Paraguay rebel crackdown sees little success

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It is an uneven contest: 25 men and women being pursued by a force of 3,300.

A poster showing the mugshots of Paraguay's "most wanted" Posters of Paraguay's "most wanted" have gone up

The former are reputed members of a group on the run in the forests and hills of northern Paraguay, while the latter are troops and police in a race against the clock to try and capture at least some of the country's "most wanted".

The Paraguayan People's Army (PPA or EPP in Spanish) has been described as a dangerous criminal gang responsible for kidnappings and murders.

But the group has also been characterised as a left-wing rebel outfit bent on "shoot and kill" in response to the socio-economic injustices in a country where some 50% of the population lives in poverty.

Last month, the Paraguayan Congress passed a bill imposing a month-long suspension of constitutional rights in parts of the country in response to four murders blamed on the PPA.

The move also saw the biggest deployment of troops in Paraguay since democracy was restored in 1989.

But the military crackdown, known as Operation Py'aguapy - tranquillity in the indigenous Guarani language - has seen little success.

The military on the main roads in northern Paraguay The military are stationed on roads and main streets in the area

An alleged member of the PPA's "logistics network" was arrested, while another attempt to capture a man believed to be the group's leader failed after he managed to escape into the woods, injured and barefoot.

The Paraguayan authorities have several arguments for their poor results. The PPA, they say, is "a highly trained group" which "resists anything and has no fear".

Officials also say the guerrillas enjoy the support of the rural population, who remain silent either because they sympathise with the PPA's aims or are afraid of it.

Phantom or threat?

But the question remains as to why so many have failed to overcome so few.

map of paraguay

"The military operation is working really well," said Lt-Col Damacio Lopez, commander of the operation in Concepcion, some 500km (310 miles) from the capital, Asuncion.

Concepcion was chosen as the operation base for its proximity to a reported PPA attack in April, in which a police officer and three farm workers were killed.

There have been arrests but so far none of those detained have been PPA members.

"With the resources we have, we can't do much more than just be present," said an officer who asked not to be named.

The armed forces are stationed on roads and main streets in the area. Lt-Col Lopez says his forces have been gathering information before a decision is made on whether to head into the densely wooded hills where, according to the authorities, the PPA leadership is holed up.

"We can't just embark on an incursion for the sake of it without being sure of the outcome," he said.

The military are still refraining from going into the woods The military are still refraining from going into the woods

But there are others who believe that this rebel army is more of a phantom, reminiscent of the Yasy-Yatere.

Yasy-Yatere is a character from local Guarani mythology, who roams about while people siesta, and lures naughty children into the woods with a whistle.

"Yasy-Yatere, you can hear him but you can't see him" is a local saying which has become synonymous with the elusive PPA.

Phantom or real threat, few believe that the PPA can be caught without venturing, machete in hand, into the woods and grasslands.

Among the sceptical are local cattle farmers, who consider themselves the main targets of the group.

Many ranchers are afraid to go onto their own land, said Jose Galeano, regional director of the Rural Association.

"The woods and hills are the PPA's terrain. If they [the authorities] don't go there, I don't know what they can accomplish."

But local governor Emilio Pavon defended the policy of proceeding with caution, saying: "There is the political will to pursue these people and we are hoping for a quick dismantling of their group."

Deadline approaches

The presence of troops has brought both fear and calm to Concepcion.

Market traders enjoy the calm brought by the military presence in Concepcion Market traders enjoy the calm brought by the military presence

In the city, home to some 80,000 people, street patrols and checkpoints appear to have reduced crimes such as muggings and cattle rustling as well as curbing the activities of drug-traffickers.

"I feel more reassured while at work. There are more people around," said Eusebo Martinez, a municipal market trader.

But in rural areas, it is a different story, with workers reluctant to leave their homes.

"The soldiers demand our papers and there's a lot of people here who don't have any," said local Nilda Mendoza.

Some say they do not know the PPA guerrillas; others say they have not seen any rebels since they hit the headlines last month.

Other villagers, however, have been in contact with those suspected of providing "logistical support" to the rebels.

But in a small village where everyone knows everyone else, the term "logistical support" is problematic.

Many rural workers feel the state of emergency has been an excuse to criminalise their own fight for land and better living conditions.

President Fernando Lugo A failed operation could be presented as a sign of weakness by the president

The PPA issue highlights the complicated political situation in Paraguay, where inequality and corruption are persistent problems and poverty remains widespread.

In 2008, the election of President Fernando Lugo ended 61 years of rule by the Colorado Party, but he has faced an opposition-led Congress.

In this context, analysts say the PPA could be very useful to right-wing politicians who hold sway economically and in Congress.

A failed operation against the guerrillas could be presented as a sign of weakness by Mr Lugo, they say.

Other commentators say Mr Lugo lacks the political will to take effective action against the PPA as he sympathises with revolutionary ideals - a view strongly denied by the government.

The deadline for finding the "most wanted" is approaching. Failure could mean a political judgement against the president. But others describe the situation as "oparei" - a word which could best be summed up in English as "much ado about nothing".

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