In spite of a security surge by the Paraguayan military, the country’s elusive rebel army is rapidly gaining momentum, having dramatically stepped up its operations last year.
When the Paraguayan government called a 60-day state of emergency last October in order to capture members of the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP), Vice President Federico Franco promised to "make war" until the group was eliminated. But although troops were deployed to the rebel’s area of influence in the north, no high-profile arrests were made. The EPP even released a statement mocking the security surge.
“They claim, with characteristic falsehood, that they didn’t find the EPP,” the statement read. “This couldn’t be further from the truth! It is the EPP who was looking for them all over in order to engage them in combat. But our desires were never satisfied.”
The communique’s victorious rhetoric is surprising coming from a group that has come off as hopelessly amateur in the past. In January 2011, officials broke up an EPP “training camp” in which idealistic young recruits read revolutionary leftist pamphlets and trained with wooden weapons. But this shift in tone fits well with the group’s rapidly growing political profile.
The EPP began as an offshoot of another radical fringe group, the Free Homeland Party (Partido Patria Libre – PPL). After the PPL was taken apart by security forces in 2005, several members decided to form a new group with which to continue the armed struggle. According to a recent investigation by ABC Digital, former PPL members Manuel Cristaldo Mieres, Magna Meza and Osvaldo Villalba (pictured below, left to right) traveled to the interior of Colombia to receive military training from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Upon their return, these three carried out a string of assassinations of police officials until March 1, 2008, when they officially named themselves the EPP and began to recruit members under its banner.
Since then, the group has become bolder. As the map below illustrates, the rebels have carried out 27 separate armed operations (including ambushes and assassinations; bombings and arson attacks; and multiple kidnappings) in the north of the country since their early days in 2005. More than half of these incidents have occurred in the past two years, and eleven (40 percent) occurred in 2011 alone.
There is also evidence that the group is becoming more politically sophisticated in its attacks, using them as opportunities to score propaganda points amongst the rural poor in its area of operation. In its latest operation, for instance, the group stormed a ranch in the northern department of Concepcion on February 26.
After burning it to the ground and killing its livestock, the rebels instructed its inhabitants and workers to give the meat to poor members of a nearby Mbya Guarani indigenous community and stop contributing to deforestation in the area. They then fled, leaving behind a message to the security forces promising to avenge two of their comrades killed in 2010.
Despite the clear propagandist aim of such incidents, however, it is unclear whether they succeed in helping the EPP develop popular support. After first signaling that they would accept the EPP’s slaughtered meat, the local Mbya Guarani then said they would refuse it when the local government offered aid in its place. The EPP made a similar gesture to the indigenous group in 2010, when part of the ransom payment they demanded from a rancher included a food donation to the community. This was also turned down.
A potential impediment to the group’s efforts to build support networks is its track record of homicides. Of the 16 people the EPP is believed to have killed since 2005, more have been civilians than police officers (nine and seven, respectively).
The fact that the group relies on kidnappings for most of its funds also contributes negatively to its public image. While many of those kidnapped by the group are freed upon the payment of ransom, others have not been so lucky. In 2004, for instance, EPP leader Manuel Cristaldo Mieres is believed to have orchestrated the kidnapping of Cecilia Cubas, the daughter of ex-President Raul Cubas. Cubas was found dead in a shallow grave in February of 2005, and investigators now believe she was buried alive.
Still, given the fact that the EPP was left nearly untouched by state of emergency, it must count on some level of local support. In order to prevent this from developing into a larger scale internal conflict, the Paraguayan government may need to deepen the involvement of the army and military intelligence in its strategy against the rebels.
However, this may not happen until 2013, when President Fernando Lugo’s term expires. Such a move would require a president with a trusting relationship with the military, and as InSight Crime has noted, the Lugo presidency has been sullied by poor civil-military relations. This is especially significant given the relatively high degree of political influence that the military has in the country, a legacy of the 35-year military dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. Since taking office in 2008, Lugo has dismissed the leaders of the military command four times, one of which appeared to be in response to rumors of a coup plot.