Paraguay’s Attorney General’s Office has attributed the recent murder of a farmhand to the country’s main guerrilla group, the Paraguayan People’s Army, but questions remain about who may have been behind the attack.
On the night of July 8, some 20 armed attackers, who witnesses claim appeared to be from an indigenous community and wearing camouflage, moved in on the Iñadui farm and killed Brazilian national Avelino Camargo, Última Hora reported. This took place in the department of Amambay, just 75 kilometers from the city of Pedro Juan Caballero along the Brazil-Paraguay border.
A number of houses, tractors and trucks were also torched during the attack on the property, which is reportedly owned by two other Brazilian citizens, according to authorities. No other workers were harmed.
Following the attack, the group reportedly left a pamphlet identifying themselves as the Brigada Indígena contra Matones de Estancia, or an indigenous brigade against corrupt farmers. However, authorities later claimed that the Paraguayan People’s Army (Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo — EPP) was in fact the group responsible for the ambush, according to prosecutor Federico Delfino.
Authorities have not yet published or provided a copy of the pamphlet allegedly left at the crime scene.
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“They did not mention the reason for the attack. They only said that they went to kill the administrator and they expressed similar claims to those of the EPP,” said a spokesman from Paraguay’s Joint Task Force (Centro de Operaciones Tácticas, better known as Fuerza de Tarea Conjunta — FTC).
The FTC was created in 2013 specifically to combat the EPP. However, the task force has struggled greatly, and has often had to replace its leadership. Just last month, some organizations called to disband the unit due to its “meager results,” arguing that money allocated to the force could be better spent elsewhere.
Paraguayan officials admitted that the suspected presence of this indigenous group — which authorities say may have links to the EPP — was a “new fact,” adding that the group wasn’t on their radar prior to the attack, according to EFE.
There has reportedly been conflict between ranchers and indigenous groups in this area, according to local media reports.
Other workers present at the ranch, according to Última Hora, allegedly identified Osvaldo Daniel Villalba Ayala, one of the EPP’s main leaders, as being among the perpetrators.
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Despite authorities’ claims, the location, size, authorship and manner of the recent attack in northeast Paraguay raises questions about the EPP’s involvement.
The EPP emerged out of the city of Horqueta in Concepción department in eastern Paraguay, which borders Brazil to the north. The guerrilla group also maintains a strong presence in San Pedro department just to the south, but has traditionally been less present in Amambay, where this recent attack took place.
“This isn’t a zone where the EPP typically operates, and the official information currently available is insufficient to attribute this attack to one specific group,” Paraguay security expert Juan Martens told InSight Crime.
Indeed, Amambay is much more of a focus for drug trafficking groups and not rebel groups like the EPP, though they have protected drug traffickers and reportedly even experimented with producing their own marijuana in the past.
“The EPP provide protection on marijuana cultivation plantations and in general charge taxes in territories they control,” National Intelligence Police Director Oscar Pereira told InSight Crime in a recent interview in Paraguay.
The Southern Cone nation is South America’s largest producer of marijuana. Between 2009 and 2018, authorities seized nearly 17,355 metric tons of marijuana, the plurality of which (23 percent) came from Amambay department, according to data obtained by InSight Crime from Paraguay’s Drug Observatory.
Amambay is also extremely strategic due to the drug trafficking routes it possesses along the porous Brazil-Paraguay border, which organized crime groups have long fought over. In recent years, the department has seen spates of violence — particularly in the border town of Pedro Juan Caballero — as criminals groups like Brazil’s First Capital Command (Primerio Comando da Capital – PCC) and the Red Command (Comando Vermelho) wage bloody battles for control of such routes.
“The PCC and Red Command have in the past produced much more violence in this region [Amambay] than the EPP have,” Martens added. “The EPP have historically amassed power by exerting control over local populations.”
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To be sure, the EPP have often relied on targeted kidnappings and extortion for income. The guerrillas have routinely used kidnappings to extort land owners for food or money to give to certain rural, indigenous and impoverished communities as a way to increase support for the group.
The number of fighters that carried out the attack also raises questions about potential links to the EPP, according to Laurence Blair, a journalist who has reported on the EPP in Paraguay.
“Witnesses are talking about 20 to 25 people, which is larger than the different splinter groups the EPP have been able to muster in recent years,” Blair told InSight Crime.
In addition, Blair says that the fact that the attackers only killed the farmhand and let the other workers go contrasts with tactics the EPP have used in the past. The members of the rebel group “often kill indiscriminately, including Paraguayan farm workers,” he said.
The authorship of the attack is also curious.
“We could be dealing with a new, predominantly indigenous group with connections to, but independent of, the core EPP structure. Equally, it is possible that the EPP have helped train and organize a new splinter group with an emotive facade in the form of indigenous resistance to so-called outside invaders. Or it may be an entirely independent group, but witnesses and the authorities are keen to delegitimize it by tarring it with the EPP brush,” said Blair.
This wouldn’t be the first time that authorities have attributed attacks to the EPP that later turned out to be the work of other actors. In one July 2015 incident, official reports linked the murder of three police officers to the EPP. However, it was later discovered that the murders were in fact carried out by drug traffickers, according to Martens.
What’s more, there have been past cases where criminals have tried to pass themselves off as EPP members, such as earlier this year when a band of suspected kidnappers tried to do so after being captured in Pedro Juan Caballero.
Ultimately, the latest murder “underscores the confused and changing situation of lawlessness in Paraguay’s northeast,” Blair said.