Paraguay’s president was thrown out of office partly due to the perception that he had failed to improve security, with the EPP rebel group undeterred by crackdowns, but it remains to be seen if his successor will be any more effective.
In the wake of controversy over a violent land conflict, the Paraguayan Congress voted to impeach President Fernando Lugo. He was ousted on June 22 after overwhelming majorities in both chambers found him guilty of mismanagement.
The move has been criticized as undemocratic, and other governments in South America have suspended diplomatic ties with the country. The new leader, former Vice President Federico Franco (pictured), is now tasked with smoothing over foreign relations and preventing Paraguay from becoming a regional pariah.
At home, however, Franco will face pressure to address concerns over citizen security. The impeachment was triggered by opposition to Lugo’s handling of a bloody land conflict in the eastern province of Curuguaty, in which at least 11 small farmers and six police officers were killed. The then-president dismissed his interior minister and police chief in an unsuccessful attempt to mollify his critics. Lugo has also been criticized for his failure to make progress against the rebel Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP), despite ordering a military crackdown and imposing states of emergency in their territory.
Since taking office, Franco has said that his two main priorities will be to promote peace and security in the country. He has vowed to establish a full investigation into the Curuguaty incident, and to work to ensure that land conflicts do not escalate so dramatically in the future. He also promised that his government will have “zero tolerance” for criminal groups like the EPP.
To this end Franco has named a new interior minister, Carmelo Caballero, and new police commander, Aldo Pastore. Both have experience in matters of internal security. Caballero had previously served as a deputy security minister, and Pastore was in charge of the national police’s anti-kidnapping unit.
Because kidnapping is a main source of funding for the EPP, Pastore has overseen several investigations into the rebel group and is familiar with its structure and activities. After accepting the appointment, he announced that police would reassess their struggle against the guerrillas, although there will be no major changes to the force tasked with pursuing them in the key province of Concepcion.
Despite his experience, there is cause for concern about Pastore’s appointment. On June 19, he told a local radio station that the EPP “has always had connections with the so-called landless movement,” referring to the agrarian reformers. He also said that he “could not rule out the possibility” that farmers in Curuguaty, the scene of the recent clash, had been recruited into the EPP. As InSight Crime has noted, there is little evidence to link the land reform movement to the guerrillas, and such allegations have the potential to be abused by politicians opposed to land reform, who have an interest in characterizing all protesters as criminal elements.
The guerrillas are far from Paraguay’s only security threat. In recent years, the country has become an important refuge for Brazilian criminal organizations like the Red Command (Comando Vermelho), which take advantage of lax security to traffic drugs and weapons across the border. There have also been numerous reports of complicity between criminals and the security forces, with one recent example being the arrest of a border city police chief accused of providing cover to drug traffickers. Military officers have also been accused of links to organized crime, and in September some marines allegedly fired on Brazilian police in order to protect a group of smugglers operating across the border.
When Lugo announced his crackdown against the EPP last year, some suggested that the group’s small size made it more of a distraction than a real threat. Unless the Franco administration broadens its anti-crime efforts to include a drive to increase border security and fight official corruption, the new president could face similar criticism.