(IPS) – Whether or not the so-called Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP) — which claimed responsibility for the recent theft of arms from a remote military post — actually exists is a subject of debate among activists, academics and political leaders in Paraguay.
Since the late December incursion in the military post in the northern department (province) of San Pedro, the Paraguayan government has deployed hundreds of members of the security forces in the area, to search for the perpetrators.
But the public appearance of the EPP has awakened suspicions among activists and politicians, who believe it is a fabrication aimed at casting rural activists in a criminal light.
A group of men stole the weapons from the army post in Tacuati, San Pedro at midnight on Dec. 31 and set the building on fire afterwards.
The police say they have launched a thorough probe, and the government of Fernando Lugo ordered a military and police operation in the northern departments of San Pedro, Concepción and Amambay.
The deployment of troops — 400 soldiers and 200 police — is aimed at assessing the situation in the three departments with a view to establishing a new security structure in the area.
"The objective is to reestablish order and security with the purpose of providing guarantees for peaceful coexistence, in the wake of recent events," Elvio Segovia, the Interior Ministry deputy minister of political affairs, told IPS.
Segovia downplayed reports of the existence of the EPP.
In the past few years, clashes between landless peasant farmers and large landowners have intensified in San Pedro as well as Concepción, and Amambay, on the border with Brazil, is considered a drug trafficking transit zone.
"There are criminal organisations in the area, like gangs of traffickers who try to intimidate and terrorise the population. For that reason, the aim of the operation is to identify the ties between those groups and political protection rackets," said Segovia.
"The rural movement has neither the capacity nor the funds" to confront the criminal networks, which operate at an international level.
A pamphlet found near the Tacuati military post claimed responsibility for the attack, leftist activist Carmen Villalba confirmed to the press.
From the Buen Pastor women’s prison in Asunción, Villalba warned that the Tacuati case was only the start of "armed struggle" in Paraguay.
In 2005, Villalba was sentenced to 18 years in prison for her participation in the kidnapping of María Edith Bordón de Debernardi, the daughter-in-law of Enzo Debernardi, who served as finance minister under dictator Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989).
Political analyst Alfredo Boccia, who has carried out research on the recent history of Paraguay, especially the transition to democracy, told IPS that he had the impression that an armed group is emerging.
He said the group was seeking publicity by attacking a remote military post.
Boccia said he believed peasant movement organisations were not involved, but that the rural population in general was, because the members of the group moved around the area with ease.
"It’s a poor, neglected area where a lot of people believe that (armed struggle) is the solution, due to the absence of the state," he said.
For her part, Rocío Casco, leader of the Movement to Socialism Party (P-MAS), told IPS that "I doubt that the EPP exists. Maybe it’s something that was invented to make the rural movement look like criminals.
"The government was forced to deploy troops to defend the process that began on Apr. 20," when the centre-left Lugo was elected president, said the activist.
According to Casco, powerful groups that do not want to lose their privileges were behind the attack on the military post, and are using all possible means to block the current process of political and social change.
Six peasant farmers were arrested after the start of the military and police operation on Saturday, on suspicions of belonging to the EPP. But they have been released since.
The Human Rights Coordinator of Paraguay (CODEHUPY) reported that the farmers said they were tortured by the police and military deployed to Tacuati.
The human rights coalition also reported the murder Monday by paid gunmen of Martín Ocampos, leader of the Peasant Organisation of the North, in Hugua Ñandu, a district in the department of Concepción, where 12 rural activists were killed between 1989 and 2005.
"The victims’ reports (of torture) show that members of the police and military who lack training to carry out a proper investigation use torture to incriminate just anyone," said CODEHUPY lawyer Juan Martens.
Martens pointed out that United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak documented in November 2005 the systematic use of torture by police in Paraguay.
The deployment of troops has no specific end date, and the participation of the military is limited to logistical support for the national police, said Interior Minister Rafael Filizzola.