Are Paraguay Rebels Looking for Prisoner Exchange?

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Alcido Fick has made an impassioned plea to the EPP for the release of his son, for whom a ransom has already been paid. But Paraguay’s rebel group may be seeking to copy their Colombian cousins and force a prisoner exchange.

InSight Crime was in Rio Verde, in Paraguay’s northern province of San Pedro, when Alcido Fick swept into the Mennonite hamlet to read a terse declaration to gathered reporters. He pleaded with the rebel commander, Osvaldo Villalba of the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP), to release his 16-year-old son, Arlan.

“Señor Commander of the EPP. I am using the media to remind you of your words that night of the 2nd of April, when we were talking face to face, when you promised to release my son if I complied with your demands … If you wanted to make us suffer, you have already done that too much, we cannot take any more anxiety and waiting, it is enough … I am begging you, please release my son, an innocent.”

Arlan Fick (below right) has been held for almost five months by the EPP. Mr. Fick paid the requested $500,000 ransom almost immediately, without asking for proof of life, as well as distributing $50,000 worth of food and supplies to poor communities in the area, as instructed by the rebels. However his son was not released and there has been no further communication from the rebels since the ransom was delivered.ArlanFick

Arlan was taken at the start of April after a gun battle between EPP rebels and the security forces, which left a soldier and two rebels dead. According to the official version, the guerrillas took Arlan from his house as a human shield to cover their retreat from the area. However local sources consulted by InSight Crime insist that the Fick family had a break-in before the kidnapping, and only a computer, containing the Fick’s financial information, had been taken. The fact that the ransom was paid so quickly suggests that the EPP knew how much the Ficks were worth and what sum of money the family could swiftly produce. It would seem likely that they had been in the area with the intention of snatching a member of the family.

More than a month after the kidnapping the imprisoned leader of the EPP, Alcides Oviedo Britez, wrote a letter stating that the Arlan Fick should be exchanged for incarcerated EPP members, of which there are currently some 15. Oviedo is serving an 18-year sentence for the 2001 kidnapping of Maria Edith Bordon, the wife of a wealthy businessman, for whom a million-dollar ransom was paid.

InSight Crime Analysis

Further weight to the idea of a prisoner exchange has come in the form of the kidnapping of a policeman, Edelio Morinigo Florenciano, who was snatched on July 5 this year. Authorities know nothing about the whereabouts of Morinigo and there have been no declarations from the EPP. There have even been suggestions, emanating from the Ministry of the Interior, which is responsible for the police, that Morinigo went over to the EPP voluntarily. However InSight Crime investigations in Arroyito, in the province of Concepcion, where the policeman was taken, suggest otherwise. Locals who witnessed the abduction talked of how the policeman tried to hide his pistol by tossing it in the undergrowth as the EPP took him, but that the guerrillas, once they saw his empty holster, came back to look for it and took the sidearm with them.

The notion of a prisoner exchange is not a new one. The rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) started collecting hostages, members of the security forces and politicians, starting in the 1990s, to force the government into a prisoner exchange. The tactic drew international condemnation of the Colombian rebels, and unraveled after the military managed to rescue 15 of the hostages in 2008’s “Operation Jaque,” among them Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate and their most high profile captive, and three US citizens. After the dramatic rescue, the FARC abandoned the strategy and are now engaged in peace talks with the government in Havana, Cuba.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of the EPP

There numerous reasons why the EPP may look to the FARC for inspiration in tactics such as seeking a prisoner exchange. There are proven links between the FARC and the Paraguayan left-wing group Patria Libre, which spawned the EPP in 2008 as its military wing. Messages seized from the computers of Luis Edgar Devia Silva, alias “Raul Reyes,” who was killed in Ecuador after the Colombian air force bombed his camp, revealed ties between Patria Libre leaders and Rodrigo Granda, one of the FARC negotiators in Havana. An EPP manual seized from a camp, of which InSight Crime has a copy, bears an uncanny resemblance to certain FARC documents, and sources in the Paraguay police told InSight Crime they have strong evidence that at least one EPP member received training in Colombia. 

However the Paraguayan government is not even considering the possibility of a prisoner exchange.

“There is absolutely no chance of that happening,” Senator Roberto Acevedo told InSight Crime, something confirmed by sources in the Interior Ministry.

There are other theories about the Arlan case apart from that of a possible prisoner exchange. One is that the boy is dead, and that he may have died soon after being taken, hence the fact there has been no proof of life from the rebels. However the Interior Minister, Francisco Jose de Vargas, told InSight Crime they have solid intelligence that Arlan is still alive. Despite this intelligence it seems the authorities have no idea where the rebels are holding the boy.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Paraguay

Another theory is that Arlan is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and has gone over the rebels and is now with them voluntarily.

The case is shrouded in mystery. Why would the guerrillas, who only number around 30 fighters, keep two kidnap victims? Each requires feeding, guarding and keeping out of the way of the Joint Task Force, a joint police and army unit, which is scouring the EPP area of influence in the provinces of Concepcion and San Pedro. This must be stretching the EPP’s limited resources, and to what end?

Not releasing kidnap victims after a ransom has been paid is also very bad for business. Kidnapping is the principal earner for the EPP. The families of victims will stop paying ransoms if they cannot guarantee the release of their loved ones.

Whatever the case, the Fick family looks certain to continue in its suffering. At the time of publication of this article, there had been no guerrilla reply to Tuesday’s statement by Mr. Fick.

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