Eight Paraguayan soldiers were killed in an ambush in the northern department of Concepcion; the government has claimed the attakcs were likely carried out by the left-wing guerrilla rebels of the small Paraguayan People's Army or EPP.
The troops were ambushed on Saturday morning, according to authorities, in the area of Arroyito, Concepcion starting with the detonation of an bomb as a military vehicle passed. Assailants then opened fire, shooting dead six of the eight soldiers. The remaining two died on the way to the hospital, according to local media.
Government officials say the attack, staged as the military troop was carrying out a routine counterinsurgency patrol, bears the fingerprints of the EPP, the small rebel army that consolidated about a decade ago in the name of fighting for the rights of campesinos and rural communities.
The EPP is known to operate in rural areas near Concepcion, where the ambush took place. Preliminary investigations suggest there were eight or nine attackers involved, local media report.
Conservative President Horacio Cartes held himself responsible Saturday for the attack and promised “strong results” in the remainder of his term in the war on the communist rebels.
“This is the price we pay for our attempt to end (the EPP),” said Cartes, according to local media, calling the attack a “violent and cowardly” act. “Sooner or later this story has one end, we will find it and make them pay for all this pain.”
The Cartes administration has called the EPP a “criminal and terrorist structure.” The force of rebel army is estimated at just 25 combatants. At least one splinter group, the Armed Campesino Association, has sprung from the EPP.
The EPP loosely resembles the FARC in Colombia in terms of its communist political roots, though is much smaller. The FARC is currently estimated to have some 7,000 members after declining from an army of 20,000 at its peak in the 1990’s.
The FARC was founded in 1964 on similar demands for comprehensive agrarian reform and political solutions to the inequality and other problems faced in rural areas. Rural reform is one of the cornerstones of the groundbreaking final peace agreement between the FARC and the government announced last week in Havana, Cuba, after nearly four years of negotiations.
The EPP’s similar demands for agrarian reform stem from the fact that the South American country is home to one of the most unequal rates of land distribution in the region with an estimated 77 percent of land in the hands of just 2 percent of the population. The trend of inequality was consolidated under the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, whose regime allowed political and economic elite to seize illegally vast swaths of campesino land during his 35-year rule that ended in 1989.
President Cartes, who came to power in the wake of the parliamentary coup against former left-wing President Fernando Lugo, has pushed aggressively neoliberal policies, including in the agricultural sector, and has sparked outrage among the country's campesinos, who have held repeated national marches calling for more favorable rural policies as well as the president's resignation.
In response Saturday's attack, Cartes called on the armed forces Sunday during a visit to Concepcion to keep working diligently, urging troops to turn the tragedy into a success to redouble their determination in combatting the EPP.