On September 5, around 70 protesters gathered in the center of Paraguayan capital Asunción. They were speaking out against the killing of two young girls by state forces during a military operation against the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP), a self-denominated communist guerrilla.
A samba band played as demonstrators, who were largely from the feminist movement, demanded authorities clarify numerous contradictions and unanswered questions surrounding the deaths in the northeastern district of Yby Yaú. Many carried placards reading “Eran niñas”—they were girls. Suspect handling of the killings had already led human rights organizations to signal the event as a possible “state crime.”
However, far from providing answers, the state’s response to the demonstration appears to be aimed at silencing criticism, especially from an increasingly strong Paraguayan feminist movement. At least six protesters now face legal charges, based in selectively-applied Covid-19 health protocol. Amid a wider pattern of intensifying state violence and criminalization, the episode further casts into doubt the objectivity of Paraguay’s public institutions.
Gunfire from soldiers operating against the EPP killed 11-year-old María del Carmen Villalba and 12-year-old Lilian Villalba on September 2. Authorities initially painted them as rebels. The EPP is a group with an estimated 20 to 50 members known to operate in rural areas in three departments in northeastern Paraguay. It is classified as a criminal organization by the Paraguayan government. The EPP has been linked to more than 60 deaths and multiple kidnappings since appearing in 2008.
Aníbal Cabrera, director of the Paraguayan Coordination Group for the Rights of Children and Adolescents (CDIA), said the state had failed in its duty, enshrined in Paraguayan law and international treaties, to protect children.
In fact, President Mario Abdo Benítez initially declared the operation a “success” after travelling to Yby Yaú to visit a captured guerrilla camp. He did little to dismiss early press reports that the two “downed females” were key EPP leaders. It took hours for an official forensic report to be released that erroneously claimed the two “guerrilleras” were between 15 and 17 years old.
Before the minors could be identified, the military uniforms they were said to be wearing were destroyed and their bodies quickly buried under misapplied Covid-19 health protocol. Authorities said there was no video recording of the deaths despite previous use of cameras during operations.
“They used public weapons to kill people and then didn’t open an investigation. They buried those girls that very same night. That is state terrorism,” said Cabrera. “As such, the state, the security forces, and the attorney general’s office have no credibility.”
Details of the girls’ true ages, names, and identities later became public. They were cousins, and both were Argentine citizens. Relatives in the neighboring country claimed the girls had travelled to Paraguay to spend vacations with their fathers—said to be EPP members—and appealed for the bodies to be returned.
Argentina’s government demanded Paraguay explain the events and identify those responsible. Though the Paraguayan government moved to exhume the bodies, it stated it was “surprised” at Argentina’s reaction.
A second forensic study confirmed that the girls were indeed approximately 11 years old. However, a judge refused to allow the Argentine consul and a lawyer representing the girls’ family to be present during the procedure.
Both the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have demanded an investigation into the killings. Though the Paraguayan government has opened an investigation into the recruitment of minors by the EPP, it has not moved to investigate its own forces’ actions.
“The state says it had known for two years that [the EPP] were recruiting and training children. It can’t claim that the children were there because they wanted to be,” said Cabrera. “They had to deploy all mechanisms to save them—as if they’d been kidnapped. They didn’t do that.”
A Paraguayan Mechanism for Prevention of Torture report states minors have previously been killed and tortured by the Joint Task Force (FTC), a military-police unit created to combat the EPP. Another study found that the FTC has perpetuated multiple human rights violations in civilian populations in Paraguay’s militarized northeast.
Writing on the Wall
The protest in Asunción took place as the girls’ exhumed bodies were reexamined at a morgue in the city. Anger ran high.
One protester approached the nearby Pantheon of Heroes—Paraguay’s main national monument—and spray painted an extract from the country’s child-protection legislation on the building’s wall. “Children and adolescents have the right to be protected,” part of it read. She then attempted to burn an ornamental drape in the colors of the Paraguayan flag. Numerous police officers stood meters away took no action.
The official response to this event was fierce. Large numbers of state organisms and legislators, many of whom had been silent regarding the girls’ deaths, released statements repudiating the acts.
The attorney general’s office immediately issued arrest warrants for three women on charges of damage to national patrimony, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years. Paloma Chaparro, who had been recorded carrying out the acts, later turned herself in to authorities, while Marian Abdala and Giselle Ferrer fled to Argentina despite continued border closures due to Covid-19.
Juan Rivarola, lawyer at the Paraguayan Human Rights Coordination Group (CODEHUPY), said that this reaction looked to divert attention and quell criticism.
“Although this event could be considered vandalism, the attention given to it—even though it can’t be regarded as serious from a criminal perspective—is designed to push the main problem into the background: the unanswered questions about the deaths of these two girls,” he said.
A frenzy of coverage in local media, which Reporters Without Borders notes is concentrated in just a few powerful hands, accompanied the prosecution of the three women. As websites filled with articles about the Pantheon, coverage of events in Yby Yaú faded. The women were described as members of a “radical feminist” group—a term widely used in indiscriminate, derogatory fashion in Paraguay.
The following day, citizen groups—largely from the political class—placed thousands of dollars’ worth of flowers outside the monument in a show of repudiation of the damage. Local media widely celebrated these actions on front pages.
Much negative media coverage focused on Marian Abdala. She had already become well-known—and a subject of much online controversy and abuse—after transmitting Facebook Lives from several key recent protests, including a demonstration at the wedding of the daughter of former Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes in August. This high-society wedding had sparked controversy for its flagrant violations of Covid-19 health protocol.
There was little mention of the fact that Abdala’s Facebook Live video of the protest at the Pantheon clearly showed that she and Ferrer had no direct part in damaging the Pantheon. Authorities did not specify what role the two women allegedly played when announcing the charges.
Despite this, the women were repeatedly ridiculed in the press—especially in outlets owned by Cartes—provoking an enormous onslaught of attacks on social media that even saw Abdala’s name trending on Paraguayan Twitter.
“All of this is an excuse because they’ve wanted to get hold of me for a long time. I was just there recording. It’s all persecution,” said Abdala from Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she and Ferrer are now claiming asylum.
The two women said they fled to Argentina due to numerous death and rape threats and concerns of unfair treatment by the justice system. The Paraguayan state immediately requested an international arrest warrant.
“The public institutions in Paraguay had never moved so fast,” said Ferrer. “Having to flee from our own country because our own authorities want to make us disappear is terrible, it’s very traumatic.”
Natalia Rodríguez, Paloma Chaparro’s lawyer, told Pikara Magazine that her client’s freedom of expression had been criminalized and should not be subject to a judicial case. Chaparro spent two weeks in jail before being granted house arrest with bail set at $14,300.
In the days after the actions in Yby Yaú, authorities had already aroused suspicions that they were looking to muffle criticism. When flowers and messages related to the deaths of the girls were left anonymously outside the headquarters of the ruling Colorado Party, police moved to investigate their origins.
Justice and Persecution
Paraguayan institutions’ failure to investigate state actions while penalizing activists is not a new phenomenon.
A recent report from Freedom House states that Paraguay’s judiciary is only “nominally independent,” with high amounts interference from criminal organizations and corrupt politicians. It notes that due process is “poorly upheld” and that corruption allows those in positions of power to manipulate the system while poor and dissident voices are given unfavorable treatment.
Abel Irala, sociologist at the BASE-IS research group in Asunción, said that the state has long employed the legal system to criminalize members of the campesino movement, which pushes for the rights of small-scale farming families.
“They end up being criminalized and thrust into the justice system for taking part in social struggles and actions, for demanding rights that are guaranteed in the national Constitution,” he said. “It’s one of the worst punishments—especially for poor people—as it’s a slow and expensive process and there’s no guarantee of due process.”
Irala said this “model of judicialization” has been so successful at “creating fear and stopping movements” that its use has been expanded to repress other types of movements and protests. The Abdo Benítez government, he said, has increasingly pursued a “policy of repression towards social organizations.”
Activists from Casafem, the feminist cultural centre that originally called for the protest on September 5, said that the aftermath of the demonstration had seen state security forces, the justice system and the media employed to criminalize and persecute a feminist movement that has greatly grown in strength and visibility in recent years.
Mabel Candia of Casafem said that, immediately following the protest, multiple police officers parked outside the cultural center and filmed activists. Raids were also carried out on homes of people believed to be linked to protesters.
“The message is: don’t protest, be good girls because, if you don’t, we’ll punish you,” she said.
The activists said that there had been an intensification of the stigmatization of feminists in conservative Paraguay, a country with high levels of violence towards women and girls.
“The state erases the fact that we were protesting the murder of two girls and tells people that what happens demonstrates that we’re radicals, that we’re feminazis,” said Candia. “That brings out the machista culture and hatred towards women.”
However, the activists were clear that the feminist movement would not be swayed in the fight for justice for the girls killed in Yby Yaú and for women’s rights more broadly in Paraguay.
“We aren’t going to give up on everything we’ve achieved. We’ve taken steps forward in Paraguay despite the barriers,” said Vicky Monges, also of Casafem.
Covid-19 and the Right to Protest
Criminalization of protesters deepened on September 15, when the attorney general’s office announced it would charge three more protestors, this time for breaking Covid-19 health protocol.
Elizabeth Escobar, a lawyer, Miguel Fernández, an 82-year-old writer and literature professor at the National University of Asunción, and Diana Bañuelos, a political activist who resisted the 35-year authoritarian dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner (1954-89), were accused of giving speeches without obligatory facemasks during the demonstration.
CODEHUPY’s Rivarola said that his organization had presented a petition of habeas corpus to challenge the legality of the charges against Fernández and Bañuelos.
“The attorney general’s office is enforcing these protocols selectively. Even in the current situation, citizens’ right to protest cannot be limited in any way,” he said. “The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has spoken about this.”
This selective enforcement is evident. Authorities have also used Covid-19 protocol to prosecute a group that protested against corruption in the state’s pandemic management, and working class people have faced police brutality for violating the six-week total lock-down. Yet authorities have taken minimal action in relation to numerous infractions of pandemic restrictions by government members and their allies, such as the Cartes wedding.
In another example, authorities failed to investigate a celebration held just days before the September 5 protest to mark the anniversary of the foundation of the Colorado Party. During the celebration, President Abdo Benítez, Cartes, and other prominent political figures openly disregarded the health protocol. Colorado senator Lilian Samaniego, who soon after tested positive for Covid-19, gave a speech without a facemask.
“It’s something so ridiculous, so despicable, so characteristic of the repression of the Stroessner dictatorship that I experienced starting at the end of the ‘50s when I was a student and we protested,” said Miguel Fernández in a video statement recorded alongside Diana Bañuelos.
Rivarola said that the state indeed seemed to be reviving tactics from the dictatorship. Photos of other protesters present at the demonstration—the majority of who were from the feminist movement—were made public as prosecutors appealed for citizens to help them identify 25 other people under investigation.
“It is an attack on the presumption of innocence and it reminds us of the relatively recent era in which informing was used as a political tool to persecute anyone holding a position questioning the regime,” he said.
Given President Abdo Benítez’s link to the Stroessner regime—he is the son of the former dictator’s private secretary and right-hand man—this is an unsettling observation.
Bañuelos noted with frustration that protestors’ calls for public institutions to fulfil their duty to act objectively had ended with further arbitrary actions.
“I was protesting because of the deaths of two girls; because the government said it was a successful operation,” said Bañuelos. “It makes me so angry. I think that we were the ones who did the right thing. They are the ones acting barbarically.”
William Costa is a freelance journalist based in Asunción, Paraguay. He concentrates on human rights, environment, and politics. He is on Twitter at @will_j_costa.