While hitchhiking across Paraguay a few years ago, I met welcoming farmers who let me camp in their backyards. I eventually arrived in Ciudad del Este, known for its black markets and loose borders. Now the city and farmers I met are caught in the crossfire of the US military’s “war on terror.”
On May 26, 2005, the Paraguayan Senate allowed US troops to train their Paraguayan counterparts until December 2006, when the Paraguayan Senate can vote to extend the troops’ stay. The United States had threatened to cut off millions in aid to the country if Paraguay did not grant the troops entry. In July 2005 hundreds of US soldiers arrived with planes, weapons and ammunition. Washington’s funding for counterterrorism efforts in Paraguay soon doubled, and protests against the military presence hit the streets.
Some activists, military analysts and politicians in the region believe the operations could be part of a plan to overthrow the left-leaning government of Evo Morales in neighboring Bolivia and take control of the area’s vast gas and water reserves. Human rights reports from Paraguay suggest the US military presence is, at the very least, heightening tensions in the country.
Soy and Landless Farmers
Paraguay is the fourth-largest producer of soy in the world. As this industry has expanded, an estimated 90,000 poor families have been forced off their land. Campesinos have organized protests, road blockades and land occupations against displacement and have faced subsequent repression from military and paramilitary forces. According to Grupo de Reflexion Rural (GRR), an Argentina-based organization that documents violence against farmers, on June 24, 2005, in Tekojoja, Paraguay, hired policemen and soy producers kicked 270 people off their land, burned down fifty-four homes, arrested 130 people and killed two.
The most recent case of this violence is the death of Serapio Villasboa Cabrera, a member of the Paraguayan Campesino Movement, whose body was found full of knife wounds May 8. Cabrera was the brother of Petrona Villasboa, who was spearheading an investigation into the death of her son, who died from exposure to toxic chemicals used by transgenic soy producers. According to Servicio, Paz y Justicia (Serpaj), an international human rights group that has a chapter in Paraguay, one method used to force farmers off their land is to spray toxic pesticides around communities until sickness forces residents to leave.
GRR said Cabrera was killed by paramilitaries connected to large landowners and soy producers, who are expanding their holdings. The paramilitaries pursue farm leaders who are organizing against the occupation of their land. Investigations by Serpaj demonstrate that the worst cases of repression against farmers have taken place in areas with the highest concentration of US troops. Serpaj reported that in the department of San Pedro, where five US military exercises took place, there have been eighteen farmer deaths from repression, in an area with many farmer organizations. In the department of Concepción there have been eleven deaths and three US military exercises. Near the Triple Border, where Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet, there were twelve deaths and three exercises.