By Nick Caistor, LAB
This small group operating in the jungle terrain of in the north of landlocked Paraguay seems like a throwback to the days of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s theories of guerrilla focos taking on the state from remote areas: a practice that succeeded in Cuba but failed miserably in the early 1960s in neighbouring Bolivia.
The Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo (EPP or Paraguayan People’s Army) is thought to have been in existence since 1999. The Paraguayan authorities maintain it has fewer than 100 active members, but admit it has support among a few isolated villages.
In October 2011, the EPP was considered a big enough threat to security that the Paraguayan Congress passed a bill imposed a state of exception for 60 days in the north of the country, and sent 3,000 troops and police to root out the guerrillas. This state of exception allowed for the security forces to detain anyone they considered as suspect without a warrant, and to impose a curfew.
President Fernando Lugo, a former Roman Catholic bishop, appeared to have his doubts about the measure. He delayed signing the bill for several days before finally passing it into law, arguing that such an escalation was not necessary.
Shortly afterwards, the US embassy in Asunción announced it was donating more than US$1 million for equipment and training to help the Paraguayan security forces in its efforts to eliminate the group.
Some sources link the EPP to the Roman Catholic Church. They claim it began when three priests were expelled from a seminary in the mid 1990s for their radical ideas.
They are said to have founded the socialist Movimiento Monseñor Romero Movement (after the murdered Salvadorean archbishop) which eventually became the EPP. The group is active in the poverty-stricken San Pedro area, where Lugo himself was a bishop before he entered politics.
After carrying out several small-scale bank raids to gather funds and some attacks on police and army posts to seize weapons, their first action to become headline news in Paraguay took place in November 2001, when they kidnapped María Edith de Debernardi, and received at least US$ 1 million in ransom money.
This was followed in 2005 with the abduction and subsequent murder of Cecilia Cubas, the daughter of former president Raúl Cubas (although the family is said to have paid the US$ 300,000 demanded in ransom).
EPP activity has flared up again over the past two years. In 2010 a prominent rancher was abducted, and then in April 2010 a policeman and three private security guards were killed in a shootout with the rebels in the northern province of Concepción.
This led to the first declaration of a ‘state of exception’ and the militarization of the Concepción area for one month. Opposition parties and NGOs condemned the move as an escalation of the problem, but President Lugo declared the operation a success.
However, in 2011the EPP has continued with its violent activities, including an apparent threat to kidnap the chairwoman of the Colorado Party, Lilian Samaniego. This increased tension led to the new state of exception being declared.
In December 2011, the head of Paraguayan police was replaced. The new commissioner, Pablino Rojas, declared that the right against the small guerrilla group would be his main focus, declaring that his aim was to ‘return tranquility to our citizens’.
The current leader of the EPP is thought to be Osvaldo Villalba. His sister Carmen Villalba, another prominent EPP member currently in jail has declared that the group enjoys widespread support among ‘the Paraguayan people, the popular sector, the people eternally scorned, discriminated against, downtrodden.’
The EPP has declared it will use violence to set up a ‘Socialist’ Republic of Paraguay, and claims to be waging an ideological war to achieve this end.
The Paraguayan authorities however claim the EPP’s motives are far less clear. Paraguay’s Anti-kidnapping prosecutor Sandra Quinonez has claimed the guerrilla members have been trained by the FARC of Colombia, and there are reports that that at least one FARC leader has gone to Paraguay to provide training and advice.
The Paraguayan authorities also say the EPP has links to Brazilian drug trafficking organizations, like the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) and Red Command (Comando Vermelho) who are known to operate in the north of Paraguay.
By sending troops to combat the EPP, the Paraguayan government risks playing the group’s own game. Traditional foco guerrilla strategy, as carried out in Cuba in the 1950s, called for engagement with the security forces because the ensuing human rights violations on the civilian population would lead to an upsurge in support for insurrection.
While Paraguay in 2012 is a long way from Batista’s Cuba, the armed forces have a poor reputation, and have seized power on a number of occasions in the recent past.
President Lugo will need to ensure that the EPP is dealt with effectively, and not merely by military methods but by genuine social reforms to help eliminate poverty and discrimination in the rural regions of Paraguay.
For more information: COHA July 2011: http://www.coha.org/the-paraguayan-peoples-army-epp-%e2%80%93-a-new-insurgent-group-with-an-old-time-political-ideology/