Following Kidnappers’ Footsteps
By Dialogo October 01, 2010
Fidel Zavala was working on his ranch in northern Paraguay in late 2009 when
guerrilla members suddenly appeared and forced him into his own vehicle. As his
employees looked on, Zavala was driven away and his truck was abandoned in a remote
area. When police later approached it, the vehicle exploded and gravely injured
police officers Víctor Hugo Romero and Víctor Manuel Martínez.
Kidnappers demanded a $5 million ransom and as days passed, Zavala’s family
was not sure whether he was still alive. The abductors were following instructions
in the manual of the Paraguayan People’s Army, or EPP, which was behind the
kidnapping. The manual stated that EPP’s kidnappers cannot “give any proof of life
until the deal is closed.” According to the Paraguayan newspaper La
Nación, the abductors settled for a payment of $500,000 and freed
Zavala about 15 kilometers north of his ranch, just as the manual stated: “Free [the
kidnapping victim] in a remote area, if possible.”
EPP members have been accused of carrying out about 20 kidnappings since
2001. The group’s manual, which was found during a police raid in August 2010 in the
department of Concepción, was crafted with the help of the Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia, or FARC, according to www.infolatam.com. “The EPP is linked
directly to the FARC,” former Paraguayan Attorney General Óscar Germán Latorre told
www.infosurhoy.com. The FARC allegedly has provided training and logistical support
to the Paraguayan guerrilla movement according to e-mails retrieved from a computer
seized by Colombian authorities in 2008 and thought to be owned by Raúl Reyes, FARC
second in command until his death in 2008. As recent news reports show, EPP members
have attacked ranches, burned military barracks and killed police officers. Police
have tracked down some of the EPP leaders, but others have yet to be found.
Aside from the kidnappings, authorities fear the EPP’s involvement with drug
and arms trafficking. “This is a group linked to organized crime,” said José
Ledesma, governor of San Pedro, one of the areas stricken by the EPP, in an
interview with Paraguayan radio station Ñandutí AM in May 2010. Following
Kidnappers’ Footsteps paraguayan people’s army linked to drug trafficking and farc
Soldiers stand on the scorched remains of a military outpost in Tacuatí, Paraguay.
Officials think the arson was the work of the Paraguayan People’s Army.
EPP: A Self-Proclaimed Guerrilla Group
The EPP began as the armed front of the political group Partido Patria Libre
(Free Motherland Party). The group, based on Marxist ideology, has stated its plan
to carry out a revolution in the country. Since 2001, about $6 million in ransom has
been paid in Paraguay, said former attorney Latorre to www.infosurhoy.com. That
year, the EPP received financing from the FARC to “train” for its first kidnapping,
Latorre said. Resisting the kidnappers’ demands has often led to dire consequences
such as occurred with Cecilia Cubas, the daughter of former Paraguayan President
Raúl Cubas Grau. In 2004, kidnappers from EPP abducted Cubas and demanded $5
million. Months after making a partial payment of $800,000, the body of Cecilia, 32,
was found buried under a house near Asuncion.
The documents seized in 2008 from Reyes’ computer showed that the terrorist
organization provided consulting in the kidnapping and subsequent killing of Cubas.
At least three more kidnapping cases have been documented in which the FARC
participated. “The links between the FARC and EPP are confirmed. We have proof that
the FARC have sent consultants [to Paraguay] and it has been confirmed that they
received 30 percent of what was paid for the kidnapping of María Edith Bordón,”
Paraguayan anti-kidnapping prosecutor Sandra Quiñónez said in an interview with
Colombian newspaper El Tiempo. Bordón was kidnapped in 2001 and her
family paid $1 million for her release, the newspaper reported.
Paraguay Fights Back
Since the beginning of 2010, the government has conducted numerous
operations to counter the EPP threat. In January, police partnered with the
Paraguayan Army, using helicopters and patrol boats to follow members of the EPP at
the country’s northern border in what was known as Operation Yaguarete (which means
“jaguar” in the native Guaraní language). Three months later, Paraguayan President
Fernando Lugo called for a “state of siege” after a police officer and three
civilians were killed in an EPP attack in Arroyito, where authorities discovered a
rebel camp. In April, the authorities launched Operation Py’a Guapy (which means
“tranquility” in Guaraní) and sent 3,000 police and military to track down EPP
members. But these operations did not result in the arrests of any EPP leaders.
In July, Paraguayan police had more success in their fight against the EPP.
Authorities tracked down and killed suspected EPP leader Severiano Martínez after he
opened fire on officers during a confrontation in Alto Paraguay. Martínez, alias
Marcos, was accused of involvement in the kidnappings of Bordón and Cubas. He
allegedly abandoned the EPP due to disagreements over ransom payments within the
group, reported Paraguayan newspaper La Nación. In September, EPP
member Gabriel Zárate was captured and killed by the police after firing an M-16 and
trying to escape. Zárate was thought to be third in command in the group. In his
bag, police found a homemade explosive. A third EPP member was killed the same
month. During another incursion in the jungle to track EPP members, police killed
Nimio Cardozo. The operation took place in Huguá Ñandú, 100 kilometers northeast of
Concepción. The newspaper La Nación reported that police will
continue searching in the area until all members are found.
The government is now offering 800 million guaranís (about $163,606) for
information leading to the capture of leaders Magna Meza, Manuel Cristaldo Mieres
and Osvaldo Villalba. The reward is for 500 million guaraníes (about $102,254) for
others involved in the kidnappings.
Along with rewards, the president approved an antikidnapping law that allows
the government to safeguard the bank funds and belongings of a person who has been
kidnapped. It also penalizes banks that do not notify of withdrawals made during the
kidnapping. In 2010, an antiterrorism law was also approved that punishes those
involved in acts of terrorism, terrorist associations or financing of terrorism with
prison terms of five to 30 years.
In a recent development, the EPP’s possible drug traffic activity across
international borders is beginning to draw attention from Paraguayan authorities.
“We — the military as an institution, at least — are already taking a look at their
possible association with drug traffickers,” Brig. Gen. Carlos Alberto Bordón,
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Paraguayan Armed Forces, said in an
interview with Diálogo in August 2010. “And we don’t have any
actions prepared along these lines yet, but we are intensifying our work on
intelligence issues, connecting the dots, because we don’t want to end up in the
situation of other countries.”
Lack of Support
The authorities were able to capture EPP leaders with the help of community
informants whose identities have been protected to prevent retaliation. In August
2010, Florencio Núñez, a rural worker who denounced the presence of the EPP in his
community in Concepcion and who claimed to have received death threats from the
group, was found dead at his home, reported Paraguayan newspaper
ABC. In the meantime, the EPP has tried to gain the support of
the public. For example, the manual says EPP members should provide food and
medicine to the poor, making sure the media captures them doing so. “Then we will
earn points in the eyes of the population,” the manual states.
For those whose family members have been harmed by the EPP, only justice will
suffice. Police “should kill them if they cannot capture them alive,” Mirtha
Gusinky, mother of Cecilia Cubas, told La Nación, referring to the
captors who killed her daughter more than six years ago. She asked authorities to
comply with the promise of bringing security to the country. “I also request you,
the press, to not give up in the demand of maximum effort from authorities so we can
have a Paraguay without kidnappings,” she said.