Greater militarisation in rural Paraguay
On the approach to the town of Horqueta is a large sign featuring Paraguay’s “Most Wanted”. For the past five years, Horqueta has been a militarised area in response to the presence of the guerrillas. Residents testify to how their daily lives have deteriorated, and how the democratic space has shrunk.
“If you don’t shut up, we’ll shoot,” said the soldier, aiming his gun at Sonia’s little sister’s cuddly toy. It was four in the morning on 19 January 2010. The soldiers had come to take Sonia Muñoz with them. They said she was working as an informer for the guerrillas.
After handcuffing her, they dragged her away with them. She sat in prison for a year and a half without knowing what was going to happen to her. When it was finally time for her trial, she was acquitted due to a lack of evidence. But the sentence was appealed, and due to her experiences of the dysfunctional legal system, Sonia decided to leave Paraguay.
Not seen each other in two years
When we meet her mother, Florinda Perez, she says she hasn’t seen her daughter in over two years. The lawyers say that they want 30 million guaranies to defend Sonia (equivalent to SEK 40,000). This is money that her family doesn’t have, so she can’t come back. In addition to the fee, Sonia has to confess to being guilty of collaboration with the guerrillas; otherwise, the lawyers can’t help her, they say.
“My daughter is innocent. Members of the farmers’ movement are subject to political persecution because we stand up for ourselves and our rights. The things that have happened have meant that I don’t trust the state or the legal system. Things have taken a turn for the worse in recent years due to the military presence,” says Florinda.
Florinda has been a member of La organización campesina del norte since it started almost 30 years ago. Her children have grown up in the organization. Since they were small, they’ve attended meetings and learned about both organic farming and their rights. All the children are active in the organization in one way or another. Rosalba, Florinda’s second youngest daughter is in charge of the organization’s radio station. Sonia is an agriculturalist, and before she was arrested, she helped several women’s rights organizations in the area become self-sufficient by improving their farming methods.
Today’s violence linked to dictatorship
The violent situation in northern Paraguay is linked to the time of the dictatorship. The organized resistance against the regime was strongest here, and many of those who stood up for their rights were tortured and killed. But the persecution didn’t end with the fall of the dictatorship. Since democratic governance was introduced in 1989, over 120 people have disappeared or been killed. Today, land conflicts and the right to education and healthcare are at the heart of the organizations’ work.
Paraguay is the world’s most unequal country when it comes to land distribution. Less than two percent of landowners own 80 percent of the farmable land. Widespread corruption has meant that a promised land reform has never become a reality.
During his 35-year dictatorship, the dictator Stroessner is estimated to have portioned out almost seven million hectares to family members, members of the military and companies loyal to the regime. Today, Paraguay is the world’s fourth largest producer of soya, and much of the crop is produced on the land that should have benefited poor families in a land reform.
Many farmers arrested without evidence
“The existence of the guerrillas has been used as an excuse to increase the military presence and shrink the democratic space of the farmers’ movement. The guerrilla group only has around 30 members, and if the military really wanted to, they could arrest them,” says Cristina Cornel from Diakonia’s partner organization Servicio de Paz y Justicia, which works in northern Paraguay.
Servicio de Paz y Justicia (SERPAJ) was formed in 1966 in Costa Rica. Today, the organization has a presence in 11 countries in Latin America. Since 1992, SERPAJ has worked with farmers’ movements and women’s organizations in northern Paraguay by raising awareness of the violations of human rights that take place in the area and supporting farmers in their organization and in legal proceedings.
“The problems of the region are grounded in widespread corruption and the drugs trade, in which many influential people in this country are involved,” she continues.
To silence the criticism that the organizations in the area have expressed, the military has arrested several farmers without evidence and subsequently accused them of being part of the guerrilla group. Florinda’s daughter Sonia is one of them.
“The military presence affects freedom of expression and the right to organize in extremely negative ways. Member of local organizations are stopped on their way to meetings, and people stay at home in the evenings due to fear of violence. The number of people imprisoned is increasing, and just like Sonia, they are accused of working as informers for the guerrillas,” says Cristina Cornel.
“But the farmers aren’t criminals. They’re people defending their rights,” she adds.
1,500 soldiers but only 25 doctors
As the resistance during the dictatorship was strongest in the north of the country, the local population was punished. Stroessner did not make any investments in infrastructure in the region, which resulted in it being the poorest in the country. In Horqueta today, there are 1,500 soldiers but only 25 doctors.
“In a country with such huge differences in income, it’s absurd to spend large sums of money on military investments instead of safeguarding human rights,” says Cristina.
There are no asphalted roads in the villages in the area. During the winter months, when it rains heavily, people are unable to leave their homes. This affects the farmers’ finances, as they can’t take their vegetables to market.
“We don’t need more soldiers, we need healthcare, education and investments in infrastructure. The state has abandoned us. The only response they’ve given us is militarisation,” says Marciano Jara Romero, a teacher and leader of the regional farmers’ movement, Coordinadora departamental de organizaciones campesinas de Concepción.
Parents keep their children at home
Marciano lives in Arroyito, which has been occupied by landless farmers since the fall of the dictatorship. It is one of the areas that has experienced the most military interventions over the past four years.
In the school where Marciano works, the number of students has decreased sharply in recent times. Last year, the military raided it. They claimed that there were weapons in the school and that several students were members of the EPP.
“The military is very violent. Several of our children and young people have been traumatised by their attacks. Their parents are afraid to send them to school.
Many young people leave the villages of northern Paraguay as soon as they get the chance. But it’s hard to find work or continue your studies elsewhere.” The future is very uncertain.
“In our area, we regularly organize a football tournament. But we couldn’t this year because there weren’t enough young people to put together a team. We’re in the midst of a social crisis and the government is doing nothing to solve it,” says Marciano.
Militarisation in Paraguay
In 2013, Paraguay’s newly appointed President Horacio Cartes modified the law that regulates military intervention in the country. This change in legislation enabled the militarisation of three departments in northern Paraguay for an unspecified period. It took place in response to the presence of the EPP guerrillas. Since the military installed itself in the area, local organizations have on several occasions reported violations of human rights, with sometimes illegal arrests and brutal evictions.