Violence has intensified in Paraguay in the conflict between security forces and the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP) — a communist guerrilla movement active in the country’s northeast.
Former vice president Oscar Denis was kidnapped by rebels days after the military killed two 11-year-old girls in unclear circumstances during an operation against the EPP, which human rights organizations described as a possible “state crime.”
Denis, who served from 2012 to 2013, was kidnapped from his ranch in the Amambay department on Wednesday last week alongside employee Adelio Mendoza, who belongs to the Pai Tavytera indigenous people.
Notes found in Denis’ abandoned vehicle attributed the kidnapping to the EPP, considered a criminal organization by the Paraguayan state estimated to have 20 to 50 members.
Since emerging in 2008, it has been linked to multiple kidnappings and more than 60 deaths.
While the EPP’s political discourse has focused on the great needs of Paraguay’s poor, they are widely repudiated for employing violence and extortion.
The EPP indicated that Denis would be killed if two of its imprisoned leaders were not released by this past Sunday and demanded his family distribute US$2 million of food to rural communities.
In a news conference, Paraguayan Minister of the Interior Euclides Acevedo rejected the possibility of negotiating for prisoners.
“It’s a war, not a sports tournament,” he said.
Mendoza was freed on Monday.
A military spokesman said that “he was freed because of the pressure we are putting [on the EPP]” in ongoing operations.
“They base their political discourse on the deficiencies of the Paraguayan state and its public policies,” said Paraguayan Senator Jorge Querey, an opposition member. “But their actions have had a very high grade of violence and extortion.”
Denis’ family repeatedly appealed for his release and began to distribute the specified food.
Authorities said the kidnapping is likely to be a reprisal for the killing of the two 11-year-olds by the Joint Task Force (FTC) — a military and police unit created to tackle the EPP — during a raid on Sept. 2 described by Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benitez as successful.
Paraguayan Coordination Group for the Rights of Children and Adolescents director Anibal Cabrera condemned EPP actions, but said the state had failed in its obligation to protect the girls.
“It had known for two years they were recruiting children, training children. Why did it do nothing to activate the protection system,” he said.
Official handling of the deaths has been controversial. An initial forensic examination claimed the girls were approximately 15 and 17 years old, and the bodies were rapidly buried under misapplied COVID-19 health protocols. Authorities said no video of the confrontation existed.
“The state threw them in unidentified graves, burned their possessions and the guerrilla clothing that was apparently theirs,” Cabrera said. “That is state terrorism.”
The bodies were exhumed after the girls were found to be Argentine citizens — related to EPP leaders — and Argentina has demanded Paraguay clarify the situation.
The UN and multiple international institutions have demanded a full, impartial investigation.
A 2015 report from the Paraguayan Mechanism for Prevention of Torture shows this is not the first time minors have been killed or tortured.
“We think that there are more adolescents and children linked to these groups. The state must protect them, not kill them. We can’t see that there’s any real strategy to do that,” Cabrera said.
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