Diálogo / August 26, 2011
By Larry Luxner
Mention violent Latin American extremist organizations, and the first groups likely to come to mind are Colombia’s FARC, Peru’s Shining Path and Mexico’s Los Zetas.
But now Paraguay faces a similar problem with the emergence of a small but potentially dangerous guerrilla insurgency: the Ejercito del Pueblo Paraguayo (Paraguayan People’s Army, or EPP).
Unheard of just a few years ago, the EPP is now a household name in this landlocked country of 6.4 million following a string of kidnappings and occasional high-profile attacks against government security forces.
The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) says that one of the EPP’s most prominent kidnapping targets was Fidel Zavala, who survived a 94-day ordeal until he was finally freed on Jan. 17, 2010. The EPP also been accused of abducting and subsequently murdering Cecilia Cubas, the daughter of former Paraguayan President Raul Cubas.
Inspired by communist revolutionaries like Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the EPP appears to be one of the first violent extremist groups with a distinctly Marxist-Leninist ideology to emerge in Latin America since the end of the Cold War.
“Unfortunately, as the history of insurgent movements in general seems to indicate, there is ample room for ‘growth’ when it comes to their possible future operations,” says a COHA study issued last month. “The EPP already presents an interesting case-study for academics, but for the Paraguayan government, it is a new security threat that will have to be faced. Paraguay today is, unfortunately, a poor, underdeveloped state in dire need of development of every description. But improving the living conditions of its population is no easy task. The last thing this country needs is a brutal counterinsurgency war, as some of its neighbors have recently experienced.”
Larry Birns, executive director of COHA, said the EPP “is capable of doing symbolic damage simply by issuing bellicose statements” – but it’s unclear how much damage the group can actually do at this point.
“At this point, they’re certainly not much of a menace compared to other armed groups in Latin America like the FARC, and their numbers are probably very small. Our assumption is that this is a group of maybe indigenous and university students, and disaffected people from the PLR [Partido Liberal Radical] political party,” he said. “But their menacing factor has increased in recent months.”
In the last 18 months, the EPP has stepped up its operations dramatically. On Apr. 21, 2010, a shootout between EPP members and Paraguayan security forces in the province of Concepcion left one policemen and three private guards dead. That led President Fernando Lugo to declare a “state of exception” and launch a military deployment.
Interior Minister Rafael Filizzola later accused the EPP of masterminding a series of explosions across the country, including a blast that injured five people Jan. 17, 2011, in the town of Horqueta. And in July 2011, the EPP claimed responsibility for an attack on a farm in the department of Concepcion, near Paraguay’s border with Brazil, in which agricultural machinery was destroyed.
Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue and an expert on regional security issues, said there’s evidence EPP has received guerrilla warfare training from Colombia’s FARC and “is obviously engaged in criminal activities” -- but that “with only 100 or so members, it is not going to overthrow the Paraguayan government. Even so, there’s growing concern in Paraguay that the group poses an increasing threat to stability.”
David Spencer, a professor of security studies at Washington’s National Defense University, explained in a 2009 analysis that EPP’s members fit into one of four categories: “full-time combatants; part-time combatants or militias; logistics support forces and internal and external political support and propaganda.”
Spencer estimates that the EPP has around 60 full-time combatants, including its leader, Osvaldo Villalba, and subordinates Manuel Cristaldo, Juan Arrom and Alcides Oviedo. The EPP’s self-declared spokeswoman, Carmen Villalba, says her group’s support comes from “el pueblo paraguayo, del sector popular, de gente que eternamente fue burlada, discriminada, pisoteada” [the Paraguayan people, the people who eternally feel they have been ridiculed, discriminated against and stepped on”].