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The Paraguayan People’s Army: South America’s Obscure, but Resilient, Insurgent Movement
Paraguay is scheduled to hold general elections this coming Sunday, 30 April. The next leader of the landlocked South American nation will have several issues to address; one critical security challenge is the guerrilla movement known as the Paraguayan People’s Army (Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo: EPP).
A Lethal Loss?
The EPP has suffered some devastating losses in recent years. This past October, the EPP’s leader Osvaldo Villalba and two fellow guerrillas were killed in a military operation. “Operation Zeus” was carried out by the Joint Task Force (Fuerza de Tarea Conjunta: FTC), a command created in 2013 to combat the EPP. The operation took place in Cerro Guazú, Amambay department.
Despite recent losses, the guerrilla movement continues to operate, mainly in the north and east of the country. Moreover, they continue to hold several hostages, including former vice president Óscar Denis (since 2020), police officer Edelio Morínigo (since 2014), as well as a group of civilians. Since 2008, the EPP has killed 74 civilians, military and police officers, according to the Paraguayan daily La Nacion.
The exact number of EPP fighters remains unclear, though the Paraguayan and international media generally put the number at a few dozen or around 100 fighters and supporters. Given the group’s ambush and guerrilla tactics (rather than head-on attacks against the armed forces) and limited area of operations, it is very plausible that the EPP has limited fighters, supporters, and resources.
Anecdotally, in late November 2022, a month after the elimination of Villalba, EPP guerrillas attacked police outpost No. 11 in Ypyta, Amambay department. The Paraguayan daily ABC described the attack as follows:
This was the first attempt [by the EPP] to avenge the death of their leader, Osvaldo Villalba, last 23 October.” The four police officers in outpost No. 11 survived the attack, reportedly carried out by “at least two snipers positioned 20 m away from one another [and who] shot at least 54 bullets caliber 5.56” at the back of the police station. The location of the incident is 17 km from Cerro Guazu. Paraguayan criminals have also pretended to be EPP members to blackmail businesses in Concepción department.
The violent group also has its splinter faction, the Marshall Lopez Army (Ejército del Mariscal López: EML). Like the EPP, the EML resorts to kidnapping. In February, the family members of cattle rancher Félix Urbieta asked the EML for his release. Urbieta was kidnapped in October 2016 and turned 77 this past February.
The EPP has yet another faction, the Armed Peasant Association (Agrupación Campesina Armada: ACA).
To be clear, the EPP is not an existential threat to the Paraguayan state. The movement has operated, in one form or another, for around three decades, but the EPP is not a credible force that could successfully take control of Asuncion to force a regime change à la Cuba or Nicaragua. With that said, the EPP continues to be an obvious security threat. The movement is involved in drug trafficking, kidnapping, and blackmail across northern Paraguay, by the border with Brazil.
The EPP has a history of attacking the Paraguayan police and military. One effective tactic, likely learned from the Colombian FARC insurgents, is the use of ambushes and attacks via improvised explosive devices (IEDs). For example, in August 2016, eight Paraguayan soldiers were killed via an explosive device that blew up their vehicle. The attack took place in Arroyito, north of Asuncion. A similar attack occurred in June 2021 in which three soldiers were killed. In March 2023, the Paraguayan military finally received three armored vehicles to be utilized by “the military’s Internal Defence Operations Command (CODI) for internal security operations.” The vehicles are reportedly mine-resistant, which will protect soldiers in their future operations.
One aspect that makes this group interesting is that the EPP claims a Marxist Leninist ideology combined with nationalistic sentiments. It is well known that rebel movements often assert that they have political ideologies to justify their destructive actions.
After 30 April, Paraguay will have a new president and, perhaps, a new strategy for dealing with the Paraguayan People’s Army. While the EPP is not an existential threat to Paraguay, the violent movement remains a security challenge and prevents peace and development in Northern Paraguay. Moreover, the group continues to hold several hostages, some of which have been in captivity for several years. The elimination of the EPP’s leader Osvaldo Villalba undoubtedly affected the EPP’s command structure. Yet, EPP and the splinter factions EML and ACA, cannot be considered defunct, disbanded, or doomed. The November 2022 attack against a police station demonstrates that the EPP insurgents continue to possess a command structure, planning capabilities, and resources to attack, although on a small scale.