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Paraguay Faces a Challenge as Insurgents Mount Unsettling Kidnappings and Attacks

July 26th 2011

Latin American Topics - Paraguay president Lugo
President Fernando Lugo of Paraguay

The Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo (Paraguayan People’s Army, or EPP) has now become a household name in Paraguay as well as among security agencies in neighboring countries. For the moment, it has focused its field of operations on kidnapping wealthy Paraguayans, only occasionally attacking Paraguay’s security forces. One of the most prominent victims of the EPP has been Fidel Zavala, who was held captive for 94 days until he was finally freed on January 17, 2010. Unfortunately, as the history of insurgent movements in general seems indicate, there is ample room for “growth” when it comes to their possible future operations. From kidnappings to murder, along with armed raids and other major attacks, this group also has been accused of kidnapping and subsequently brutally murdering Cecilia Cubas, the daughter of former Paraguayan president Raúl Cubas.

The ascent of the EPP raises a number of contentious issues, but two stand out in particular. First, what kind of counterinsurgency strategy might Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo carry out? The Paraguayan head of state is a former bishop who was criticized during the presidential campaign for his religious background, with the implication being that it might make him soft on crime. Nevertheless, Lugo has not had a problem with deploying over 2,000 troops to the northern parts of the country to crack down on the EPP. This, in turn, raises a new set of problems, as Paraguayan civil society has a somewhat problematic relationship with its military, dating back to a number of recent military-backed dictatorships that were known for their human rights abuses.

The second issue has more to do with the EPP itself; it claims to have a leftist political ideology. Specifically, according to reports, the group argues that it has a Socialist/Communist ideological heritage, with inspiration coming from international and national heroes (like Che Guevara). If this is true, the EPP would be one of the first violent organizations to appear in Latin America after the end of the Cold War that pledges to have a political ideology. In the era of international Mexican cartels and widespread drug-trafficking groups, this would represent a significant development.

The EPP already presents an interesting case-study for academics, but for the Paraguayan government, it is a new security threat that will have to be faced. Paraguay today is, unfortunately, a poor, under-developed, landlocked state in dire need of development of every description. But improving the living conditions of its population is no easy task. The last thing this South American country needs is a brutal counterinsurgency war, as some of its neighbors have recently experienced.

The EPP – A Brief Synopsis
 
For the moment, the EPP remains a relatively obscure guerrilla movement. According to Jane’s Defense, its origins date back to 1992 when a group of trainee priests, who had been expelled from a Catholic seminary for their radical political views, established the Movimiento Monseñor Romero with the aim of plotting a socialist revolution. For the Asunción daily ABC, the EPP is a group comprised of criminal elements accused of murdering police officials and attacking police and military outposts. According to that news service, the EPP was created in 2005, after the kidnapping and subsequent murder of Cecilia Cubas. By contrast, the EPP argues that it is an armed group made up of peasant communities.

It denies Asunción’s accusations that it is a group of criminals or has any affiliation with any other insurgent organizations like the Colombian FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia); however, the government claims that the EPP has strong ties with the Colombian guerrillas, going as far as insisting that the Paraguayan rebels have received training in Colombian encampments. It is known that at least one key FARC leader, Orley Jurado Palomino, aka Commander Santiago, has gone to Paraguay to provide training, advice and operational leadership to the insurgent group. It is also unclear if the EPP has ties with some major Brazilian drug trafficking organizations, like the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) and Red Command (Comando Vermelho) which are known to have a significant presence in northern Paraguay.

Between 2010 and 2011 the EPP appears to have increased the boldness of its operations. On April 21, 2010, there was a shootout between EPP members and security forces in Arroyito in the province of Concepción. One policeman and three private guards were killed, which brought about the calling of a “state of exception” and major military deployment.

In addition, Interior Minister Rafael Filizzola has accused the EPP of being the masterminds of explosions across the country. Indeed, the EPP has taken credit for a detonation that injured five people in the town of Horqueta on January 17, 2011. An EPP note declared this was a retaliatory attack for the death of two EPP members at the hands of the Paraguayan police in 2010. More recently, in mid-July 2011, the EPP claimed ownership of an attack on a farm known as “La Amanda,” in as the department of Concepción, close to the border with Brazil, in which farm machinery was destroyed. 

Nevertheless, as a small group, the EPP still lacks two critical components: money and weapons. It has some popular support in Northern Paraguay, but it does not have a surplus of active combatants, for which financial funding and training is a necessity. One can see, however, that the EPP has increased and improved the nature of its operations. Originally, the EPP carried out bank robberies, but they proved to be dangerous and unprofitable.

In November 2001, the clandestine organization carried out its first successful kidnapping, that of María Edith de Debernardi. Publicly, $1 million ransom was reportedly paid for her release, although rumors are that the amount was much greater. Kidnappings continued after that, like that of Cecilia Cubas; it is believed that the Cubas family paid $300,000 in ransom, but the EPP still killed the former president’s daughter (when her body was found, officials declared that she had been suffocated). The EPP has also been accused of being involved in drug trafficking in collaboration with Brazilian cartels. Regarding armament, the group’s modus operandi to secure weapons is to steal whatever its members can obtain from their attacks against security installations.

A 2009 analysis by David A. Spencer, professor of National Security Studies at the National Defense University in Washington D.C., explains that the EPP membership can be divided into one of four categories: “A) Full-time combatants, B) Part-time combatants or militias, C) Logistics support forces, D) Internal and External political support and propaganda).”  The EPP is believed to be able to muster around 60 full-time combatants and its most important members include individuals identified as Osvaldo Villalba (the group’s leader), Manuel Cristaldo, Juan Arrom and Alcides Oviedo.

A Political Ideology?

Carmen Villalba, a self-declared spokeswoman of the EPP, has stated that the group’s support comes from “el pueblo paraguayo, del sector popular, de gente que eternamente fue burlada, discriminada, pisoteada” (“the Paraguayan people, the people who eternally feel that they have been ridiculed, discriminated against and stepped on”). According to reports from the field, the EPP has been influenced by Che Guevara and Régis Debray, as well as national heroes like the Mariscal Francisco Solano López. Other reports, particularly coming from media declarations by former hostage Fidel Zavala, point out that the EPP also looks up to Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Karl Marx.

Even though the EPP seems to adhere to Marxist-Leninist ideology, prominent leftists such as Luis Casabianca, leader of the Paraguayan Communist Party, have condemned the Zavala kidnapping. The Paraguayan Marxist has stated that the EPP “no es revolucionario, sino terrorista” (“is not revolutionary, rather, terrorist”). It is noteworthy that Casabianca, who in the 1960s was part of the guerrilla group Frente Unido de Liberación Nacional (FULNA), which today stands apart from the EPP.

Discussions will continue to assess whether the EPP is a criminal band or a real guerrilla group with a concrete political ideology that originates out of the extreme poverty for which Paraguay is known. In his previously mentioned 2009 analysis, Spencer highlights the somewhat ironic situation in Paraguay as President Lugo was elected on a fairly populist platform, resorting to a national coalition of left-wing and non-leftwing parties. His election was part of a wave of populist governments that democratically took control, at least temporarily, of most South American states over the past decade, ranging from moderates like Lula da Silva in Brazil to more ideologically-prone ones like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia. Spencer explains that:

“Lugo’s election divided the peasant movement and support for EPP. Some wanted to form a single, unified and disciplined movement with single line of action, an option favored and pushed by the members of the EPP and their supporters. Others wanted to form a loose political coalition around the figure of Lugo, the alternative that ended up prevailing. It is this divisive political dynamic that explains EPP’s continued activity despite a leftist president in power.”

The more extremist members of the EPP saw Lugo’s alliance with non-leftist, non-populist groups as a betrayal of their goals. In its communiqués, the EPP condemned the “treacherous pretend socialists” for making alliances with “pro-imperialists” and “pro-oligarchy” factions. On September 21, 2010, President Lugo allegedly received a threatening letter from the EPP, calling him a “walking cadaver” and has termed Minister of the Interior Rafael Filizzola and his wife, Congresswoman Desire Masi, as “oligarch bullies” and “money wasters.” 

The EPP has declared that it wants to establish a “Socialist/Communist” republic of Paraguay, and it will resort to violence to achieve this, but it is unclear what this utopian government would look like, particularly regarding its leadership. In Peru, the leaders of Shining Path and the MRTA (Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru), Abimael Guzmán and Victor Polay Campos respectively, also wanted to overthrow the central government in Lima and create a new state with themselves as presidents (or executive leaders). It is unclear so far if the EPP leadership has similar plans to establish itself as the head of this illusory Socialist Paraguay.

Lugo’s Response
 
The future of the EPP will depend on how President Fernando Lugo, the former Catholic bishop, chooses to respond. Will the president turn to a military offensive, including search-and-destroy missions against the EPP, or should its activities be allowed to continue? Will Lugo’s religious background affect his decisions? Apparently not. In January 2010, six peasant leaders were detained by the country’s security forces, who accused them of being EPP members who were involved in the 2008 Luis Alberto Lindstrom kidnapping, despite claims from human rights activists that there was no concrete evidence against them. Then, in late April 2010, the Paraguayan leader ordered a 30 day “state of exception” and the deployment of 3,300 troops from the Paraguayan army, navy and air force, as well as 300 police officers, to the northern departments of Concepción, San Pedro, Amambay, Presidente Hayes and Alto Paraguay to crack down on the insurgents. Political opposition groups, as well as civil society organizations, have since condemned these events. In any case, such military operations against the EPP so far have failed to disband the insurgent group. On March 15, 2011, the highly-regarded online defense newsletter Southern Pulse reported that Asunción increased a potential reward for information that could help capture high-ranking EPP members.
 
It is worth highlighting the need for the Paraguayan armed forces to improve the effectiveness of their counterinsurgent operations, which are affected by the preparation and readiness of military personnel. Paraguay is burdened by a small defense budget, and thus its military has to resort to relatively cheap weapon deals with Brazil and target critical hardware areas that need major affordable upgrading. One example occurred in early 2011, when Brasilia donated three used Tucano 727 planes so that the Paraguayan air force could effectively train its pilots. The transaction didn’t involve a purchase, but rather represented an exchange whereby Paraguay obtained the three aircraft, and in turn it donated four unused Xavantes and an old Boeing 707.

According to an early June report by online defense news agency Infodefensa.com, the Paraguayan government declared that the country will now spend $40 million to obtain new equipment for its military.  The country wants to obtain ammunition, military trucks, transport planes, radars and patrol vessels. Companies like Iturri, Renault Trucks Defense, Santa Barbara Systems and EADS have been mentioned as possible solo or joint suppliers. The commander of the armed forces, General Benicio Melgarejo, has stated the country’s intention to equip an infantry battalion for the navy, including the acquisition of vessels to patrol the country’s rivers. The Paraguayan military has also acquired 450 Galil 5.56mm assault rifles from Colombia.

Furthermore, the EPP will initiate a new dynamic to take into account regarding civilian-military relations in Paraguay, which already are somewhat strained under the Lugo presidency. Since coming to power, Lugo has carried out at least three major purges of the military leadership, with the latest occurring in mid-2011. According to recent reports, Lugo has replaced top leaders like the commander of the army (General Darío Cáceres), the commander of Logistics (General Waldino Acuña) as well as other regional commanders. Analysts have speculated that this move is a way for Lugo to avoid a potential “constitutionalist coup”, similar to what happened in Honduras in 2010, as he tries to reform the constitution so he can run for re-election. The last attempted military coup in Paraguay took place in 2000, when rebel troops unsuccessfully tried to overthrow then-president Luis González Macchi. It is too early to tell if this change among the top military brass will affect the security operations against the EPP.

As a final point, there is the concern that military operations would devolve into human rights violations. Paraguayan civil society has been historically wary of its military due to decades of dictatorships like that of Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989) and his brutal crackdown on opposition groups.

Conclusions
 
Unfortunately for Paraguay, its security woes seem to have mounted recently. For years, the country has been rumored to have Hezbollah members operating within its territory. In addition, it has been painted as a center for numerous international crimes, ranging from drug trafficking to smuggling goods across natural borders, including expensive cars and other contraband.

So far, the EPP has proven itself to be a small but resilient and aggressive rebel group. The high profile kidnappings, bombings and occasional attacks against the country’s security forces show that it has little problem with carrying out specific and well-planned operations. While the EPP remains small and poses no major threat of an armed takeover of the capital and government, the potential exists for an increase in violence, which is the last thing that Paraguayan civil society would welcome. In any case, it remains debatable whether EPP members actually believe in the political ideology that they publicly profess. As mentioned earlier, if this is true, then the EPP would be, arguably, one of the first, if not the first ideologically-oriented insurgent organization to appear in Latin America since the end of the Cold War.

Regarding what actions Asunción is prepared to carry out regarding the EPP, it seems clear that President Lugo has not let his religious past affect his decisions so far, namely whether to use his security forces against the insurgent group. Up to now, there have been some successes against the group, like the capture of several of its members, but the EPP continues to function. There is a possibility that use of the military will result in human rights abuses, similar to events in other Latin American countries, namely Colombia and Peru. Furthermore, as previously mentioned, Paraguayan civil society has had a troubling experience with its armed forces due to military regimes that have ruled the country. Then again, if Lugo does not use his available resources to quell the EPP, the political opposition as well as the armed forces may perceive him as being weak and incapable of defending the country, thus making him a candidate for mockery.

At a time when it was believed that insurgent groups with a political ideology were a thing of the past, analysts assume that entities like drug cartels, international criminal gangs and narco-terrorist groups (like the FARC and the new version of the Peruvian Shining Path) will represent new security threats. This assumption is what makes the rise of the EPP a fascinating case from an academic point of view.

In any case, the EPP does present a potential security threat to the Paraguayan government and its society and must be dealt with adequately, both via security operations as well as by addressing its fundamental raisons d’etre (i.e. poverty, social alienation, etc). Similar suggestions have already been put forward for years in other countries (Colombia and Peru as primary examples of this); hopefully the Paraguayan government will learn from other countries’ failures and successes when it comes to seriously dealing with the EPP in a proportional and professional manner.

Alex Sanchez is a research analyst at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, from where this article is adapted.


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