"Paraguay’s EPP Insurgency Frees Mennonite Hostages: An Analysis"
W. Alejandro Sanchez
Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy
1 March, 2018
Originally published: https://providencemag.com/2018/03/paraguays-epp-insurgency-frees-mennonite-hostages-analysis/
On February 5, Bernhard Blatz and Franz Hiebert, two Mennonites kidnapped by the Ejercito del Pueblo Paraguayo (Paraguayan People’s Army, or EPP),
were finally freed. The EPP, a Paraguayan terrorist organization, is
well known for its operations against Paraguay’s civilians and security
forces, and the country’s Mennonite community has become a particular
target of its violence, adding a new dimension to the internal conflict
of this land-locked South American nation.
This development raises an important question: how should the Paraguayan government address the EPP’s threat to security?
A Brief History of the EPP
The violent movement adopted the name EPP in 2008, though in reality
its origins trace back to the early 1990s when it was a splinter group
of the Paraguayan Marxist organization Partido Patria Libre (Free Fatherland Party, or PPL).
The EPP claims to have a Marxist Leninist ideology
and also glorifies Paraguayan heroes like José Gaspar Rodríguez de
Francia and Francisco Solano Lopez. Estimates of the movement’s strength
vary greatly, though it probably has only a few dozen fighters who
operate in the northern regions of the country close to the border with
Brazil—i.e., Amambay, Concepción, and San Pedro departments.
While the group is not strong enough to carry out a successful regime
change, over the past decade the EPP has carried out robberies, attacks
on property, and other attacks against security forces and civilians
alike. The most high-profile murder attributed to the group is that of Cecilia Cubas,
daughter of former Paraguayan President Raul Cubas. She was kidnapped
in late 2004, and her body was found in early 2005, even after a ransom
was paid. While the EPP did not officially exist at the time as an
organization, the crime is attributed to individuals who would later
form the terrorist movement. More recently, the EPP ambushed a military patrol in August 2016, killing eight troops. Furthermore, in August 2015 it kidnapped Abraham Fehr, who died in captivity—his remains were located earlier this year. According to a January 2018 article by the news agency Infobae.com, since 2008 the EPP is accused of the deaths of 21 armed forces personnel, 13 police officers, and 27 civilians.
Such violence has prompted the Paraguayan government to implement an increasingly larger response. Now a joint task force (Fuerza de Tarea Conjunta, or FTC),
a combination of units from the police and military, has been deployed
to combat the EPP. Paraguayan media has been fairly critical of the FTC,
as it has been unable to defeat the insurgents. For instance, in 2015,
before the 2016 ambush, the Paraguayan daily ABC published an article boldly titled “The EPP is no longer afraid of the FTC.”
This development deserves more discussion. Is it desirable or even
ethical for Asuncion to continue deploying the country’s armed forces
for internal security operations? After all, Latin America has a
troubling record, to put it mildly, when it comes to security forces,
particularly armies, committing human rights abuses when deployed to
crack down on insurgent movements or respond to other domestic security
threats. The Central American wars during the Cold War are a prime example of this problem.
The conundrum that the Paraguayan government faces is choosing one of
two evils. Either it lets the police handle the EPP, which has not
worked so far as evidenced by ongoing attacks and violence, or Asuncion
deploys the armed forces, which could risk greater human rights abuses
and repression. A government’s duty is to protect the nation’s
population, but is the risk of inevitable added violence, even if meant
to stop the EPP, in the best interest of Paraguay’s population?
The Mennonites as a Target
It is important to highlight that EPP insurgents have particularly
targeted Paraguay’s Mennonite community, as the 2017 kidnappings (in
separate incidents) of Franz Hiebert and Father Bernard Blatz and the 2015 kidnapping of the late Abraham Fehr exemplify.
Additionally, Mennonite communities in Paraguay have reported to
local media that they are forced to pay EPP insurgents a “revolutionary
tax” (in other words, they are the victims of extortion) and follow
their orders. For example, the Paraguayan news agency Ultima Hora
reported in mid-December 2017 that Mennonite communities gave food to
local non-Mennonite towns as part of the negotiations to free Hiebert
and Blatz. Moreover, the two individuals’ families reportedly paid USD$750,000 and USD$500,000 in
ransoms. This development calls into question, once again, the FTC’s
effectiveness as it was unable to locate and free the hostages.
It is unclear to me if the Mennonites are being specifically targeted
because of their religious beliefs or because they are civilians living
in areas where the EPP operates and security forces do not have a
strong presence. I would cautiously theorize that this situation may be a
combination of both theories. After all, other Latin American insurgent
groups routinely exploit defenseless and isolated populations to
utilize them as slave labor or fighters.
Additionally, the insurgents’ extreme ideologies put them in direct
confrontation with religious beliefs. This was perhaps best exemplified
in Peru during the 1980s and 1990s when the terrorist movement Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path, or SL) targeted religious leaders. Deaths caused by SL include the 1991 murders of Franciscan priests Miguel Tomaszek and Zbigniew Strzalkowski from Poland and Alessandro Dordi from Italy. Sendero also targeted Peru’s Evangelical community—as the 1991 massacre of 36 Evangelicals in Ccano, Ayacucho, horrifically demonstrated.
In the past decade, the Paraguayan People’s Army has carried out
several operations that range from destroying property and conducting
robberies, to attacking Paraguay’s defense and security forces. While
this group is not strong enough for a successful regime-change operation
against Asuncion, recent developments, like the 2016 ambush of a
military patrol and Abraham Fehr’s death in captivity, raise the
question of whether the internal deployment of Paraguay’s military is
morally advisable, in spite of the potential for further human rights
Moreover, the EPP appears to have singled out the country’s Mennonite
community for abuses. While a direct link between this group’s
religious beliefs with the insurgents’ ideology is not clear, it is very
likely the case.
Without a doubt, the rise of the EPP is a major security problem for
Paraguay, and it must be defeated with a strategy that includes
foresight, knowledge, and wisdom.
W. Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on
geopolitical, military, and cybersecurity issues in the Western
Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.
The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the
author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with
which the author is associated.