The US Military Descends on Paraguay
by Benjamin Dangl
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.
According to BASE-IS, Paraguayan officials
have recently used the threat of terrorism to justify their aggression
against campesino leaders. One group, the Campesino Organization
of the North, has been accused of receiving instructions from
the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), that country's
largest leftist guerrilla movement. The FARC has also been accused
of colluding in the kidnapping and murder of the daughter of former
Paraguayan President Raúl Cubas Grau last year. A June
23 report from the Chinese news service Xinhua said that Colombia's
defense minister, Camilo Ospina, spoke with Paraguay's attorney
general, Ruben Candia, about the presence of the FARC in Paraguay.
Ospina said the FARC was consulting organized crime groups and
"giving criminals advice on explosives" in Paraguay.
Regarding the FARC connection in Paraguay,
Paul Wolf, an international attorney in Washington who has studied
the group closely and written about it, said, "Since the
Colombian government hasn't shown any evidence or given any names,
this can't be considered as anything but war propaganda."
Linking Paraguayan campesino groups to the FARC is nothing new,
particularly since the death of Cubas's daughter. However, in
an interview with the Paraguayan newspaper La Nación,
the bishop of Concepción, Zacarias Ortiz Rolon, said, "As
far as the official interest in making believe that there is a
guerrilla group and that it is fed by the Colombian FARC, that
seems a bit suspicious to me."
The Association of Farmers of Alto Paraná
(ASAGRAPA), a campesino group near the Triple Border, reported
that a local politician offered one of the organization's leaders
a sum of money equivalent to a monthly salary, in return for which
the ASAGRAPA member was told to announce that other leaders in
the organization were building a terrorist group and receiving
training from the FARC. BASE-IS reports suggest that this type
of bribery and disinformation is part of an effort to guarantee
the "national security of the US" and "justify,
continue and expand the North American military presence."
"All of these activities coincide
with the presence of the US troops," Palau explained about
the violence against farmers. "The CIA and FBI are also working
here. It's likely they are generating these plans for fabricating
lies about guerrilla and terrorist activities. They need to find
terrorists to use as an excuse for militarization." Last
October the Cuban media outlet Prensa Latina reported that FBI
director Robert Mueller arrived in Paraguay to "check on
preparations for the installation of a permanent FBI office in
Asunción...to cooperate with security organizations to
fight international crime, drug traffic and kidnapping."
Journalist Hugo Olázar of the Argentine
paper Clarín reported last September that US troops
were operating from an air base in Mariscal Estigarribia, Paraguay.
He visited the base last year and said it had an air-traffic control
tower, a military encampment and was capable of handling large
aircraft. Though the United States denies it is operating at the
base, it used the same rhetoric when first discussing its actions
in Manta, Ecuador, which is currently home to an $80 million US
military base. The base there was first described in 1999 as an
archaic "dirt strip" used only for weather monitoring.
Days later, the Pentagon said it would be utilized for security-related
Other indications that the US military
might be settling into Paraguay come from the right-wing Paraguayan
government. Current President Nicanor Duarte Frutos is a member
of the Colorado party, which has ruled the country for more than
fifty years. It was this party that established the thirty-five-year
dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. Soon after his election in
2003, Duarte became the first Paraguayan president to be received
at the White House. Last August Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
flew to Paraguay. Shortly afterward, Dick Cheney met with Paraguay's
Last year, Argentine Nobel Peace Prize
laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel commented on the situation in Paraguay,
"Once the United States arrives, it takes it a long time
to leave. And that really frightens me."
Counterfeit Rolling Papers and Viagra
Washington has justified its military
presence in Paraguay by stating that the Triple Border area at
Ciudad del Este is a base for Islamist terrorist funding. In a
June 3, 2006, Associated Press report, Western intelligence officials,
speaking anonymously, claimed that if Iran is cornered by the
United States, it could direct the international network of the
Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah to assist in terrorist attacks.
The Justice Department has indicted nineteen people this year
for sending the profits from the sale of counterfeit rolling papers
and Viagra to Hezbollah. "Extensive operations have been
uncovered in South America," the AP article states, "where
Hezbollah is well connected to the drug trade, particularly in
the region where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet."
Other claims about terrorist networks
said to be operating in the Triple Border region include a poster
of Iguaçu Falls, a tourist destination near Ciudad del
Este, discovered by US troops on the wall of an Al Qaeda operative's
home in Kabul, Afghanistan, shortly after 9/11. Aside from this,
however, the US Southern Command and the State Department report
that no "credible information" exists confirming that
"Islamic terrorist cells are planning attacks in Latin America."
Luiz Moniz Bandeira, who holds a chair
in history at the University of Brasília and writes about
US-Brazilian relations, was quoted in the Washington Times
as saying, "I wouldn't dismiss the hypothesis that US agents
plant stories in the media about Arab terrorists in the Triple
Frontier to provoke terrorism and justify their military presence."
Throughout the cold war, the US government
used the threat of communism as an excuse for its military adventures
in Latin America. Now, as leaders such as Bolivia's Evo Morales
and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez move further outside the sphere
of Washington's interests, the United States is using another
"ism" as an alibi for its military presence. As Greg
Grandin pointed out in his article "The Wide War," first
posted on TomDispatch.com, the Pentagon now has more resources
and money directed to Latin America than the Departments of State,
Agriculture, Commerce and Treasury combined. Before 9/11 the annual
US military aid to the region was around $400 million. It's now
nearly $1 billion. Much of this goes to training troops.
Making wild allegations about Paraguayan
farmers being terrorists is one way to justify the increased spending
and military presence in the region. "The US government is
lying about the terrorist funding in the Triple Border, just like
they did about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,"
said an exasperated Castillo of Serpaj. Indeed, the street markets
I walked through in Ciudad del Este, and the farmers I met along
the way, seemed to pose as much of a threat to US security as
a pirated Tom Petty CD or a bottle of counterfeit whiskey.