd have to wait a month to go again."

These days, his travel company takes tourists from all over Brazil to one of two main destinations — nearby waterfalls or the malls in Paraguay.

"The government knows exactly what's going on," Hermosilla says. "Everyone around here lives off of this somehow or another."

For all the activity that takes place across the border, muamba may actually be in decline. Its peak came in 2010-13, when the value of Brazil's currency, the real, was at an all-time high, and Brazilian consumers were enjoying an economic boom.

Hermosilla and many others still make money, but as Brazil's economy has slowed and the real has depreciated in relation to the dollar, the margins are not as wide as they used to be.

Shirley Cuenca, 24, mills around in front of a green wall of Xbox games with three other Paraguayan women in their 20s, all saleswomen at the mall.

"The rise of the value of the dollar over the last year changed everything," Cuenca says. She has worked since she was 16 selling goods to Brazilians. Like all the women working here, she has indigenous features and dark skin, while most of the customers have light skin and fancier outfits.

"Some stores closed, others had to fire some of our colleagues," she says. "But what are we going to do? We live off Brazil, so we just hope things get better there."

Brazil's population is 30 times that of Paraguay's, and its economy is more than 80 times bigger. Paraguay relies heavily on trade, with Brazil as its main partner, but relations between the two nations weren't always marked by the "friendship" celebrated on the bridge.

The War of the Triple Alliance, which Pope Francis spoke of on a recent trip to the Paraguayan capital, Asuncion, pitted Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay against Paraguay from 1864 to 1870. More than half of Paraguay's male population was killed.

The war looms large in the identity of Paraguayans, but many Brazilians know little about it.

Today, official relations between the countries waver between bad and decent, but muamba seems to be a sturdy and established part of the relationship. At the end of the day, near a dilapidated soccer stadium, a group of women starts to load bag after bag onto a double-decker bus headed back into Brazil.

"Hey, take this across the border for me," one says, in Portuguese, to a man seated upstairs in the bus watching TV on his laptop. He hesitates. Seeing his reticence, she becomes annoyed.

"Oh come on," she says, shoving five or six boxes toward him. "It's just perfume."

Bevins is a special correspondent.

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