Paraguay’s main guerrilla group has demanded that the family of a hostage provide aid to impoverished communities in exchange for the prisoner’s release, highlighting one of the ways the rebels build community support.
A recent video from the Paraguayan People’s Army (Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo – EPP) demands that the family of hostage Franz Wiebe provide $50,000 worth of food to each of two communities that the guerrillas specified.
In the video, which authorities obtained on January 18, the EPP orders Wiebe’s family to deliver the food aid, even as the group admitted that it had mistakenly kidnapped the minor, misidentifying him for their original target. Wiebe, who comes from a family of wealthy local landowners, has been detained by the rebel group since July 2016.
The family complied with the guerrilla group’s demands on January 26. But one of the two communities is considering refusing the goods in order to distance themselves from the EPP’s actions, ABC Color reported.
Nevertheless, local community leader Marcelino Velázquez stated that the food would likely be accepted out of necessity, according to ABC Color. The news outlet quoted Velázquez as saying that the EPP “defends the rights of the poor.”
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The kidnapping case of Franz Wiebe highlights how the EPP tries to generate popular support by portraying themselves in a Robin Hood-like manner that appeals to certain rural, indigeneous and impoverished communities.
This is not the first time that the rebel group has conducted this type of extortion scheme. In 2014, the EPP released another 17-year-old hostage after his family had given in to the ransom, which included the distribution of $50,000 worth of food.
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The rebel group has repeatedly targeted “colonos menonistas” (Mennonite colonists), a sometimes pejorative term used to describe communities of primarily European descent that control a vast and disproportionate share of Paraguay’s agricultural industry, according to Agence France Presse.
Wiebe’s kidnapping case is illustrative of how the EPP exploits social and economic frustration to maintain a base of popular support within impoverished and rural communities, even in a situation in which the group admits having kidnapped the wrong person.
The case also serves as a reminder the the EPP effectively has more control than the government over what happens in many areas where the guerrillas have established a presence.
Senator Arnoldo Wiens told ABC Color that it is “regrettable” that the EPP “is calling the shots in that region, where it does what it wants and tells people what to do.”
Previous kidnapping cases of Mennonites have led to demonstrations against the state’s apparent inability to disrupt the EPP’s activities. These frustrations are likely to continue to simmer as the government still appears unable to defeat the rebel group, even though the number of fighters in their ranks does not exceed 150.