ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay (ChurchMilitant.com) - Óscar Denis Sánchez, a former Paraguayan vice president, was abducted at his plantation and feared dead. According to a Church Militant source, who wished to remain anonymous out of security concerns, the leftist Paraguayan Peoples' Army (EPP) on Sept. 17 found the ailing 74-year-old guilty of "being an emissary of false ideology for the subjugation of the people" and shot him to death. His body has not been found.
While the Denis Sánchez family complied with EPP demands, the government refused to negotiate, having linked EPP in the past with the narco-terrorist FARC insurgents that have long plagued cocaine-rich Colombia.
The Catholic bishops of Paraguay issued a statement condemning the abductions but also called for clarification of the death of two Argentine girls who were killed by government security forces the week before. The statement noted that the girls' relatives have accused security forces of covering up the killing to link it to EPP. The bishops denounced political violence, demanded that security forces act lawfully and condemned "social inequity that causes exclusion and deprives broad sectors of the people, especially children and elders, of essential goods for a dignified life, and which threatens social peace."
Denis Sánchez's Sept. 8 abduction has been cast as revenge for a firefight near Yby Yaú, a town in Concepción, a province in Paraguay's northeastern Chaco region. Killed by Paraguay's Joint Task Force (FTC) on Sept. 2 were two 11-year-old daughters of two insurgents. Their death has caused a rift between Paraguay and Argentina's leftist government and merited a scolding from the United Nations (U.N.). Jan Jarab of the U.N. human rights office called for an investigation of the girls' death while deploring the recruitment of children by armed groups. Paraguay condemned the U.N. statement and claimed the girls fired first. On Sept. 4, Paraguayan President Mario Abdo told listeners at an official event: "I am sorry that the so-called Paraguayan Peoples' Army cowardly and irresponsibly endangers minors."
Óscar Denis Sánchez was Paraguay's vice president from 2012 to 2013 and former governor of Concepción. On Sept. 9, EPP abducted him and ranch hand Adelio Mendoza, 21, a member of the native Paĩ Tavyterã people. Mendoza was eventually released Sept. 14.
According to El Surtidor news site, the Paí Tavyterá people are outraged by EPP's forcible recruitment of minors. The Paí Tavyterá, the article noted, also face cross-border narco-trafficking and huge (largely Brazilian) agro-businesses. Narco-traffickers are known to force indigenous people, including children, to work on marijuana plantations in the remote Chaco region. Indigenous leader Digna Morilla demanded the release of EPP's captives, telling El Surtidor: "We own the forest, not EPP. They say that they guard the forests. They lie. All they want is money. They seize indigenous people, mostly the underaged, and use them as shields."
According to official estimates, EPP has some 30–50 active members who have engaged in abductions for ransom, as well as killings of some 60 people since 2008. In one instance, an abducted German couple was shot to death when EPP engaged in combat with government forces.
As part of EPP demands, the Denis Sánchez family distributed $2 million in food to rural communities in plastic bags bearing the words: "Courtesy of EPP." According to a report by Paraguay's El Nacional news site, the Paí Tavyterá community refused the food in solidarity with the family. In the town of Yby Yaú, Catholics attended a Mass begging for peace and Denis Sanchez's safety. EPP also demanded the release from prison of Alcides Oviedo Brítez. A former Catholic seminarian who was expelled from the Catholic University of Asuncion because of his leftist political activity, Brítez has been in prison since 2003. Even while imprisoned, he is believed to be the terrorist mastermind.
According to a report in The Guardian, Cristina Coronel of the Peace and Justice Service (SERPAJ) of Paraguay, an organization that advocates human rights and the "base communities" proposed by Liberation Theology, said that rural people are the most affected by security forces and EPP. She said that the $14 million spent annually on Paraguay's Joint Task Force (FTC) of police and military should be spent instead on relieving endemic poverty. She told The Guardian that to stop crime, "we have to provide the basic conditions communities deserve, not more militarization and repression."
Paraguay has no official religion, even while 88% of its people profess Roman Catholicism. Every year, in one of the biggest expressions of faith on the continent, some 1 million of Paraguay's 7 million people go on pilgrimage to celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception at a church in a town near the capital, where a miraculous image of the Virgin is venerated.
Catholic clergy have sometimes clashed with civil authorities over the smoldering conflict along the Brazilian border. For example, a prosecutor accused the diocese of Concepción of encouraging local young people to join the EPP, while there are reports that priests have been threatened.
According to a 2017 report by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Bp. Miguel Ángel Cabello of Concepción has criticized the FTC, saying that the region could have had hospitals, schools and paved roads instead.
"We put a gun in their hand, an EPP uniform," the bishop said, "and the next day the official press writes that the police have eliminated a guerrilla center." However, during that very year, eight soldiers were killed by EPP in combat some 50 miles from Concepción.
The report quoted an unnamed diocesan official who said, "The existence of a so-called guerrilla war in our diocese is a pretext to militarize the region and criminalize the economic and social demands of small farmers. The goal is to get them to leave and then seize their land for the benefit of agro-exporting companies."
The region is noted for its rich soils and hot climate, which alternates between wet and dry seasons. Large swathes of virgin forest and savanna have been cleared for planting crops such as soybeans. Disputes over land where indigenous groups traditionally hunted and practiced subsistence farming have sparked violence. In 2012, for instance, a clash between local people and security forces over land in nearby Curuguaty resulted in the deaths of 11 civilians and six police officers. A subsequent bungled investigation was widely criticized by human rights organizations and the U.N.
"The EPP is a creation of underground power groups, or, as a last resort, which work in a coordinated fashion to persecute and assassinate leaders and dismantle popular organizations that fight for their rights and demands," said Monsignor Pablo Cáceres, who serves as vicar general of the Concepción diocese. According to the ACN report, Cáceres said the vast majority of EPP's victims were poor people and police officers, rather than high-ranking officers.
During the 35-year regime of dictator Alfredo Stroessner, which ended in 1989, land was distributed to poor peasants in the Chaco region in exchange for fealty to the ruler's Colorado Party. Over the decades, some parcels of land where impoverished peasants eked out a living were issued duplicate and triplicate titles. Fake land sales also exacerbated the strife. Since 1989, land reform has become a hot issue in the country's turbulent and violent politics.
In 2008, Fernando Lugo rose to the presidency in the country's first free election, thus ending over 60 years of Colorado Party rule. Born in 1951 to a political family, he was ordained to the Catholic priesthood in 1977.
As a missionary in Ecuador, Lugo was influenced by so-called Liberation Theology, which sought to reconcile the Catholic faith with Marxism. Ordained a bishop in 1987, he was assigned to Paraguay's poorest diocese. Lugo supported peasants' demand for better distribution of land and received death threats while becoming known as the "bishop of the poor." It was during that time that he sired several children, despite his vows of chastity. Vatican officials refused to remove his faculties as a bishop before he ran for election. In 2008, however, following his election, the Vatican granted his laicization.
Lugo's presidency was rocked by controversy, stemming from the paternity claims and opposition from large landholders. In 2012, following the deadly Curuguaty incident, after being accused of conspiracy with armed leftists, Lugo was impeached and removed from office. However, he is now a senator in Paraguay's Congress, serving as leader of the democratic-socialist Guasú Front political party.