TParaguayan Army has deployed some 400 troops from its 4th Infantry Division to three northern regions — Concepción, San Pedro and Amambay — to hunt down the members of a shadowy insurgent movement, the Paraguayan People’s Army (Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo; EPP for short). The group stands accused of killing four guards at a cattle ranch and a police officer in San Pedro; the attack came days after Horacio Cartes was inaugurated as Paraguay’s new head of state on August 15. The EPP, it seems, wanted to waste no time in giving him a bloody welcome.
The EPP is one of the more obscure active Latin American insurgent movements. The generally accepted origins of the group is that it emerged in 1992 as the armed wing of a clandestine political movement known as Patria Libre and in 2008 the group adopted its current name. Moreover the group claims to have a Marxist ideology, while some of its heroes and influences are Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Regis Debray, as well as Paraguayan heroes like the Mariscal Francisco Solano López. (In fact, an image of Solano Lopez is imprinted on the EPP’s flag). In 2008, Carmen Villalba, a self-declared spokeswoman of the EPP who is currently imprisoned, stated that the group’s support comes from “the Paraguayan people, the people who eternally feel that they have been ridiculed, discriminated against and stepped on.” If the EPP is to be believed about its political ideology, it would — arguably; the Zapatistas in Mexico have something of a claim to the title as well, though their goal was never to overthrow the government — be the first insurgent movement that has a political raison d’etre to appear in Latin America since the Cold War.
Leaving aside its motivations, the EPP is growing as a security concern in the landlocked South American nation. It is true that the group does not yet have the predilection for indiscriminate violence displayed by, say, Peru’s Shining Path; happily, it does not hold anywhere near the casualty count of the group. Peru’s Truth Commission estimates that the Shining Path was responsible for roughly 46% of the estimated 70,000 Peruvians that either died or disappeared in the country’s internal war since 1980. Media reports explain that roughly 30 people have died by EPP attacks since 2005.
But these insurgents have not aimed low, despite their small successes: the group has carried out attacks against government facilities as well as high-profile kidnappings. In September 2004, the group kidnapped Susana Cubas, the daughter of former Paraguayan President Raúl Cubas. Her body was found in February 2005 in the outskirts of Asunción. In September 2011, EPP fighters attacked a small police outpost in the Concepción region, and two policemen were killed in the shootout. This is a standard modus operandi for the EPP, which is focusing in attacking small, isolated outposts instead of taking major armed units head on (most likely due to a lack of sufficient fighters). It is worth noting that while the EPP has occasionally destroyed farming machinery, it has not resorted to utilizing more destructive terrorist methods, such as the car bombs that were Shining Path’s trademark in Peru in the 1980s.
So while the group is not a problem of FARC/Shining Path proportions, it is still a problem, and a serious one. Continuous attacks will throw this politically fragile state (which is finally recovering from the 2012 overthrow of President Fernando Lugo) into further turmoil. One can see the first inklings of this in Cartes’ strong move out of the gate: it would be a bad start to his presidency for him to fumble on national security. He has the rhetoric down, declaring that “the military is going to the north of the country to give their lives.” But internal deployment of troops is a fraught issue in a country known for its distrust of the military due to a history of repressive rule. This being, of course, most firmly incarnated in Alfredo Stroessner’s military dictatorship, which lasted from 1954 to 1989.
Which means Cartes will be walking a fine line in his first months in power, trying to win the calculus on these security challenges. But the real incognitum here is the growth of EPP. The group may not be as large as Colombia’s FARC, and it may lack the financial resources of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, but it should not be overlooked.
After all, the Shining Path started small, in the isolated Peruvian highlands of the Ayacucho region, but exponentially grew to the point that it had a presence in most parts of the country by the late 1980s. During its heyday in the early 2000s, the FARC reportedly had close to 16,000 combatants – a huge increase from the roughly 1,000 peasants that inhabited the village of Marquetalia, Tolima, the “free zone” that Communist guerrillas controlled and which the Colombian military tried to retake by force in 1964, effectively starting the country’s internal war. (A FARC war myth is that only 48 individuals out of the 1000 villagers in Marquetalia were actually armed). The guerrillas that survived the military operation renamed themselves as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in 1966.
The EPP does not appear to have massive numbers — recent reports by the Paraguayan media estimate that it boasts around 150 combatants — but the group’s strength is waxing. Government officials say the insurgents are recruiting poor peasants in San Pedro and Concepción. As Christian Roig, the public prosecutor for San Pedro, put it “There is no doubt that the EPP is growing […] they are recruiting more people, who are humble peasants, that during the day they work in their fields and at night they are fighters.” From little acorns . . .