by Bernd Debusmann Jr.As Colombia’s long and brutal civil conflict seems to be (maybe) finally coming to an end, another drug and kidnap-funded pseudo-leftist insurgency continues to simmer in Paraguay, pitting the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP) against the government.
While the conflict has escalated over the course of the last several years, the origins of the conflict date back much further, to the 1989 collapse of the far-right dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. During his 35-year reign, Stroessner — a dedicated anti-communist and unrepentant Nazi sympathizer — ruthlessly stamped out any sign of dissent, and kept the country under a de-facto state of martial law for all but two of his years in power.
In February 1989, Stroessner was toppled in a bloody coup d’état, which paved the way for a democratic constitution to be formed in 1992. It was during this time that leftist political groups — finally able to operate freely — began to form, and the core leadership of what is now the EPP began to coalesce.
As explained by a report published by the Bogota-based Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Cooperation Program on Regional Security, the EPP was originally formed by Alcides Oviedo Britez, a theology-school drop-out turned revolutionary, who in 1992 first fell in with a well-known leftist speaker, Juan Arron Suhurt, who himself had already founded another leftist organization, the Free Country Movement (MPL). The two men, along with Oviedo’s wife, Carmen Villalba, are thought to have begun recruiting and planning for an armed struggle as early as 1992, then under the name of the “Partido Patria Libre“, or PPL.
The group’s first “action” took place in 1997, when six militants — Oviedo and Villalba included — unsuccessfully tried to burrow into a bank vault and were arrested. Once released in 2000, the group began a string of profitable kidnappings, sometimes targeting members of the country’s wealthy elite. By 2004 though, the PPL’s original leadership was dismantled, and replaced. In 2008, the EPP was officially created to continue to fight.Now, a decade later, the EPP — although likely comprised of less than 100 fighters — continues to be a thorn in the side of Paraguay’s government, and is particularly active in the country’s sparsely populated Northern departments.
There are several reasons why the group has continued to operate with impunity, attacking civilian, military and infrastructure targets with relative ease.
As was the case in Colombia, the EPP is believed to be at least partly funded by its links to Paraguay’s huge marijuana trade. In an October 2014 interview with Efe Luis Rojas, the head of Paraguay’s National Anti-Drug Secretariat (SENAD) alleged that the EPP had moved from imposing taxes on drug traffickers to actually growing marijuana themselves — a charge which the group denies. The government has also claimed that EPP members have been hired as gunmen by local drug trafficking organizations, although the government’s evidence is flimsy, at best.
Much more certain are the group’s continued kidnappings, which have recently included members of Paraguay’s German-speaking Mennonite community, as well as police officers. The group has also targeted foreign nationals, as was the case in January when Roberto Natto and Erika Reiser – both German nationals – were kidnapped and killed, allegedly by EPP members demanding money and food as compensation for deforestation.
Importantly, the EPP has remained intact, in part, due to the corruption and incompetence of the Paraguayan security forces, in particular of the military-police Joint Task Force (FTC) given the mission of hunting down EPP members. On August 31st, for example, FTC spokesperson Alfredo Jonas Ramirez told local journalists that elements inside the FTC were passing information to the EPP. By the end of the day, Ramirez was sacked for his candor.
While Ramirez did not provide any direct evidence to back up his claims, it seems certain that there is endemic corruption in Paraguay’s security apparatus. In another particularly high-profile case, the commander of the country’s National Police was charged — along with six other officers — for involvement in a petrol embezzlement scheme. The officers had allegedly withdrawn $230.000 from petrol cards meant to be used for police vehicles, with which they bought property and personal vehicles. Additionally, other police and military officers have also been accused of stealing confiscated narcotics and, in one case, of running a criminal gang.
An important factor for the EPP is the support of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). As the FES report notes, the earliest public knowledge of this link was taken from the files of FARC commander Raúl Reyes, who was killed in a Colombian airstrike in Ecuador in 2008. The documents make it clear that the FARC has trained EPP members and has even participated in the planning of kidnappings.
If the FARC does indeed lay down its arms in Colombia — as, at least for now, seems to be the case — it is unclear what, if any, effect it will have on the EPP in Paraguay. As things stand, the EPP shows no signs of decay. Despite large-scale operations by the FTC to track down EPP members, as recently as late August the EPP managed to launch an attack on electricity pylons, leaving 765,000 people across three departments without power.
While the group remains relatively localized in its current areas of operation, the EPP has the potential to expand, as it can draw upon the frustrations of many rural Paraguayans with their government. In particular, many campesinos have found themselves at odds with the government and with corporate entities, particularly those involved in the production of genetically-modified soybeans.
This disenchantment, combined with any increase in funding from narcotics proceeds and the continued ineptitude of the Paraguayan government may well mean that the EPP will be able to gain additional recruits and potentially expand their operations to other provinces. As the FES article notes, there seems to be some internal debate within the EPP about whether to take the war to other provinces, which at the moment the group has elected not to.
However, given the small size of the organization, any change in leadership — which might even be the result of a chance encounter with the FTC — might mean that more hawkish and ambitious elements can take power.