Paraguay’s Rebels Elusive, State Inept

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The Paraguayan government’s 60-day “state of exception” made for big headlines but little headway against the tiny guerrilla organization active in the north of the country, the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP), demonstrating an alarming level of state weakness.

The increased military presence did not result in the capture a single member of the rebel group during the state of exception in the northern departments of Concepcion and San Pedro, which ended on December 10. As a result, the strategy’s most ardent supporters with little to show.

Paraguay’s Interior Minister, Carlos Filizzola, admitted that the state of exception did not meet its objectives. And the Paraguayan Congress, which has been skeptical about the need for a state of exception since the administration of President Fernando Lugo first lobbied for it in October, has called for a meeting with security officials to discuss exactly what happened during the offensive.

Even worse for the already beleaguered Paraguayan state, the emergency declaration may have been a boon to the EPP, allowing it to boost its profile and raise its stature as a “resistance” movement.

How the group remains a stated threat is perplexing. Aside from a few high profile kidnappings and some limited skirmishes with police and military outposts, the group is more phantom than calculated insurgency — more akin to the Zapatistas’ Internet rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico, than the Revotionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) [See InSight Crime’s FARC profile], who have allegedly supplied some training for the EPP.

As InSight Crime noted in January, the discovery of an EPP “training camp,” in which members trained with wooden weapons, caused some analysts to doubt the group’s level of organization. Since then, a rancher who had been taken hostage claimed that the group bragged about having received training in Venezuela, Colombia, and Cuba. While this suggests the group may not be as amateur as previously thought, this alleged training has not translated into any significant military actions.

Ironically, the failed offensive may give them the recruiting boost they need. In a communique released to Lambare-based Cardinal Radio, the group claimed that the state of exception was brought to a close with “plenty of glory” for the EPP.

“They claim, with characteristic falsehood, that they didn’t find the EPP,” the statement read. “This couldn’t be further from reality! It is the EPP who was looking for them all over in order to engage them in combat. But our desires were never satisfied.”

The EPP also announced its intention to extort local businessmen and ranchers ranchers who operate in “guerrilla territory.” In a policy reminiscent of the FARC’s law 002, these individuals will be forced to pay 30 percent of their income in accordance with the “revolutionary laws,” or else risk being taken hostage. The group claims that these funds will be used to “cover expenses incurred by the revolutionary struggle.”

Considering their small size and relatively low level of sophistication, it seems miraculous that a 60-day operation devoted exclusively to the EPP hasn’t completely dismantled the group. But this may reflect more on the relative level of state weakness in Paraguay than on the rebels’ military prowess.

There is evidence to suggest that the northeast of Paraguay is fast becoming a hub of activity for Brazilian drug trafficking organizations, in response to which the Brazilian goverment has tightened security along the border. This has proved controversial in Paraguay, with an alleged firefight breaking out between the two countries’ security forces in September and members of the country’s Mercosur Parliament recently accusing their neighbor of planning a “non-declared war.

Paraguay seems to be suffering from a lack of state control on a national scale as well. President Lugo is currently at the head of a lame-duck government and is fighting an opposition-controlled congress, which in July shot down a proposal which would amend the Constitution in order to allow him to run for a second term. Ironically, one of his biggest detractors is his own vice president, Federico Franco, who has repeatedly criticized Lugo’s policies and appointments.

On top of this, Lugo’s term has been marked with poor relations with the Paraguayan military, an institution which holds a relatively high degree of influence in the country as a legacy of the 35-year military dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. Since taking office in 2008, he has dismissed the leaders of the military command four times, one of which appeared to be in response to rumors of a coup plot.

Considering Lugo’s political weakness, the recent state of exception could also be merely an attempt by the president to assert his authority amid this anarchic political situation. As such, the failure to capture any EPP leaders may simply be the result of a lack of political will. As InSight Crime has reported, Lugo has made battling the EPP a pillar of his presidency, and he seems to have a political incentive to keep them around as long as possible.

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