A State of Emergency in Paraguay: The Risks of Militarization

The government maintains that there is an active guerrilla presence in the region, although it has never been able to prove its existence. However, what is certain is that acts of violence have been committed by mafia organizations and the government is trying to resolve the situation through militarization.

“There is a risk of Colombianization in Paraguay,” said former Brazilian president José Sarney, the current president of the Brazilian senate and a firm ally of Lula.[1] “There is no more room for institutional breakdown or coups. The firm position of Brazil and Paraguay on the Honduran coup makes it clear that we don’t agree with military takeovers, whether explicit or poorly disguised,” said President Lula several days later during a meeting with Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo.[2] “If anyone wants to test the force of social organizations, just let him try,” challenged campesino leader Luis Aguayo.[3]

What is happening in Paraguay? Is there some sort of coup d’état underway or some form of destabilization of the Lugo government? What are the reasons for the government’s implementation of a state of emergency in a third of the country? Is there really an active guerrilla presence that justifies the measure, as the government insists?

Many doubts, few explanations

A 30-day state of siege took effect on Apr. 26 in five provinces: Concepción, San Pedro and Amambay, in the eastern region, and Presidente Hayes and Alto Paraguay in the western region. The five provinces are located in the northern part of the country; two of them (Concepción and Amambay) share a border with Brazil. They are the provinces that traditionally have been center of the campesino struggle for land and agrarian reform. But they are also the epicenter of recent violent acts, carried out by smuggling and drug-trafficking mafias, often with the protection of the police and ranchers who have their own armed groups.

In the first 11 days in which due process rights were suspended, 84 people were detained, 34 of them had orders for apprehension. One fact merits attention: all of those detained were imprisoned for not having their documents in order and for fraud and sexual abuse, but none are linked to armed groups. [4] Then on May 6, a member of the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP), was detained. The EPP is reportedly an armed group whose activities, the government says, justify the imposition of a state of emergency, despite the fact that some 3,000 soldiers were mobilized.

The Oct. 16, 2009 kidnapping of rancher Fidel Zavala in Concepción, which caused great uproar, was attributed to the EPP. Zavala was released 94 days later in mid-January. But it was the death of four policemen in Arroyito, also in the department of Concepción, which apparently caused the government to take radical measures. Two days after the state of emergency was imposed, Senator Roberto Acevedo of the Liberal Party was attacked and shot in the border city of Pedro Juan Caballero, in the neighboring department of Amambay. His chauffer and bodyguard were killed.

Almost two weeks later, Senator Acevedo made a strong accusation in parliament against the police chief in the area of Pedro Juan Caballero, claiming that he had received $50,000 from drug traffickers to clear the zone and allow the attack to take place. “They pay $5,000 after each assassination. In my case it was $50,000,” [5] he said. Referring to the drug traffickers, he said, “They don’t care about the state of emergency. They are more powerful than the police”[6].

Although the police chief denied the accusations, the senator insisted that Paraguayan and Brazilian drug traffickers work together and hide behind the First Command of the Capital (the PCC of Sao Paulo). Senator Acevedo’s accusations are credible, which doesn’t mean that they are true, given that there have been ties between drug traffickers and the police for a long time. At any rate, this not only confirms the climate of violence in the northern provinces—above all in those that border Brazil—but also the confusion as to who is responsible for the violence.

Guerrillas, narcos or mafiosos?

Whether the EPP actually exists is by no means certain. If it does, it is an atypical guerrilla group. It has no known indoctrinating documents or programs, and no known origins. Its leaders and their trajectories are unknown. Paraguayan analysts believe it really doesn’t exist; instead criminal groups carry out extortion and in some cases use “political” arguments. Even if the group really exists, it probably has no more than 10 to 15 members.

The media and political leaders such as the President of Congress, Miguel Carrizosa, believe that the EPP really exists and that it has links to drug traffickers, similar, they say, to the FARC in Colombia. Several police commanders have declared that members of the EPP have been trained by the FARC and probably have “free zones” in the north, where neither the police nor the State is present. Former president Nicanor Duarte went so far as to link the supposed guerrillas to Lugo, arguing that the president had been bishop in San Pedro, one of the provinces with members of the EPP.

Contributing to the confusion is the fact that the provinces where the guerrillas are supposedly operating are precisely the same provinces that have been the epicenter for campesino mobilizations and the struggle for land. According to the Paraguayan Human Rights Coordinating Group (CODEHUPY), a campesino has been assassinated every 22 days in the last 20 years. These are also the provinces where ranchers have formed paramilitary groups that have assassinated many social leaders.

But even more importantly, many ranchers in these regions far from Asunción, where the presence of the State is minimal, are involved in illicit activities, whether smuggling contraband to Brazil, cultivating marijuana, or both. The distinction between the two is thin in a region where there is little rule of law and much violence.

Others express openly what many believe. Monseñor Melanio Medina, bishop of Misiones and Ñeembucú and the religious leader closest to Presidente Lugo, believes that the declaration of the state of emergency is exaggerated and that the EPP doesn’t really exist. He maintains that the supposed guerrillas are “criminal groups” associated with drug traffickers and narco-ranchers that are taking advantage of the situation to rob and kidnap ”[7].

While maintaining that there are forces that want to stop the process of change, the bishop says that many of the supposed guerrillas “aren’t an army, but groups that operate as such because they are protected,” in entire regions “where the State is completely absent.” In a way the bishop has hit on a major issue: Paraguay is a country where the State is absent from enormous amounts of territory, which facilitates the actions of criminal groups.

A second important consideration comes from Brazil, a country with enormous influence on Paraguay. Marco Aurelio García, special advisor on International Affairs in the Office of the President of Brazil, told a weekly publication in Sao Paulo: “This business of the Paraguayan guerrilla is piece of fiction. A joke. There are no more than 20 members and that’s what the Paraguayan authorities themselves say. It has no significance for Brazil. But our Federal Police are collaborating with investigations”.[8] Coming from the highest foreign policy authority in a country like Brazil, his statement should be taken seriously.

Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim agreed with García in pointing out that the supposed Paraguayan guerrilla group “is an exaggerated situation in terms of the press coverage. ”[9] Nevertheless, something is going on. And that something was revealed in a subtle manner, once again by Brazil. It’s worth remembering that Paraguayan security is a matter of state security for Brazil: 20 percent of the energy it consumes comes from the binational dam of Itaipú. On the other hand it can’t allow a front of instability to open up in the region when it’s also trying to resolve problems that stem from the Colombian war and instability in the Colombia-Venezuela-Ecuador border regions.

That’s why on May 3, Lula went to the city of Ponta Pora, in the state of Mato Grosso, sister city on the border with Paraguay’s Pedro Juan Caballero, to meet with Lugo. It is worth remembering that Paraguayan senator Roberto Acevedo had been attacked there, and two Brazilians have now been detained for that attack. The issue of security displaced the energy issue that both leaders are negotiating. Lula announced that Brazil would install 11 new police bases on the border. He repeated the key phrase: “There is no more room for institutional breakdown or coups”.[10]

The obligatory question is whether or not there are forces that are trying to destabilize the Lugo government. It is evident that the answer is yes. Since he arrived in office two years ago, President Lugo has a weak point, or more accurately two: he has a small minority in the Parliament and depends on the support of his principal ally, the Liberal Party. The second point: Vice President Federico Franco is a member of the liberal party and has strong differences with Lugo, so that a political judgment against Lugo would leave the government in the hands of his allies, removing the Left. That’s why Lula warned against “explicit or poorly disguised” coups.

If there has been no Honduran-style coup up to this time, it is because a broad spectrum of the population, especially campesinos organized in social movements, would resist and that would generate a climate of ingovernability. There is the possibility that several persons who form in the EPP may have had some past link to the diocese of San Pedro, where Lugo served as bishop, and the opposition plans to divulge that link to hasten the president’s dismissal. That may also explain why Lugo took such a radical measure.

The militarism debate

There is nothing like the passage of time to shed light on opaque questions. Lugo has the authority to declare a state of emergency, but he preferred to go through parliament, which voted unanimously in favor of it. His reasons were clear. “The principal objective of the state of emergency is to capture the members of the EPP,” he said in a press conference. Days later the vice president leaked to the press the words of General Oscar Velásquez, in charge of the military operation in the north, in the cabinet: “The idea is not to capture the members of the EPP but to restore security to the population”.[11]

The five provinces where the state of emergency has been applied are the poorest in the country. The government’s response to what can be seen as a security crisis pays special attention to the social factor. It has now decided to mobilize the ministries of health, education and social action to attend to the poorest group of the 800,000 inhabitants of those provinces. In the area of health, the government announced investments in the network of services, above all in San Pedro and Concepción. In education, it announced repairs to 257 schools, the delivery of educational materials, and improved teacher education. Social Action will assist 200,000 families (until now 115,000), in other words one million people, one of every five Paraguayans, with monetary transfers. [12]

In addition, Lugo set up a meeting with human rights organizations and campesino leaders in the Government Palace to explain the state of emergency. Both sectors had expressed opposition to the measure, because it would facilitate violations on the part of security forces and because such measures tend to criminalize social protest. Juan Martens, a CODEHUPY attorney, said that imposing a state of emergency was “a desperate attempt to bring peace to the ranching oligarchy”[13].

For CODEHUPY, the measure fails to comply with the constitutional requirement for a state of emergency because it has not been proven that there is “international armed conflict and serious internal upheaval that puts the Constitution in imminent danger.” In a press release, the organization stated that neither of the two situations has occurred. Instead the country is confronting “criminals acting outside the law who should be apprehended, charged, and sentenced under the regular legal system”. [14]

The statement adds, “To affirm that an armed group of approximately 10 individuals is producing an internal upheaval and this justifies a state of emergency is to acknowledge the incapacity of security forces, comprised of more than 50,000 members, to control ordinary organized crime.” It concludes that the government’s explanations are insufficient. Even worse, no determination was ever made as to which rights were to be affected or restricted, which “will increase the arrogance and arbitrariness of police and military actions in the zone,” to the extent the state of emergency will be used to justify multiples violations of rights.

Finally, parliament just approved the anti-terror law, a measure that the government had rejected. The two senators directly tied to Lugo’s party were the only ones who voted against it. Carlos Filizzola said that the law was too general, that “it left it up to the judge to interpret what constituted a terrorist act,” and warned that “it could allow a social protest or blocking off a street to qualify as a terrorist act”.[15] In all likelihood, that is exactly what the Paraguayan right is trying to do, and the media campaign about a guerrilla movement has been very convenient.

Recently an underhand act occurred that shed light on the situation that the country is experiencing. In its attempt to detain a supposed member of the EPP, a group of soldiers shot at a police station in Hugua Ñandú Concepcion, overpowered the police and held them for hours with their guns pointed at them. The soldiers were accused of stealing weapons and “physically mistreating the police”.[16] If this happens to uniformed police in a commissary, imagine what social activists suffer on a daily basis, and what awaits them in the event of a coup d’état.

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He writes a monthly column for the Americas Program (www.cipamericas.org