Top Paraguayan Official Probes Link Between Rebel Group, Drug Trade
By Dialogo November 28, 2011
Paraguay’s minister of interior, Carlos Filizzola, said his country is investigating the possibility of ties between the self-styled Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP) and regional drug traffickers.
Filizzola spoke to Diálogo in a phone interview from Asunción shortly after Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo declared a 60-day state of emergency in the northern departments of Concepción and San Pedro, in order to fight the EPP. On Sept. 21, the group attacked a police station in Horqueta, some 500 kilometers from Asunción, killing two police officers.
Lugo’s decree allows the armed forces “to become operationally involved in domestic security, which — without a state of emergency — would exclusively be the responsibility of the National Police,” Filizzola said, without specifying the number of troops sent into the region.
Asked how the EPP finances its activities, Filizzola noted the possibility of a link between drug traffickers and the armed group, which the Paraguayan government considers a criminal gang and not a guerrilla outfit.
“The possibility of a connection with the drug trade has not been ruled out” because traffickers operate throughout northern Paraguay, he explained. The minister was referring mainly to groups “linked to some Brazilians, particularly in Amambay, which borders the department of Concepción” and shares a border with Brazil.
Filizzola also indicated that there had been several arrests related to drug trafficking in the region; he said that the connection was not “at the moment entirely established, but it’s definitely being investigated.”
The path of armed resistance
One key component of this investigation will be the capture of three top EPP leaders — two men, Osvaldo Villalba and Cristaldo Mieres, and one woman, Magna Meza — all of whom have been with the rebel group since its inception in 1997. Among the insurrection’s sources of funding are bank robberies and kidnappings for ransom, which have sometimes ended with the execution of hostages.
Horacio Galeano, a political analyst based in Asunción, explained that sometime in late 1995, the Marxist-Leninist party Patria Libre split into two factions. One kept the name Patria Libre, and the other chose the path of armed resistance. The group that took up arms perpetrated a number of high-profile crimes that struck at the heart of Paraguayan society: first, the kidnapping of a member of the well-known Debernardi family, for a ransom of $3 million, and subsequently the kidnapping and murder of the daughter of former Paraguayan President Raul Cubas.
At this time, the group began calling itself Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo, said Galeano, who has held various cabinet posts throughout his career including minister of defense, integration and education.
“At this time, we estimate that there are approximately 30, 40, or 45 well-trained combatants. They were trained at an unspecified time in Colombia, before the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] was weakened. They were aided and supported by the FARC, and additionally there were people who went to Libya,” Galeano told Diálogo, referring to “intelligence information” gleaned when he was Lugo’s minister of education.
Analyst: EPP receives help from FARC
Galeano also discussed the EPP’s combat abilities, suggesting that the group is well-armed and well-trained.
“One is not a guerrilla fighter just because he or she claims to be, but because of their combat capabilities: their training with weaponry, in living off the land, surviving in hostile territory… then come all the techniques about how to attack someone, how to escape,” he explained. “All guerrilla operations are tactical operations, they are not strategic operations, they are not sustained actions, which is what the FARC is now doing.”
Galeano added that “the Colombian Army is looking for a confrontation, and as long as it is looking for confrontation, it will continue to decimate the FARC, because the FARC isn’t capable of sustaining prolonged combat; their style of combat is quick strikes and retreat. This is the EPP’s strategy, and their tactic is to strike key points and create a situation. That is, they are very similar to the FARC in this respect, and they definitely have received assistance from the FARC.”
The analyst is convinced that the EPP’s deep military training and combat strategy fits the profile of a guerrilla group, not just a criminal gang. Galeano suggested that the Paraguayan government will not be able to maintain its strategy much longer due to the cost, both in financial and in human terms.
To date, he said, 1,750 troops have been deployed, while there are between 30 and 45 EPP combatants. Complicating the situation, he said, is the fact that that poor Paraguayans in the two affected departments strongly sympathize with the EPP.
Several opposition members accuse the government of protecting the EPP, which has been tied to Lugo, who was a bishop in the region during the 1990s.
“These guys started out as socially conscious pastors, and socially conscious pastors in almost all Latin American churches are linked to liberation theology,” said Galeano. “This group appeared, and at some point they became friends with Lugo in the pastoral work in his diocese” — which is allegedly the crux of the accusations against Lugo.
Filizzola, meanwhile, credited the EPP’s ability to survive intact for the past 14 years to the difficult terrain in which the group operates — mainly a heavily wooded area in the jungles of San Pedro, and another area in neighboring Concepción, a large department with abundant rivers and streams.
“It is an area that they know well, which makes it rather difficult to find them,” said Filizzola. Yet he noted that “unfortunately, since action wasn’t taken earlier, they’ve strengthened over time. President Lugo has been in office for three years, but this has been around for 14 years, and before that, it was left alone. The EPP has started to take roots, especially in this region.”
The minister said Lugo has made the battle against the EPP a “fundamental objective” of his administration because it produces “an ongoing anxiety among the population,” though he disputed the notion that the group represents a real threat to Paraguay.
EPP draws from Marxist-Leninist ideology
Inspired by communist revolutionaries like Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the EPP appears to be one of the first violent extremist groups with a distinctly Marxist-Leninist ideology to emerge in Latin America since the end of the Cold War.
“Unfortunately, as the history of insurgent movements in general seems to indicate, there is ample room for ‘growth’ when it comes to their possible future operations,” says a report issued earlier this year by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. “The EPP already presents an interesting case-study for academics, but for the Paraguayan government, it is a new security threat that will have to be faced. Paraguay today is, unfortunately, a poor, underdeveloped state in dire need of development of every description. But improving the living conditions of its population is no easy task. The last thing this country needs is a brutal counterinsurgency war, as some of its neighbors have recently experienced.”
The government had already declared a state of emergency between April and May 2010 in five of the country’s northern departments, but that measure produced no results.
This time, Filizzola seems more upbeat, following a visit to the contested region along with Lugo, Defense Minister Catalino Roy and top army and police officials.
“It’s working well,” he told Diálogo. “There’s a coordinated effort between the armed forces and the police. There’s a joint command structure, and we’ve seen important work being done.”
Nevertheless, on Oct. 24, two police officers were injured during a confusing incident involving the Huhua Ñandú detachment in Concepción. A week later, the EPP sent an email to Information Minister Augusto Dos Santos and various journalists, warning it would avenge the deaths of “Comandante Aníbal” and Comandante Simón,” also known as Nimio Cardozo Cáceres and Gabriel Zárate — both of whom were killed in September.
“We are making clear to our people that we are more fortified than ever and in good health, with our weapons ready to repel any attempt by our [military and police] enemies, who are being used by the criminal political middle class of the extreme right, alienated by their families,” it said.
The Oct. 31 email went on to label Filizzola a “puppet” and accused Lugo of wanting to “discredit the noble struggle of the EPP in favor of the poor and forgotten” in the name of capitalism and imperialism.
Very good introductory article about a conflict unknow out of the regional boundaries.