Two weeks ago, a group claiming to belong to the EPP kidnapped Paraguay’s former vice president. Since then, it has become clearer that this longstanding criminal threat has returned, albeit under different circumstances.
On September 9, Oscar Denis Sánchez, Paraguay’s former vice president between 2012 and 2013, was kidnapped along with one of his staff in a rural part of the district of Yby Yaú in the department of Concepción by the Indigenous Brigade (Brigada Indígena), a faction of the Maoist guerrilla group, the Paraguayan People’s Party (Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo - EPP).
In exchange for his release, the group demanded food supplies for 40 communities in the area valued at $50,000 each, or $2 million, as well as the release of Carmen Villalba and Alcides Oviedo Brítez, historic leaders of the EPP who have been in jail since 2003, according to Última Hora. On September 14, the group freed Denis Sánchez's assistant, Adelio Mendoza.
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First, President Mario Abdo Benítez hailed a successful operation in which two EPP members had been killed.
But it was then discovered the alleged dead guerrillas were two 11-year-old girls. María Carmen and Lilian Mariana Villalba, both of whom grew up in Argentina and held Argentine citizenship, were daughters of guerrilla group members and had been visiting their parents. This sparked a bitter international dispute between Paraguay and Argentina, including a Paraguayan general allegedly accusing Argentina of being a "kindergarten for EPP soldiers."
The Indigenous Brigade for the Execution of the Killers of Farmers (La Brigada Indígena de Ajusticiamiento de Matones de Estancias), was until recently a relatively unknown part of the EPP, has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks. In July 2019, it was suspected of being responsible for an attack on a community that left one person dead and several houses burned.
The EPP was first created in 2005 after the break-up of the Free Homeland Party (Partido Patria Libre – PPL). It has been linked to dozens of killings and kidnappings since then. By 2015, it had been severely weakened after the capture and killings of most of its members but the group was seemingly never fully eradicated.
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The kidnapping of a high-profile political figure, in retaliation for an army raid, was an effective way for the EPP to send a message. Despite thousands of troops deployed and millions of dollars spent to bring them down, Paraguay's most infamous guerrilla group still needs to be reckoned with.
In a pamphlet discovered after the kidnapping took place, the Indigenous Brigade claimed that it seeks to enforce "revolutionary justice" for those mistreating or abusing Indigenous communities.
But Paraguay's Interior Minister Euclides Acevedo stated that, while the government had expected retaliation after the September 2 operation, the kidnapping of Denis Sánchez showed the group wanted to have a "political impact.”
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The origins of the Indigenous Brigade within the EPP are uncertain but it now appears to be leading the group, concentrating its actions in the north of Concepción and Amambay, traditional strongholds for the guerrilla group.
The kidnapping also comes as a severe blow to the government that had been hard-pressed to justify its continued expenditure for operations against the EPP. But according to Paraguay security expert Juan Martens, questions have been raised about whether such a task force, with an annual budget of around $14 million and about 1,500 soldiers, is needed to fight a group with a few dozen members.
"The task force is not demonstrating a return on investment, and that the government is likely fearful of losing such a high-cost military operation," Martens told EFE.
Despite the kidnapping of the former vice president, the EPP is no longer the primary security risk facing Paraguay. The arrival of large Brazilian criminal organizations like the First Capital Command (Primer Comando da Capital - PCC) and the Red Command (Comando Vermelho - CV), as well as other homegrown organizations like the Rotela Clan, seem to pose a greater threat to the country. Clashes between these organizations have led to widespread violence and numerous killings, especially in border towns such as Pedro Juan Cabellero and inside Paraguay's beleaguered prison system.