On February 5, Bernhard Blatz and Franz Hiebert, two Mennonites kidnapped by the Ejercito del Pueblo Paraguayo (Paraguayan People’s Army, or EPP), were finally freed. The EPP, a Paraguayan terrorist organization, is well known for its operations against Paraguay’s civilians and security forces, and the country’s Mennonite community has become a particular target of its violence, adding a new dimension to the internal conflict of this land-locked South American nation.
This development raises an important question: how should the Paraguayan government address the EPP’s threat to security?
A Brief History of the EPP
The violent movement adopted the name EPP in 2008, though in reality its origins trace back to the early 1990s when it was a splinter group of the Paraguayan Marxist organization Partido Patria Libre (Free Fatherland Party, or PPL).
The EPP claims to have a Marxist Leninist ideology and also glorifies Paraguayan heroes like José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia and Francisco Solano Lopez. Estimates of the movement’s strength vary greatly, though it probably has only a few dozen fighters who operate in the northern regions of the country close to the border with Brazil—i.e., Amambay, Concepción, and San Pedro departments.
While the group is not strong enough to carry out a successful regime change, over the past decade the EPP has carried out robberies, attacks on property, and other attacks against security forces and civilians alike. The most high-profile murder attributed to the group is that of Cecilia Cubas, daughter of former Paraguayan President Raul Cubas. She was kidnapped in late 2004, and her body was found in early 2005, even after a ransom was paid. While the EPP did not officially exist at the time as an organization, the crime is attributed to individuals who would later form the terrorist movement. More recently, the EPP ambushed a military patrol in August 2016, killing eight troops. Furthermore, in August 2015 it kidnapped Abraham Fehr, who died in captivity—his remains were located earlier this year. According to a January 2018 article by the news agency Infobae.com, since 2008 the EPP is accused of the deaths of 21 armed forces personnel, 13 police officers, and 27 civilians.
Such violence has prompted the Paraguayan government to implement an increasingly larger response. Now a joint task force (Fuerza de Tarea Conjunta, or FTC), a combination of units from the police and military, has been deployed to combat the EPP. Paraguayan media has been fairly critical of the FTC, as it has been unable to defeat the insurgents. For instance, in 2015, before the 2016 ambush, the Paraguayan daily ABC published an article boldly titled “The EPP is no longer afraid of the FTC.”
This development deserves more discussion. Is it desirable or even ethical for Asuncion to continue deploying the country’s armed forces for internal security operations? After all, Latin America has a troubling record, to put it mildly, when it comes to security forces, particularly armies, committing human rights abuses when deployed to crack down on insurgent movements or respond to other domestic security threats. The Central American wars during the Cold War are a prime example of this problem.
The conundrum that the Paraguayan government faces is choosing one of two evils. Either it lets the police handle the EPP, which has not worked so far as evidenced by ongoing attacks and violence, or Asuncion deploys the armed forces, which could risk greater human rights abuses and repression. A government’s duty is to protect the nation’s population, but is the risk of inevitable added violence, even if meant to stop the EPP, in the best interest of Paraguay’s population?
The Mennonites as a Target
It is important to highlight that EPP insurgents have particularly targeted Paraguay’s Mennonite community, as the 2017 kidnappings (in separate incidents) of Franz Hiebert and Father Bernard Blatz and the 2015 kidnapping of the late Abraham Fehr exemplify.
Additionally, Mennonite communities in Paraguay have reported to local media that they are forced to pay EPP insurgents a “revolutionary tax” (in other words, they are the victims of extortion) and follow their orders. For example, the Paraguayan news agency Ultima Hora reported in mid-December 2017 that Mennonite communities gave food to local non-Mennonite towns as part of the negotiations to free Hiebert and Blatz. Moreover, the two individuals’ families reportedly paid USD$750,000 and USD$500,000 in ransoms. This development calls into question, once again, the FTC’s effectiveness as it was unable to locate and free the hostages.
It is unclear to me if the Mennonites are being specifically targeted because of their religious beliefs or because they are civilians living in areas where the EPP operates and security forces do not have a strong presence. I would cautiously theorize that this situation may be a combination of both theories. After all, other Latin American insurgent groups routinely exploit defenseless and isolated populations to utilize them as slave labor or fighters.
Additionally, the insurgents’ extreme ideologies put them in direct confrontation with religious beliefs. This was perhaps best exemplified in Peru during the 1980s and 1990s when the terrorist movement Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path, or SL) targeted religious leaders. Deaths caused by SL include the 1991 murders of Franciscan priests Miguel Tomaszek and Zbigniew Strzalkowski from Poland and Alessandro Dordi from Italy. Sendero also targeted Peru’s Evangelical community—as the 1991 massacre of 36 Evangelicals in Ccano, Ayacucho, horrifically demonstrated.
In the past decade, the Paraguayan People’s Army has carried out several operations that range from destroying property and conducting robberies, to attacking Paraguay’s defense and security forces. While this group is not strong enough for a successful regime-change operation against Asuncion, recent developments, like the 2016 ambush of a military patrol and Abraham Fehr’s death in captivity, raise the question of whether the internal deployment of Paraguay’s military is morally advisable, in spite of the potential for further human rights abuses.
Moreover, the EPP appears to have singled out the country’s Mennonite community for abuses. While a direct link between this group’s religious beliefs with the insurgents’ ideology is not clear, it is very likely the case.
Without a doubt, the rise of the EPP is a major security problem for Paraguay, and it must be defeated with a strategy that includes foresight, knowledge, and wisdom.
W. Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cybersecurity issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.
The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.
Photo Credit: A Paraguayan soldier salutes his flag at Fuerzas Comando 2017’s opening ceremony on July 17 at The Institute of Army Education in Mariano Roque Alonso, Paraguay. Exercise Fuerzas Comando is a US Southern Command-sponsored special operations skills competition and combating terrorism fellowship program. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Chad Menegay.