Half way through a 60-day state of emergency imposed by the Paraguayan government, there have been no real blows struck against the EPP guerrilla group — unsurprisingly for those who claim the rebels do not exist.
Paraguay declared the “state of exception” on October 10 in the northern provinces of Concepcion and San Pedro, following an attack against a police post in Concepcion which killed two officers, carried out by the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP). The measure puts the army on the streets in these areas, suspends some constitutional rights, and allows detention without a warrant.
Like the 60-day state of exception declared in 2010, the measure has brought little or no progress against the EPP so far. Officials reported in late October that “various” people had been arrested while the measures have been in place, but none from the EPP. Vice President Federico Franco told press that he was sceptical about the emergency measures and did not expect any real results against the EPP, saying Saturday “I agree with the people, nothing is going to happen.” One impact the measures have seemingly had, however, is inciting the EPP to carry out an attack on a ranch in Hugua Ñandu, Concepcion, in what was reportedly an act of revenge after the owners let the army use the land for operations. On the grounds of the ranch, after the attack, was found a photo of two EPP members killed in 2010.
The measure has been widely criticized, not least by Paraguayan lawmakers. The House of Representatives blocked the proposed state of exception in September after it had been passed by the Senate, with many arguing that the move was totally unjustified. They relented only after a police officer was shot in the back in early October in the same region, in an attack some attributed to the rebels, with the Representatives then passing the measure within hours.
Some opposed the declaration on legal grounds, with lawmakers arguing that the situation in the affected provinces is not severe enough to fulfil the requirements for a state of exception. The constitution allows for a state of exception if there is an international armed conflict, or if the functioning of the constitution or its bodies are in danger. The same argument was used by the Paraguayan human rights commission, CODEHUPY, which released a statement arguing that there was no internal upheaval in the provinces affected by the measure, and said that it should not be used as a way to respond to crime. For the body, those committing criminal acts in northern Paraguay should be apprehended and prosecuted under the ordinary legal system, without the need for the imposition of emergency laws.
Some have classed the measure as overkill, arguing that the police can carry out law enforcement without the need for backing from the army. Retired General Carlos Liseras memorably described the move as “sending an elephant to catch mosquitos.” He said that the trouble in the region was caused by “common criminals,” and that the police were capable of dealing with it.
Critics have questioned the measure’s effectiveness, pointing to the fact that the previous year’s state of emergency declaration, which lasted for 30 days in five of the country’s provinces, had not given any concrete results. Some 180 people were arrested, only one of whom was a member of the guerrilla group.
Sending in the military to do police work, and granting further powers to the police, also raises concerns about abuse. In the Congressional debate on the topic, a representative from Concepcion expressed his passionate opposition to the declaration, saying that during the last state of exception those worst affected were the poorest members of society, who saw their rights trampled upon. Amnesty International said that the 2010 state of exception raised concerns about “torture and other ill-treatment, excessive use of force and procedural irregularities” on the part of the police.
Perhaps the most compelling argument against the state of exception is that it may be chasing after a phantom. Mystery surrounds the question of what the EPP is, and whether it even exists. Commentators in Paraguay have questioned how far the EPP is a rebel entity, arguing that it is instead a group, or groups, of criminals without political aims. Others argue that the EPP does exist as a rebel group, but is too small to justify the government’s actions against it. General Liseras said that giving the group, which according to him only has 50 members, the status of guerrillas is giving them what they want to gain international prestige. Some put the numbers even lower. The human rights commission meanwhile put the number of members lower, pointing out; “to say that an armed group of approximately 15 people is creating tumult and justifies the state of exception is to disregard the failure of the security forces made up of more than 50,000 people.”
Even the attack that finally pushed Congress into passing the state of emergency declaration was not clearly the work of the EPP. An officer named Raimundo Pereira was manning a police checkpoint with two others, when at 9:30 p.m., he stood up to hand something to one of his companions and was suddenly shot in the back. Pereira said that he was sure it was a planned attack, and not an accident, but nothing further happened.
However, the EPP insist on asserting their existence. The attack that killed two policemen in September was reportedly a well-planned operation involving bombs and sniper fire. A local police commander said that the fact the rebels managed to inflict casualties was due in part to the fact that many officers do not believe the group really exists, and so do not take the proper precautions.
What are the real reasons for the government putting the state of emergency in place, when it proved so little-effective last time? As InSight Crime has argued previously, it could be an attempt to shore up the government of President Fernando Lugo against accusations that he has sympathies with the leftist group, although the president himself is said to be opposed to the declaration. It could also be a way for the authorities being seen to take action against organized crime without having to take difficult steps such as removing corrupt prosecutors and police, as the human rights commission points out.
Some have questioned whether the government is really committed to dismantling the EPP, with one congressman stating that “If there is not political will to capture [the EPP rebels], it’s not worth the trouble.”