Two soldiers in Paraguay stand in front of a camera. One of them holds an automatic weapon. John Lennon’s “Imagine” plays in the background. This Orwellian juxtaposition of war and peace is from a new video posted online by US soldiers stationed in Paraguay. The video footage and other military activity in this heart of the continent represent a new style of militarism in Latin America.
Paraguay’s long-time dictator, General Alfredo Stroessner collaborated with the region’s other dictators through Operation Condor, which used kidnapping, torture, and murder to squash dissent and political opponents. Stroessner’s human rights record was so bad that even Ronald Reagan distanced himself from the leader. Carrying on this infamous legacy, Paraguay now illustrates three new characteristics of Latin America’s right-wing militarism: joint exercises with US military in counterinsurgency training and monitoring of social organizations, the use of private mercenaries for security, and the criminalization of social protest through “anti-terrorism” tactics and legislation.
In May of 2005, the Paraguayan Senate voted to allow US troops to operate in Paraguay with total immunity. Washington threatened to cut off millions in aid to the country if Paraguay did not grant the US troops entry. In July of 2005 hundreds of US soldiers arrived in the country and Washington’s funding for counterterrorism efforts in Paraguay doubled. The US troops conducted various operations and joint training exercises with Paraguayan forces, including the Medical Readiness Training Exercises (MEDRETEs). Orlando Castillo, a military policy expert at the human rights organization Servicio, Paz y Justicia in Asunción, Paraguay, says the MEDRETEs were “observation operatives” aimed at developing a “a type of map that identifies not just the natural resources in the area, but also the social organizations and leaders of different communities.”
Castillo, in his cool Asunción office, with the standard Paraguayan herbal tea, tereré in his hand, said these operations marked a shift in US military strategy. “The kind of training that used to just happen at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia is now decentralized,” he explained. “The US military is now establishing new mechanisms of cooperation and training with armed forces.” Combined efforts, such as MEDRETEs, are part of this agenda. “It is a way to remain present, while maintaining a broad reach throughout the Americas.” Castillo said this new militarism is aimed at considering internal populations as a potential enemies and preventing the coming to power of insurgent, leftist groups.
Bruce Kleiner of the US Embassy in Paraguay stated that MEDRETEs “provide humanitarian service to some of Paraguay’s most disadvantaged citizens.” This video by Captain William Johnson posted on Google Video has footage of various MEDRETE operations, the treatment and questioning of local Paraguayans as well as events and ceremonies aimed at strengthening ties between the military personnel of both countries. Often, heavily armed men are seen walking past lines of local families while they wait for medicine and questions. The video’s lighthearted depiction of these joint military operations is in sharp contrast with reports from local citizens.
A group of representatives from human rights organizations and universities from all over the world, including the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Argentina and a group from the University of Toulouse, France, traveled to Paraguay in July 2006 as part of the Campaign for the Demilitarization of the Americas (CADA) to observe and report on the repression going on in the country linked to the presence of US troops. Interviewed local citizens said they were not told what medications they were given during the US MEDRETEs. Patients said they were often given the same treatments regardless of their illness. In some cases, the medicine produced hemorrhages and abortions. When the medical treatment took place, patients reported that they were asked if they belonged to any kind of labor or social organization.
While Orlando Castillo is adamant that the historic military links between Paraguay and the US remain strong, the US troops that arrived in 2005 have reportedly left the country. In December 2006, the Paraguayan Senate and executive branch, responding to pressure from neighboring countries, voted to end the troops’ immunity. Paraguay would have been excluded from the lucrative regional trade bloc of Mercosur if it continued to grant immunity to the US troops.
Castillo sees private mercenaries, or paramilitaries, as another key piece of the new militarism puzzle. In Paraguay, the strongest paramilitary group is the Citizens Guard. “These paramilitary groups are made of people from the community. They establish curfews, rules of conduct, and monitor the activity of the community. They also intervene in family disputes and can kick people out of the community or off land . . . this all very similar to the paramilitary activities in Colombia.” Castillo said that while this activity is illegal, the police and judges simply look the other way. Many of the paramilitaries are connected to large agribusinesses and landowners and have been linked to an increased repression of small farming families resisting the expansion of the soy industry. The shadow army of the Citizens Guard is as big as the state security forces: these paramilitary groups have nearly 22,000 members, while the Paraguayan police force is only 9,000 strong and the military has 13,000 members.
Anti-terrorism rhetoric and legislation are being mixed into this deadly cocktail. The Paraguayan Senate is scheduled to pass an anti-terrorism law which will criminalize social protest and establish penalties of up to 40 years in prison for people that participate in such activities. A large march against the passage of the law took place in the country’s capital on July 26th.
Marco Castillo, a Paraguayan journalist with a dark ponytail, shook his head while contemplating this new landscape of repression. Dozens of social organization leaders and dissidents have been disappeared and tortured in recent years. “Impunity reigns,” he said. “This is as bad as it was during the worst years of the Stroessner dictatorship.”
Benjamin Dangl won a 2007 Project Censored Award for his coverage of US military operations in Paraguay. He is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press, 2007).