Paraguay security forces appear to be keeping up the pressure against the small and elusive EPP guerrilla group. The organization does not appear to pose a serious national threat, suggesting that the campaign may have as much to do with politics as with security.

The Paraguayan People’s Army (Ejercito del Pueblo Paraguayo – EPP) began raising concerns earlier this year with a string of bomb attacks in the country’s rural north. Two small-scale bombs were detonated in the country’s capital, Asuncion, in early January, followed by a more serious attack — which injured at least four people — in Horqueta, Concepcion. The government has concentrated their offensive against the EPP in this department, and at least 230 members of the police special forces have been deployed there since circa 2009, when the group kidnapped a prominent local rancher.

Security forces have since kept up the campaign against the EPP, arresting five alleged members of their support network in May, and more recently hailing the discovery of a supposed encampment in rural Concepcion.

The most serious alleged guerrilla attack since January reportedly targeted one of their own former members: the pregnant wife of a jailed EPP operative who was arrested last year in connection with a kidnapping case. She was found dead on June 17, allegedly shot by the EPP because she became involved with another man while her husband was in prison, according to national newspaper ABC.

It may be that the EPP is not even involved in the murder, as the group’s activities more typically include bomb attacks or kidnappings. The group is believed to be a dissident faction of a Marxist political party, the Free Homeland Party (Partido Patria Libre – PPL). With no more than an estimated 100 members, the group has shown a surprising capacity to carry out well-planned operations, such as the 2009 kidnapping of rancher Fidel Zavela, and the killing of four people by sniper fire in April 2010.

This prompted President Fernando Lugo to launch a security surge in northern Paraguay, intended to debilitate the EPP. The president pushed a proposal through Congress which gave security forces the power to make arrests without warrants during a 30-day “state of exception.” A reported surge of 1,000 troops and police were deployed to Concepcion and four other departments.

Results, however, were few. No top EPP commanders were captured during the surge. Meanwhile, January’s bomb attacks demonstrated that the group retains some offensive capacity, as well as plenty of ability to grab media headlines.

Lugo’s emphasis on hunting down the EPP is curious in light of the fact that the small guerrilla group may not even be the country’s most pressing security concern. Arguably, a problem with far greater implications for international security is the well-established contraband and drug trade at the Tri-Border Area, where Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet. Here, the country reported its largest ever cocaine seizure in early June. The area is a hub for smuggling and money laundering, and reportedly harbors other global criminal and terrorist groups, including Hezbollah.

Paraguay’s border with Brazil is another weak point, where Brazilian gangs like the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando del Capital – PCC) and Red Command (Comando Vermelho) are believed to run lucrative marijuana-trafficking networks. The PCC’s presence in northern Paraguay was strong enough to spring six gang members from a Paraguay jail in May.

If Lugo has prioritized the persecution of the EPP over other security concerns, it may be a decision driven by politics. Taking a “mano dura,” or iron fist, approach against the EPP is an easy way for the president to show he isn’t soft on crime. More importantly, it distances himself even further from the country’s radical left. Lugo is the first leftist president to be elected to office in decades, breaking 61 years of rule of the conservative Colorado Party. Critics have tried to associate Lugo with some of the left’s more extreme elements. Photos printed last year showing Lugo in the same frame as an alleged EPP operative didn’t help things.

The EPP’s ability to carry out well-planned, long-term kidnappings (like that of Zavela), as well their reliance on terrorist attacks like bombs, makes them a genuine cause for concern in Paraguay. At the same time, the government’s disproportionately hardline reaction against the guerrillas must be understood in terms of Paraguay’s current political transformation. By declaring a “state of exception” against the EPP in 2010 — and by loudly proclaiming the discovery of each small, primitive guerrilla camp — the government perhaps is granting more status to the EPP than it deserves.

But Paraguay’s first leftist president may have good reason to be sensitive about alleged Marxist guerrillas carrying out attacks. Granting the EPP such status, even at the expense of tackling other security concerns at the border region, may be necessary for Lugo’s political survival.

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