The US Military Descends on Paraguay
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.
"The US military is advising the Paraguayan police and military about how to deal with these farmer groups.... They are teaching theory as well as technical skills to Paraguayan police and military. These new forms of combat have been used internally," Orlando Castillo of Serpaj told me over the phone. "The US troops talk with the farmers and get to know their leaders and which groups, organizations, are working there, then establish the plans and actions to control the farmer movement and advise the Paraguayan military and police on how to proceed.... The numbers from our study show what this US presence is doing. US troops form part of a security plan to repress the social movement in Paraguay. A lot of repression has happened in the name of security and against 'terrorism.' "
Tomas Palau, a Paraguayan sociologist at BASE-IS, a Paraguayan social research institute, and the editor of a recent book on the militarization of Latin America, said, "The US conducts training and classes for the Paraguayan troops. These classes are led by North Americans, who answer to Southern Command, the branch of the US military for South America."
Like Castillo, Palau said there is an association between the US military presence and the increased violence against campesinos. "They are teaching counterinsurgency classes, preparing the Paraguayan troops to fight internal enemies," he told me. He said it's common knowledge that the US troops and the Paraguayan troops are conducting operations together. "All the Paraguayan press is talking about this."
The US Embassy in Asunción rejects all claims that the US military is linked to the increased repression against campesino and protest groups, either through exercises or instruction. In an e-mail response to the charges, Bruce Kleiner of the Embassy's Office of Public Affairs writes that "the U.S. military is not monitoring protest groups in Paraguay" and that "the U.S. military personnel and Paraguayan armed forces have trained together during medical readiness training exercises (MEDRETEs) to provide humanitarian service to some of Paraguay's most disadvantaged citizens." However, the deputy speaker of the Paraguayan parliament, Alejandro Velazquez Ugarte, said that of the thirteen exercises going on in the country, only two are of a civilian nature.