Anti-Terrorism Law Criminalizes Protest in Paraguay

The Government of Paraguay has introduced proposals for the modification of the penal code and an Anti-Terrorist Law which could result in the criminalisation of social protest and the paralysis of civil society organizations throughout the country.  The law is due to be ratified by the Congress on August 9.

With the advance of soy plantations, thousands and thousands of rural poor are being forced from their land and social movements are organizing to fight for their right to land, health care and education. Incomplete and corrupt agrarian reform in Paraguay has made the occupation of unused land a way of life from most Paraguayan subsistence farmers. Farmers who can occupy land continuously can eventually apply for a legal title. Communities of occupying farmers have worked together to make schools, community governments and clinics for their communities.

Farmers have achieved these victories in spite of a complete lack of government support. In fact, under Article 142, land occupation, and the intention of occupying land, will become a crime punishable in some cases by five years in prison. In other words, the administrative procedures for gaining legal title to a land could result in legal proceedings. In addition, former probationary tactics known as “precautionary measures” will no longer apply, and those who are processed will go straight to prison.

Anyone Could be a Terrorist

The proposed anti-terrorist law does not include a clear definition of what exactly constitutes the crime of terrorism, leaving it to an arbitrary decision by a judge. Behaviour which could be considered terrorism include “dangerous interventions or obstacles on public roadways,” “noise pollution” and other actions which “intimidate Paraguayan citizens.” Under the law, financing terrorist activities is also a crime punishable by 5-15 years in prison, as is any kind of association with terrorist organizations. 

“The law is so lax that anyone could be considered a terrorist, says Juan Martens, a lawyer with the National Coordinator of Human Rights In Paraguay (CODEHUPY).(1) “A lawyer giving a workshop, a journalist doing an investigation, or an international NGO providing financial support could all be accused of promoting terrorism.”

Magui Balbuena of the National Coordinator of Rural and Indigenous Women (CONAMURI) (2) sees the law as a direct action against social movements. “As soy plantations advance, damaging peoples’ health, poisoning their food and water, evicting them from their homes, the landless poor increases and so, too, does repression. The government’s aim is to disarticulate organizations and demobilise social protest.”

Echoes of the Past

All forms of social organization in Paraguay were severely repressed under the 35-year dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. Strossner’s time in power was the longest in Latin America and was backed by the still ruling the Colorado Party. During the small respite in social repression which took place following the end of the dictatorship in 1989, hundreds of civil society organizations began to form throughout the country. Small community groups worked together to create to national movements to coordinate joint activities such as the National Board of Small Farmer Organizations (Mesa Nacional de Organizaciones Campesinas, or MNCO). A large number of mass demonstrations, some uniting up to 30,000 people, took place in Asunción as the rural poor begin to demand Government policies to deal with their dire situation.

Demonstration in AsuncionIt soon became clear, however, that the now “democratic” Colorado government had little interest in listening to, let alone resolving, the demands of the rural poor. Since the end of the dictatorship, it has gradually found alternative ways of repressing social organization, culminating in the new anti-terrorism law. 

For Magui Balbuena of CONAMURI, present threats are reminiscent of the past. (3)

“For those of us who grew up during the dictatorship, who are the majority of activists as those born after 1989 are still very young, we still live with that same sense of fear that was created by Stroessner. He is no longer here, but his ideology continues, and his methodology continues today. The names have changed, but the politics, which never took our sector into account, despite the fact that we represent majority, has stayed the same,” says Balbuena. “We are still in a transition period, 18 years on, but it is not in any way democratic.”

No Other Choice

Despite the transition from dictatorship, contemporary social movements are finding that new freedoms don’t mean new rights. “Today, unlike under Stroessner, we are able to talk a lot. We can lift a microphone and talk. But nobody listens to us,” says Asunción Duartes. One way that groups force the government to listen to their demands is by occupying land. “We don’t want to have to occupy land,” Asunción explains, “but the situation leaves us with no other choice. It is the only way of having our demands heard.”

As land occupations and mass mobilisations have increased, so too has the government’s strategies of repression.  Government actions vary from selective killings – at least 77 social leaders have been murdered since 1989 – to widespread legal persecution of social leaders. 

Past acts of social protest have influenced the newer waves of governmental repression in various provinces. “The province of San Pedro is one of the most active departments in terms of mobilisations,” says Martens, “as soy plantations have begun to advance into the region, civil society organizations have begun to react and resist. Following a number of demonstrations against the pollution caused by soy fumigations, 3,000 people were processed and are living under the precautionary measures. Not only that, but they have also been listed as officially having criminal record, which means that if they are arrested again, they will go straight to prison.”

In other provinces, like Concepción, repression has been less nuanced. In the first few years following the fall of the dictatorship, a number of small victories were won by rural communities in Concepción. Communities occupied land and were granted legal titles. In the last few years, however, hundred of social leaders have been imprisoned.

“Social movements were hit hard during the first few months of the current government under president Nicanor Duarte,” says Alejandro from the Northern Campesino Organization (Organización Campesino del Norte, OCN) who was also imprisoned, “400 landless activists were processed here in Concepción and sent to prison for three months. Nationwide, five rural leaders were murdered, all in the first four months of his Government. 

Cháke, The Public Defender Is Watching You

Juan Martens explains that initially positive changes to the system have now been re-co-opted. “Between 1998 and 2000, a number of changes were made to the Penal Code,” he says. The introduction of the Public Defender’s Office “replaced the old system in which judges both investigated and judged cases. For the first few years the Public Defenders Office worked well, but slowly it began to be taken over by politicians, the land owning elite, the police and other power groups who realised that they could use it as an effective tool for repressing, intimidating and demobilising social leaders who questioned government policies.”

Since then, thousands and thousands of participants in demonstrations have been subjected to legal proceedings and a system of precautionary or “alternative” measures. These measures effectively depoliticize citizens by allowing them to stay out of prison if they do not leave their province or participate in public or private meetings, i.e. in demonstrations or the activities of their organization. 

“What we have seen over the past few years is clearly the selective use of the Public Defenders office to demobilise civil society organizations,” says Martens, “This is illustrated by the fact that when soy farmers carry out road blocks or [tractor blocks, known as] tractorazos, they are never processed and are sometimes even visited by the President himself who goes to listen to their demands. Yet, when the landless poor do the same, they are immediately hauled in to the Public Defenders office.”

“In Guaraní [the indigenous official language of Paraguay], we have the word cháke which means, ‘be careful,'” says Martens. “The Public Defenders Office has become synonymous with the word cháke: ‘be careful’ because we are going to send you to prison, be careful not to meet with such and such a person, be careful…we are watching you.”

Completing the Circle of Power

The strategy has begun to have effect. The mass mobilisations, which reached a peak in 2004, have gradually begun to decline. The proposed modifications to the penal code and the anti-terrorist law will be the final step towards achieving legitimate government repression of social movements. “With this law,” says Martens, “the circle of power, which is the government, the landowning elite, the police and drug traffickers is finally complete and social movements will find themselves completely entrapped.”

“If this law is approved, it is the end of everything for us,” says Asunción Duartes, leader of the OCN.(4) “There will be no more demonstrations or land occupations. The small victories we have made since the end of the dictatorship will be overturned.”

For more information, visit the CODHUPY website:

(1) La Coordinadora de Derechos Humanos del Paraguay

(2) Coordinadora Nacional de Mujeres Rurales Y Indigenas de Paraguay / National Coordinator of Rural and Indigenous Women

(3) National Coordinator of Rural and Indigenous Women

(4) Northern Campesino Organizatio