Last Thursday the Paraguayan government claimed that the guerrilla group Army of the Paraguayan People (EPP) had started to produce its own marijuana and called it a “criminal and terrorist structure.”
Meanwhile the EPP, which claims to be a political movement fighting for the rights of farmers, denied the accusations in a letter, denouncing them as “the old Yankee tactic and their lackeys against any revolutionary insurgency ... attempting to stain [the group] with drug-trafficking.”
20 guerrilla fighters
Surprisingly, for one of the most unequal countries in the region – and Latin America is itself one of the most unequal in the world -regarding land distribution, the Paraguayan north based guerrilla group has only started to become active since 2008, according to documents found in one of their camps. It allegedly has roughly 20 fighters, a fact that even the then-governmental prosecutor recognized could be true. As a comparison, the Colombian FARC is estimated to have about 8,000 members.
However, unlike the FARC, in Paraguay the guerrilla fighters cannot rely on the mountains or the jungle. Their survival would be mainly due to co-operation and logistical support from the rural population, especially in the northern states of Concepcion and San Pedro.
Since 2008, Paraguayan presidents have systematically put the elimination of the 20 members group as a securty policy priority, while other issues should cause more concern in the country: Paraguay is for instance, the biggest producer of marijuana in the continent, after Mexico, and a hub for cocaine trafficking in the Tri-Boarder Area (TBA) with Brazil and Argentina.
The growth of transnational and local criminal groups has permeated the whole society, including the current president himself, Horacio Cartes, head of a business conglomerate.
Cartes has been especially linked to contraband and money laundering since the mid-1980s, when he even served a sentence in prison. In 2007 for instance, a U.S. diplomatic cable revealed by Wikileaks referred to him as a “so-called pillar of the [money-laundering] community.” The cable cited the then head of anti-money laundering office Hugo Ibarra, saying that Cartes' bank was responsible for 80 percent of the money laundering in the country. In 2010, another cable portrayed Cartes as the chief of a transnational criminal organization, and the main focus of a U.S. investigation called Heart of Stone, led by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Ironically, these suspicions by the U.S. administration have coincided with claims made by the guerrilla group EPP itself, which labeled Cartes a “drug-trafficker” and denounced his “narco-government” in two videos released last December and a communique published by La Hora in April.
Nevertheless, President Cartes declared the war on the small guerrilla group soon after he took office in August 2013, creating a Joint Task Force (FTC) for that purpose, militarizing the north of the country, and offering monetary awards to whoever could provide information on the fighters, among other measures.
This approach has been proved efficient after one year of an intense military campaign, as most of the fighters have been killed or imprisoned – on Monday, three more were detained, a military source told EFE.
The real issue: the conflict over land
However, in the long term, it seems that the general political agenda of Horacio Cartes risks precipitating the country into the same kind of conflict over land that tore Colombia apart for more than half of a century. On September 8, Paraguayan authorities reported that a new guerrilla group had emerged called the Armed Farmers' Group (ACA), which would have split from the older EPP. According to the reports so far, this new faction would be based on a very similar model tp the Colombian FARC, charging a revolutionary tax on drug-traffickers, and even having closed ties with drug trafficking.
Indeed what is really at stake in Paraguay today, like in Colombia for 50 years, is the extremely unequal distribution of land. An estimated 80 percent of the land is in the hands of only two percent of the population, one of the worst rates in the region.
The situation has not improved since Horacio Cartes was elected - succeeding the unique progressive president, Fernando Lugo, ousted in 2012.
Lugo had also launched a military offensive against the EPP guerrilleros, yet for very different reasons: as Lugo was the first president in the country elected on a program supporting the agrarian reform, fighting the guerrilla group was crucial for his political survival – and apparently not enough, as he was deposed by the two traditional parties in 2012 through a parliamentary coup.
Paraguayan government sells the country to GMO companies
Although Lugo, elected at the head of a coalition, with a member of the traditional party Blanco, Frederico Franco as a vice president, could not fulfill many of his campaign promises, he was still a stone in the shoe of the agro-business industry, as was later proven by the political orientation of his successor. Only a few weeks after Franco replaced Lugo as head of state, he finally authorized, via an executive order, the introduction of a genetically modified cotton seed, something Lugo's administration had consistently refused on the grounds of environmental and health risks. Many more GMOs (corn, cotton and soy) were authorized in the same way over the next few months. Cartes also appointed an agrochemical executive, Jaime Ayala, as the head of the SENAVE, the office responsible for providing scientific advice on the impact of GMOs.
Lugo, shortly after being dismissed, accused Monsanto – the major GMO company active in the country, of being “a merchant of death” with the complicity of the government that had provoked the coup.
In this sense, Paraguayan farmers are not only suffering from one of the most unequal distributions of land, but also from the invasion of one of the worst models of agriculture: exportation of soy, mechanized agriculture, and GMOs all combined together.
First, the unequal distribution of land has been inherited from the 19th century, and got worse under the General Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship (1954-1989). In this period, many pieces of lands that belonged to the state were offered to relatives, friends, as well as political and military allies. These lands are the source of many conflicts today, as they are legally up for land reform.
Then the small and medium farmers, whose agriculture was feeding the country, were gradually pushed off their lands because of the new exportation model introduced in the 1970s, along with mechanization and soy.
Finally, in 1996, a genetically modified soy seed appeared in Argentina, commercialized by Monsanto (Roundup Ready), and spread quickly in the southern cone – formally legalized in Paraguay in 2004 but present beforehand.
This model has deprived even the most rural communities of their lands. Many farmers were offered money, which they would accept to live in the cities, then would realize it didn´t go far, and the urban poor grew. In other cases, entire families and communities would have to leave their land because of the deforestation caused by the soy culture, or the fumigation of the soy crops, which poisoned not only their own crops, but also their water and environment.
In 1993, about 1.5 million hectares of soy cultures were cultivated; in 2014, this number reached 3.1 million hectares, and Paraguay has become the fourth world exporter of soy, most of it to feed cattle or produce bio-fuel, while the agrobusiness companies, exempted from taxes, contribute very little to the national wealth.
'Guerrilleros Are Criminals, and Protesting Farmers Are Guerrilleros'
Meanwhile, the few rural communities that attempt to resist the soy expansion, or demand the application of agrarian reform on the national lands donated by Stroessner, usually face fierce retaliation. According to the report on human rights on the Marina Kue case (Coordinadora of Derechos Humanos del Paraguay, 2102), between 1990 and 2006, 414 cases of land conflict out of 980 in total led to an occupation of the lands, leading then to 366 expulsions and 7,346 detentions.
The state puts a lot of effort into criminalizing activist activities. For instance, the Joint Task Force created to combat the EPP guerrilla movement is equally used against farmers protesting against illegal fumigations and soy exploitation. Last month, the JTC killed two young farmers and seriously injured another, claiming they belonged to the EPP, something that farmers associations and political parties like Frente Guasu (Fernando Lugo's party) denounced as “state terrorism” and a “dirty war.”