Militarism in Paraguay: The Other Side of the Economic Model

A production model in Paraguay based on soy monoculture results in economic growth, but also causes social instability that can lead to political crises. The temptation is to use armed force to resolve them.


Source: Americas Program

A production model in Paraguay based on soy monoculture results in economic growth, but also causes social instability that can lead to political crises. The temptation is to use armed force to resolve them.

At the end of September, construction began on the World Trade Center of Asunción. The first step is to demolish old houses and dig the foundation. “With each brick, window, door that we take out of here we’re making a commitment to build an educational center en Bañado Norte,” explained the manager of Capitalis, the company in charge of the project [1].

“Police to Carry out Social Work in Bañado Sur,” was the headline in the daily newspaper ABC, explaining that uniformed police officers will provide dental, pediatric, gynecological, and ophthalmologic services to area residents. They will also issue identification cards and provide hair-dressing services. The article added, “the Anti-Narcotics Division will deliver preventative talks. Soothing music will be provided by the National Police Musical Band” [2].

The headline in Última Hora was quite different. It read “Massive D.A.-Police Operative in el Bañado Sur”,  referring to an operation in which 100 police officers and two helicopters were used to search dozens of homes, detaining five people [3]. The day that operation took place, ABC reported “Mothers fighting for the health of their children will march this Friday in Bañado Sur to Police Station 24 to show their opposition to the illegal sale of drugs” [4].

The mother’s march took place in the same neighborhood where the massive police operation occurred. Their objective was to denounce the police station, demanding that “it work to eradicate the illegal sale of drugs,” specifically, crack [5]. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out that the mothers were accusing the police of being accomplices to drug-trafficking.

Throughout Latin America, poor and working-class barrios like Bañado Sur, located between the city proper and the Paraguay River, are the object of permanent police and military intervention [6]. Drugs is the pretext; those who are detained are usually young and poor, unemployed and without a future, often forced from the countryside because of the expansion of soy, mining, and monoculture.

For various reasons Paraguay is a good place to observe the causes of militarization in the region. In 2010, the government of Fernando Lugo decreed a state of emergency in five provinces on the pretext of fighting a small group called the EPP (Army of the Paraguayan People) [7]. A more detailed explanation will reveal what is really going on.

Reasons for Militarization

In May, Paraguay observed its bicentennial of independence. Military deployment began on began on May 3. “The armed forces have been deployed in a massive security operation, with 16 posts and 1,000 soldiers located throughout the city” [8]. Curiously, the actual independence celebration took place on May 14 and 15 and the military deployment lasted a month.

A detailed look at several military and police operations provide an explanation. The way to begin is by following the state of emergency decreed by the government of Fernando Lugo, with support from Congress, in five provinces/provinces: San Pedro, Concepción, Amambay, Presidente Hayes and Alto Paraná, using the pretext of the assassination of two laborers and a foreman at a hacienda in Concepción that were attributed to the EPP [9].

Three operations against the organization had already been carried out in 2009:  Operation Jeroviá (trust), Operation Triangle, and Operation Shadow. In 2010 Operation Jaguareté took place; a fifth operation, called Py´a Guapy (tranquility), occurred during the state of emergency. At the same time, U.S.-funded, health-assistance operations were also going on.

During the 30-day state of emergency, 96,330 people were questioned (91,834 by the army and  4,496 by the police) [10]. There were days when more than 6,000 people were searched just in those five provinces, particularly Concepción and San Pedro, which had been the epicenters of important campesino struggles and had strong social organizations.

These five provinces have a combined population of 794,000 (Amambay 124,000, Presidente Hayes 101,000, San Pedro 355,000, Concepción 190,000, and Alto Paraguay 24,000). This means that in one month, the army and police questioned 12 percent of all residents. If we leave out the numbers of elderly and children living in the area, the percentage of those questioned is much higher. Considering only the numbers of youth, in all likelihood an absolute majority was searched.

In May, soldiers detained 85 area residents; police detained another 142. Detailed statistics exist only for the latter group. The three most important causes for detention were: aggravated assault: (15), cattle rustling (12), and invasion of property (8). “The causes have roots in the high degree of inequality, concentration of wealth, poor land distribution, and the expansion of hunger and misery,” writes researcher Abel Irala, who wrote the report “The New Faces of Militarism” for Serpaj-PY, a non-profit organization whose Spanish acronym means “in the service of peace and justice [11].

Property invasion is a common practice of the campesino movement, and small-scale cattle theft is a means of survival among poor campesinos. “The state of emergency ended without catching the EPP and without clarifying the killings, but it served to link the armed forces with internal security,” according to the report.

From a sociological point of view, Cristina Coronel of Serpaj points out the state of emergency “generated a lack of confidence, rupturing ties, and creating fear among the area population, focusing on common crimes in a way that criminalizes social struggles” [12].

Irala concludes that the “militarization of democracy” had advanced significantly with the presence of Colombian advisers as “the principal reference with respect to security for Paraguay.” He notes a division of labor, with U.S. government entities, such as the embassy in Paraguay, directing and accompanying humanitarian efforts.

The Criminalization of Protest

He firmly states that the neoliberal model of economic growth based on extraction and commodities export brings with it the hypothesis that conflict is internally, rather than externally directed. The protagonist is “the internal enemy, which can easily mean organizations and social movements critical of the system” [13].

During the Social América Forum that took place in Asunción in August 2010, Serpaj-PY and BASEIS, a Paraguayan social research institute, held a seminar called “Development and militarization.” Presentations from that seminar were published the following year in the book The Repressive and Military Dimension of the Development Model, coordinated by the sociologist Marielle Palau.

She maintains that there are national projects are in conflict in Paraguay: “On the one hand, profits, on the other, the right of entire communities to continue to exist” [14]. The principal opposition to the profit model are indigenous and campesino communities and organizations. For that reason, they are subject to repression.

From the end of the dictatorship in 1989 through 2008, the year Lugo took office with a progressive discourse, “105 campesino militants were assassinated because of conflicts over land; 10 occurred during the Lugo administration,” says Palau. In 2003 protests were subject to large-scale criminal proceedings, and 3,000 militants were charged “as a strategy to demobilize campesino struggle” [15].

Ever since Lugo took office soy monoculture has continued to advance: In two years the amount of land where soy was cultivated increased 10 percent. Criminalization has become more intense. In 2010 the U.S. government and embassy launched the “Northern Zone Initiative,” which provided the legal basis for  “the strong U.S. presence in various provinces of the country, the same provinces where the presence of campesino organizations is most significant and where the expansion of soy cultivation is taking place” [16].

Juan Martens, the attorney for CODEHUPY (Human Rights Coordinating Committee of Paraguay) maintains that there is an increasing trend toward criminalization and the imprisonment of social leaders” [17]. In his opinion, a very serious example is the January 2010 detention of several leaders of the Northern Campesino Organization in Concepción, 261 miles from Asunción, who were accused of supporting the EPP.

The prosecutor was unable to even state what they had supposedly done to justify filing charges against them. Currently 500 social militants are being tried, and “torture is becoming more and more frequent” [18]. The justice system began using the term “disturbing the public peace” to refer to marches that don’t block transport routes and “sabotage” to refer to highway blockades, an offense that carries a penalty of 10 years in prison.

This is how the justice system began to go after those who previously would not have been brought before it. Martens further denounces the fact that mothers with young children, from two months to five years old, have been detained, that human rights defenders are being threatened, and that the “militarization of security” is occurring with the support of USAID [19].

As a result, according to Palau, those who historically confronted agribusiness “today are more silent,” and “campesino organizations have been demobilized” [20]. In Martens’ opinion, members of organizations that aren’t part of the government, “are either in jail or on trial” [21].

Production Models

Irala maintains that there are three explanations for the country’s growing militarization. First is drug-trafficking, “above all, in rural areas and more recently in urban areas” [22]. Where the state of emergency was enforced, soy cultivation has expanded considerably, especially in the Chaco region. As a result, “a significant part of the population is landless and that causes conflict.”

There are frequent conflicts between campesinos and “brasiguayos,” Brazilian settlers with land in Paraguay. Shots were fired during the most recent conflict, which occurred in August in Caaguazú. But agribusiness also needs to expand in the provinces of San Pedro and Concepción, where it faces more difficulty.

In addition, marijuana plantations occupy vast amounts of land. “It appears there is a conflict of interests in which agribusiness needs to expand across drug-trafficking territory. In this conflict and in this conflict militarization tend to favor soy cultivation. The campesino who plants marijuana is at the bottom of the ladder. When he’s in jail, his wife sells their land to get him out, and the land is sold to soy producers,” Irala explains.

Soybean cultivation is expanding throughout the region — toward Amazonia in Brazil, toward the north in Argentina — driving out small-scale farmers in its way. In Paraguay, “the model is moving toward the Chaco, just as it is in Brazil, where soy has displaced ranching, causing ranching to migrate to the jungle. And so the circle of militarization is completed.”

The second explanation has to do with the climate of insecurity that causes the government to do something to “calm down” public opinion. This may explain the operations in the Bañados, which were covered heavily by the media. There is no other way to understand the deployment during the bicentennial celebration, “with tanks that swept through city streets and occupied the entrance to Asunción for several weeks.”

The third explanation is directly related to how the threat of “terrorism” is handled. the target here is a group that has no more than 10 or 15 members. Nevertheless, “as a result of the massive amount of media coverage of these operations, peasant farmers are now associated with drug-trafficking,” Irala emphasizes.

It may seem strange that the government of a bishop who was a fervent supporter of the struggle for land has changed to the point that it not only has failed to carry out agrarian reform, but also has persecuted the movement. This is the same path taken by other governments in the region. They are either unable or unwilling to change the model of economic production, but they don’t want to suffer the consequences. Paraguay grew 15 percent in 2010–a staggering figure that, nevertheless, doesn’t resolve its problems. It may even make them worse if the nation can’t do anything about the tremendous inequality that is causing a breakdown in society.

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He writes the monthly column “Zibechi Report” for the CIP Americas Program ( Translated from the Spanish by Barbara Belejack.


ABC (diario):

Abel Irala, “Los nuevos rostros de la militarización,” Serpaj-PY, Asunción, 2011.

La Nación (newspaper):

Marielle Palau (comp.) “La dimensión represiva y militar del modelo de desarrollo”, BASE-IS/Diafonía/Serpaj-PY, Asunción, 2011.

Raúl Zibechi, interview with Abel Irala, August 6, 2011.

Última Hora:


[1] La Nación, August 26, 2011.

[2] ABC, August 5, 2011.

[3] Última Hora, July 29, 2011.

[4] ABC, July 29, 2011.

[5] Idem.

[6] Sobre los Bañados: Raúl Zibechi, “Bañados de Asunción: La potencia de la comunidad”, Americas Program, July 24, 2008.

[7] “State of Emergency in Paraguay: Risks of Militarization,” Americas Program, May 11, 2010.

[8] Última Hora, May 3, 2011.

[9] Abel Irala, “Los nuevos rostros de la militarización”, op. cit p. 33.

[10] Idem p. 35.

[11] Idem p. 36.

[12] Idem.

[13] Idem p. 46.

[14] “La dimensión represiva y militar del modelo de desarrollo”, ob cit p. 122.

[15] Idem p. 123.

[16] Idem p. 124.

[17] Juan Martens, “Campesinos/as son los chivos expiatorios de una política de seguridad militarizada”, en “La dimensión represiva y militar del modelo de desarrollo”, ob cit p. 143.

[18] Idem p. 146.

[19] Idem p. 149.

[20] Idem p. 125.

[21] Idem p. 148.

[22] Interview with Abel Irala