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Paraguay: Washington’s War against Growing Marxist Insurgency

Most likely, very few Americans are aware of the small, land-locked South American nation of Paraguay.  A politically volatile country displaying immense levels of economic inequality, Paraguay has recently been wracked by a wave of mysterious violence.  Experts say an obscure Marxist rebel group called the Paraguayan People's Army (known in Spanish by the acronym E.P.P.) is responsible for the escalating attacks, which have begun to capture the attention of the international media. 


Years after the end of the Cold War, the E.P.P. has confounded political expectations by mounting a challenge to the Paraguayan military.  Clad in camouflage and brandishing assault rifles, the E.P.P. plant bombs under police cars while killing and kidnapping Paraguay's wealthiest citizens.  During one recent raid, the rebels showed up at a remote ranch and promptly abducted security guards.  Then, when the police showed up, the guerillas launched an ambush. In the ensuing violence five people were shot dead, the deadliest incident thus far involving the shadowy guerrilla army.


It is unclear how many combatants fight with the E.P.P, and many aspects of the group remain elusive.  Allegedly, the rebels receive shelter from peasants and drug traffickers.  What is not in dispute, however, is the growing intensity of rebel campaigns out in the countryside.  In a country long characterized by unequal distribution of land, the E.P.P. has apparently thrived by drawing on support of local impoverished campesino farmers.  According to the New York Times "pockets of northern Paraguay have…taken on the semblance of a war zone as the central government ramps up military patrols and deploys special operations units to find the guerrillas."


Rural Center of San Pedro


As if the E.P.P. insurgency in Paraguay could get no more outlandish, Washington has been meddling in local politics and inveighing against the rebels.  Indeed, U.S. interest in the E.P.P. has been brewing for some time.  In advance of Paraguay's presidential election of 2008 which brought leftist Fernando Lugo to power, the U.S. sought out sensitive data in the country including "indications or evidence of terrorists or terrorist support networks' involvement with narco-trafficking." 


According to secret U.S. State Department documents published by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks, Washington spied on various presidential candidates but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was particularly concerned about the rise of Lugo, a former bishop from the impoverished rural hinterland of San Pedro, an area frequented by the E.P.P. rebels.  The Paraguayan right has charged that Lugo, who espoused so-called progressive "Liberation Theology" during his time in the Church, had vaguely defined "links" to the E.P.P. 


A neglected municipality, San Pedro is full of peasants obliged to eke out a living while rich soy barons make a killing on international commodity markets.  Facing a bleak future, many San Pedro residents eventually wind up emigrating to the U.S., Argentina, or Europe.  In a cable, U.S. diplomats noted that San Pedro had occasionally been prone to rural insurrection over the decades.  During his 11-year tenure as Bishop, Lugo fought for campesino rights and organized San Pedro's peasant movement.  According to some press reports, the Paraguayan Episcopal Conference believed that Lugo might have incited land invasions and some within the hierarchy were unhappy about such developments. 


Needless to say, such reports were similarly distasteful to the U.S. Embassy in Asunción.  The Americans conducted their own "sensitive reporting" suggesting that Lugo had ties to the Marxist Free Fatherland Party (known by the Spanish acronym P.P.L.), which had roots in San Pedro.  "Several P.P.L. leaders are reportedly ex-seminarians," the Americans wrote, "although Lugo has publicly denied having been their instructor."  According to Carmen Villalba, an E.P.P member now sitting in jail, Lugo approached the P.P.L. after embarking on a political career.  In 2008, the E.P.P was created as an offshoot of the P.P.L. though Villalba denies rightist claims that Lugo ever had any direct ties to the successor group.


Chávez Tours San Pedro


The prospect of a rural bishop coming to power in Paraguay, particularly in the midst of a wider left turn in South America, was hardly agreeable to Washington.  To the north, Hugo Chávez had been pushing for land reform, and U.S. diplomats were instructed to ascertain whether Lugo had received material support from Venezuela during the campaign.  One political party in Lugo's coalition, the Americans noted in a cable, had indeed received such financial support.


Rightist alarm bells went off further after the election brought Lugo to power.  Literally one day after his inauguration, Lugo invited Chávez to Paraguay to discuss rural collaboration.  Together, the two traveled to San Pedro where Lugo pledged to raise living standards.  Speaking to farmers in the town square, the new president remarked "this is where I learned to love the peasant, the indigenous people, and to admire their efforts to excel despite adverse conditions."


Chávez declared that he was willing to help Paraguay develop an "agro-industrial center" and provide agricultural and technical assistance.  In particular, Chávez singled out San Pedro for such assistance.  According to a report in McClatchy, "Chávez drew reporters and crowds wherever he went, oozing charisma at every stop…Chávez hugged children, embraced everyone he met as if he or she was his long-lost friend and identified Lugo's unexpected victory with changes in the continent that he hopes will bring South America together under his leadership."


Needless to say, Paraguayan conservatives were hardly pleased by such developments.  In a candid aside, Paraguay's own Minister of Agriculture told the Americans that he was concerned about "radical actors surrounding the President." Specifically, the official was worried "about Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez' presence in rural areas, and [he] predicted an increase in illicit activity where the Paraguayan state has a weak presence." In further conversations, landholders "shared similar concerns about a 'chavista' influence in rural areas, and the growth of marihuana plantations by peasants from some of the same social groups demanding land."


E.P.P. Goes on Offensive


Meanwhile, Lugo's electoral victory put Washington in a quandary.  On the one hand, the U.S. State Department did not trust the new president, but on the other hand the Bush administration could not stomach the prospect of a growing rural insurgency in Paraguay.  To make matters worse, just after Lugo's election in April, 2008 the E.P.P. kidnapped wealthy San Pedro cattle rancher Luis Lindstrom.  The E.P.P. frequently singled out soya farmers like Lindstrom, a powerful figure who also owned a local logging operation.  The daring action created a media firestorm which exerted pressure on Lugo to provide for greater public security.  Six weeks later, Lindstrom was released but only after his family was forced to pay the rebels $300,000 in ransom money.  The rebels followed up for good measure by attacking a small army outpost in San Pedro.


According to WikiLeaks documents, Washington decided to split the difference in Paraguay by carrying out a delicate and stealthy collaboration with political and military authorities.  Alarmed by the Lindstrom affair and growing violence in San Pedro, the Paraguayan military decided to deploy a special U.S.-trained unit to conduct door-to-door searches.  Nevertheless, both Washington and Asunción decided not to send advisors to the area "due to local sensitivities to a possible U.S. military presence." 


WikiLeaks cables underscore the delicate nature of Washington's involvement in Paraguay, particularly in the military realm.  Lugo, who was associated with South America's so-called "Pink Tide" to the left, did not wish to be too clearly associated with U.S. policies. Indeed, according to cables Lugo literally recoiled at the notion of American military involvement in his country.  Speaking with the U.S. ambassador, the Paraguayan president "physically pushed back his chair" when the conversation turned to military matters. 


New President in a Bind


Such posturing put Lugo at odds with earlier protocol.  Under previous Asunción administrations, the U.S. had more of a free hand when it came to military operations.  For years, Washington's Southern Command operated in the country to ostensibly provide rural medical care.  However, some have suggested that the Americans were actually in Paraguay to spy on leftist movements or peasant leaders.  According to Argentine paper Clarín, Washington even had its own air base located in the town of Mariscal Estigarribia.  


WikiLeaks documents show that the incoming Obama administration was just as wary of Lugo as the earlier Bush White House.  Indeed, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered subordinates to spy on the Asunción leader by collecting valuable psychological data.  Perhaps, Lugo developed second thoughts about crossing the Americans.  Facing political pressure from Washington and the Paraguayan right, government officials remarked in private that they were "interested in deepening our mil-mil relationship" though the country "needed a break to mark a shift from the past administration."  Hoping to mollify the Pentagon, the Lugo administration added that U.S. Special Operations units were welcome to stay in Paraguay.


The Struggle for Land


Such political contortions were beginning to exact a toll on the new administration.  Though Lugo pledged to bring about a more equitable system of land tenure in Paraguay, rebels in San Pedro called such commitment into doubt.  Indeed, U.S. diplomats reported that the E.P.P. urged "campesinos to use violence to agitate for agrarian reform" while expressing "doubt in President Lugo's ability to execute basic agrarian reform."  In November, 2008 the E.P.P. distributed a pamphlet saying that the group would invade land "because the Fernando Lugo government will not carry out agrarian reform which was promised to the Paraguayan people."


The emergence of the E.P.P. put Lugo in a tight bind.  The last thing the president wanted was to prosecute a counter-insurgency campaign against a new rebel group proclaiming the rights of rural campesino farmers.  On the other hand, if he failed to provide for adequate security, Lugo might risk his political reputation.  What is more, Lugo himself admitted to the Americans that the Paraguayan military had "many failures" and as a result appreciated superior U.S. training and equipment.


Behind closed doors, Lugo brought the U.S. in on high level E.P.P. discussions.  The Asunción government, Lugo remarked, was still in favor of ongoing American support for a so-called U.S.-trained Joint Rapid Response Detachment in the field.  Indeed, the president was pleased with the unit's deployment and performance in areas hotly contested by the rebels.  During the conversation, the U.S. Chargé d'Affaires reminded Lugo that the U.S. had even paid for the gas and expenses of the joint unit's deployment. 


Ill-Equipped Law Enforcement


Ill-equipped to handle the E.P.P., Lugo also found himself relying on U.S. law enforcement.  In early 2009, the rebels detonated an improved explosive device (I.E.D.) at the Paraguayan Palace of Justice or Supreme Court.  Though the explosion caused only minor property damage and no injuries, the incident underscored local police inability to provide for adequate security. 


Shortly after the blast, American officials assisted the police with identification of the explosives and secured a sample for analysis by the F.B.I.  During a meeting, the Chief of Intelligence, Minister of the Interior and Communications Minister discussed the incident with U.S. Embassy staff.  In private discussions, the Supreme Court President told the American Ambassador that he "would not rest until those responsible are found."  The Paraguayan added that "he had personally received seven threats this year."


Dozens of bomb threats followed the Supreme Court blast throughout April and May, 2009, "likely part of a harassment campaign against the government of Paraguay."  Throughout the situation, U.S. authorities provided the Paraguayan police with assistance, including U.S. Special Operations explosives experts and visiting F.B.I. personnel. Far out of their depth in the technological realm, the Paraguayans also asked the U.S. Embassy for help "with link analysis on cell phone data gained from the various called in threats and tips provided by Paraguayan citizens."


Zavala Affair and Colombia Connection


Already embroiled in providing security to the Lugo government, the Obama administration would shortly be drawn even further into Asunción affairs as the Paraguayan conflict started to take on a familiar Cold War tinge.  In October, 2009 the E.P.P. seized wealthy rancher Fidel Zavala, causing a national uproar.  Many Paraguayans, alarmed by the deterioration of security, hung white ribbons on cars and houses demanding Zavala's release.  In a cable, U.S. diplomats noted that "many political analysts believe that Lugo's fate is tied to that of Zavala, and that Zavala's death could trigger impeachment proceedings against Lugo for not managing security issues well."


In an unlikely development, Lugo now turned to none other than the right wing Álvaro Uribe government in Bogotá for assistance.  Colombia, a political and military ally of the U.S. throughout the wider region, had longtime experience handling kidnapping and counter-insurgency.  What is more, both Paraguayan and U.S. officials have claimed that the E.P.P had links to Marxist FARC rebels in Colombia fighting against the Bogotá government.  Though both failed to produce much proof, Asunción security officials claimed that the FARC actually trained the E.P.P., an allegation denied by the rebels in Paraguay.  For its part, the U.S. started to fear a so-called "Colombianization" of the Paraguayan conflict.  Behind closed doors, the U.S. ambassador met with the Paraguayan Minister of Interior to discuss the alleged links.


While Lugo's turn to Colombia for practical assistance may have made some logistical sense, it gave the impression of a government adrift without much ideological or political consistency.  Colombia had been a leading critic of Venezuela and Hugo Chávez, a figure who had already offered much assistance to the fledgling government in Asunción.  In private discussions with the U.S. Ambassador, Lugo revealed that he had been in frequent contact with President Uribe following the Zavala incident and a kidnapping team was dispatched from Bogotá to Paraguay.  The Colombian team had in turn received U.S. training and technical assistance under so-called "Plan Colombia."


Lugo's Dangerous Game


Despite Lugo's somewhat odd rapprochement with U.S. ally Colombia, the Paraguayan President found himself in a quandary.  Though he needed American assistance on the Zavala kidnapping, Lugo was torn politically.  In September, 2009 he joined Hugo Chávez on Margarita Island in Venezuela for an Africa-Latin America summit attended by other South American leftist leaders.  During the conference, reform of world bodies like the United Nations emerged as a key concern, and at one point Lugo called for a "new world order."


Even more audaciously, the Paraguayan revoked plans for U.S. troops to hold several joint military exercises and carry out development projects in Paraguay.  Lugo criticized the so-called "New Horizons" military program, remarking that "there would be about 500 U.S. military and other personnel in the country and that wouldn't go unnoticed [by other countries in the region]."  Needless to say, U.S. ambassador Liliana Ayalde was none too pleased, declaring in turn that Lugo's decision was "regrettable."


Despite his left leanings, Lugo played a dangerous game behind the scenes with the Americans.  Panicked and concerned for his political future, Lugo called on the U.S. ambassador.  The President remarked that the E.P.P. was "very dangerous" and the rebels knew their territory so well that they could detect "even a cow moving into it."  Hoping to reassure Ayalde, Lugo said that since the earlier Lindstrom kidnapping the authorities had done "good intelligence" in the San Pedro area.  Indeed, the security forces had embedded a number of officers in the countryside who were living amongst the campesinos "with beards and all." 


A Tense Meeting


Apparently, the ambassador wasn't too impressed with Lugo's show.  Indeed, Ayalde told the president that she "wanted to take stock of our mil-to-mil relationship following the government of Paraguay's decision to decline the New Horizons exercise."  Ayalde added that she was "confused by Lugo's signals" and "particularly his September 26 speech in Margarita Island."  Lugo then abruptly jumped up in his chair and declared "I know that they want us to be enemies but I'm not going to fight with you (the United States).  There is nothing to this."  Paraguay sought to move forward with military collaboration, Lugo said, and "we have lots of programs with the U.S."


A month after meeting with Ayalde, Lugo followed up by inking a deal with the Americans to deliver military materiel and equipment to a joint Special Forces battalion specifically tasked with combating terrorism.  Meanwhile, the Americans urged the Lugo government to publicly emphasize Colombia's "expert assistance" when it came to handling of the Zavala case.  Fortunately for Lugo, the E.P.P. finally agreed to release Zavala in January, 2010.  To secure the rancher's release, the Zavala family was forced to pay $550,000 and to distribute meat to poor communities.


The WikiLeaks trove leaves off in late 2010, so we don't know a lot about covert U.S. activities in Paraguay over the past few years.  Nevertheless, one cable from early 2010 suggests the Americans continued with their "under the radar" military collaboration.  In a note to Washington, the U.S. Embassy noted the brief deployment of U.S. forces to Paraguay in an effort to train local Special Forces in the "global war on terrorism."  Clearly, the E.P.P. was of key concern to the mission and diplomats noted the rebels had "low level I.E.D. capabilities and a known anti-American ideology."  U.S. forces were tasked with providing sniper as well as air assault operations training.


Lugo's Ironic and Unsuccessful Escalation


Perhaps, such training came in handy.  In early 2010, Lugo cracked down on the E.P.P. by sending 1,000 troops to the Bolivian border area.  The President was prompted to escalate following a rebel attack which resulted in four civilian deaths as well as a policeman. Amidst mounting criticism from the Paraguayan right, which claimed that Lugo had gone soft on the guerrillas, the President even asked Congress to grant him emergency powers.  By now gripped with counter-insurgency fervor, Congress in turn acquiesced.  Under the law, Lugo was authorized to carry out arrests without a warrant and the army was allowed to join police on security operations.


Though Lugo's escalation may have placated the Paraguayan right, the state of siege placed the President in a rather ironic situation.  The idea that a former bishop espousing Liberation Theology and land reform would resort to a draconian crackdown and counter-insurgency campaign in the countryside put the Lugo administration in a contradictory position.  Moreover, Lugo's rash decision proved controversial amongst opposition parties and N.G.O.'s and the President failed to obtain any tangible gains since only one alleged E.P.P. member was caught during the 30-day suspension of constitutional guarantees.


E.P.P. Tows the Ideological Line


Needless to say, Lugo also managed to make the rebels even more resentful of the central government.  In a public relations stunt the E.P.P. offered to pay $1,000 to anyone who could turn over Lugo, the Minister of Interior or any member of the Supreme Court.  "We don't have much money," the rebels noted in a communiqué, "but we do have a lot of dignity."  The rebels went on to criticize the U.S. and called Colombian President Álvaro Uribe "the imperialist's lapdog."  


All along, the E.P.P. had seen Lugo's collaboration with non-leftist groups as a betrayal of rebel ideals.  In rather hackneyed and ideological communiqués, the rebels blasted so-called "treacherous pretend socialists" who had carried out alliances with "pro-imperialists" and "pro-oligarchy" factions.   In late 2010, Lugo received a threatening letter from the rebels, calling him a "walking cadaver." 


Having failed to vanquish the rebels, Lugo was obliged to declare another state of siege the following year after the E.P.P. threatened to kidnap the chairwoman of the conservative Colorado Party.  This time, Lugo deployed 3,000 troops with the U.S. announcing it would donate more than $1 million for military equipment and training in the effort to hunt down and eliminate the E.P.P.


Lugo's Removal and Murky U.S. Role


Even as Lugo sought to keep a lid on social discontent and the E.P.P., the Paraguayan right, and no doubt the Americans too, grew restless.  In June, 2012 both were relieved when Lugo was dramatically removed from power.  Ironically, even though Lugo had cracked down hard on the E.P.P., legislators accused Lugo of encouraging land seizures which had resulted in violent clashes with security forces.  In what has been described as a "quasi-coup," the President was ousted by his country's right wing Congress in a kangaroo process.  


In an upset, Lugo's rightist Vice President Federico Franco assumed his old boss' job.  Needless to say, Hugo Chávez was dealt a severe blow and Venezuelan political and diplomatic influence in Paraguay was greatly reduced as a result of the shakeup.  There's no evidence that the U.S. was involved in Lugo's removal from power, but in a rather suspicious development, a group of U.S. generals met with legislators even as Lugo was being impeached.  Reportedly, both discussed the possibility of installing an American military base in Paraguay.


Cold War Redux?


    If anything, Lugo's removal seemed to harden attitudes on all sides of the political divide in Paraguay, creating a kind of throwback to the Cold War in Latin America.  Somewhat foolishly, the E.P.P. mocked Lugo even after the latter's ouster.  In addition, the rebels refused to recognize the Franco regime in Asunción.  The new de facto President returned the favor, declaring that the E.P.P. represented the "long arm" of the Colombian FARC. 


Deviating from Lugo's pior embrace of Chávez, Franco accused Venezuela of "direct and malicious" involvement in Paraguayan politics in support of a "terrorist and criminal" gang.  For good measure, Franco said that Chávez had organized and developed training programs for the E.P.P.  The rebels, Franco added, had been invited to Venezuela with scholarships for supposed agriculture training programs.  Once they settled in Venezuela, however, E.P.P. members "were not precisely involved in learning to till the land but rather in the use of weapons and guerrilla tactics."  Under Franco, Paraguayan officials hinted they had received support in the counter-insurgency war from both Bogotá and Washington.


Counter-Insurgency and Human Rights


Despite this hard line, Franco failed to vanquish the rebels.  In 2013, a new election brought the hard line conservative Colorado Party back to power.  Horacio Cartes, the new President, sought to deal with the E.P.P. problem once again through military means.  Just one week after Cartes took power, Congress gave the President sweeping powers to use the army for domestic policing.  The vote followed an E.P.P. attack which killed four private guards on a landed estate in San Pedro.


Cartes' crackdown quickly raised concerns amonst Paraguayans who recalled earlier human rights violations and a legacy of military rule.  Amidst militarization of the country, targeted killings of peasant leaders began to increase.  As Cartes deployed the army to San Pedro once more, human rights organizations reported that many peasant leaders had been arrested and accused of having links with the E.P.P.  Indeed, landless peasants claimed that the Paraguayan state prosecuted the counter-insurgency war as a means of simply repressing poor communities. 


In one incident, the military stormed a local school and asked the children if they knew where the E.P.P. was.  A local campesino who denounced the raid to the press was later locked up for her alleged links to the rebels, in what was seen as a move to intimidate residents.  True to form, the rebels made PR hay out of Cartes' misguided policies, declaring that Paraguay was governed by the number one "mafioso." Then, for good measure, the E.P.P. issued a death threat against Cartes.


How embroiled has Washington become in the counter-insurgency war?  Though WikiLeaks cables illuminate growing U.S. involvement under Lugo, we don't know much about the Obama administration's record during the Franco and Cartes administrations.  What is more, the circumstances surrounding Lugo's removal, as well as the U.S. role, still remain very murky. Recently, journalist Glenn Greenwald reported that the National Security Agency (or N.S.A.) spied on Paraguay for years.  What, if anything, do these files contain?  Perhaps future reporting can help to shed light on such controversies.


A Nebulous Rebel Movement


As they seek to justify their draconian and militaristic approach, the Paraguayan right and U.S. policymakers will probably continue to demonize the E.P.P.  To be sure, serious doubts remain about the exact nature of the rebel struggle and the group's hazy political goals.  Carmen Villalba, sister of supposed E.P.P. leader Oscar Villalba, has declared that the rebels enjoy widespread popular support in the countryside.  In videos, the rebels claim to represent the "armed wing" of the Paraguayan poor and call for the elimination of private property.  Rebels are seen in other videos dressed in camouflage and speaking in Jopara, a mixture of indigenous Guarani and Spanish.


It's unclear, however, how truthful such claims may be and Paraguayan authorities say the rebels are mere bandits with links to drug trafficking.  In 2012, web site Insight Crime wrote that the E.P.P. had shown little real interest in land reform and "most of the group's activities have revolved around kidnapping and occasional bombings targeting the security forces. When there have been reports of the group trying to gain the sympathy of local populations, there is little evidence that they have been successful."  Since that time, the rebels seem to have shifted strategy and now focus less on kidnapping and more on attacks of large ranches.


Whatever the case, the E.P.P. has certainly not gone away amidst ongoing social inequality in the countryside.  To be sure, the rebels pose little military threat to the central government and probably can't muster more than 60 full time combatants.  On the other hand, the E.P.P. has proven to be highly resilient and the rebels have steadily escalated their attacks over the years.  Indeed, rebels have moved from bank robberies to high profile kidnappings, bombings and occasional attacks against the security forces.  If anything, the steady escalation proves the E.P.P. has little problem carrying out specific and well-planned actions.


Lasting Questions for Washington


Though Washington and Asunción may continue to stress anti-terror rhetoric in the ongoing campaign against the E.P.P., hoping to demonize the rebels as mere bandits, the U.S. should seriously reassess its strategy in remote Paraguay.  The last thing the small country needs is a return to Cold War-style politics which caused irreparable harm and suffering in much of Latin America.  It's time for right wing elites in both Washington and Asunción to change their psychological mindset which tends to view regional politics in stark and antagonistic black and white terms.


If recent developments are any indication, the counter-insurgency strategy is only making things worse in the Paraguayan countryside, and a military solution is no substitute for long-lasting agrarian reform.  The longer the U.S. continues its under the radar cooperation with the military, the greater the risk that local security forces will slip back into their age-old pattern of human rights violations, a scenario which must be avoided at all costs.

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Interview about the N.S.A. and Brazil

To read my interview with Brazilian web portal UOL Noticas about the impact of the N.S.A. scandal on Brazil-U.S. relations, click here [Portuguese]. For a rough English translation, click here.

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