By Patrick Quirk
On February 16, capping an escalating crime-wave and bringing an end to Paraguay’s most high-profile kidnapping, the body of Cecilia Cubasdaughter of former President Raúl Cubaswas found in a shallow grave on the outskirts of the capital city, Asunción. The discovery comes on the heels of a five-month investigation into the September 2004 abduction of the 32-year-old woman from outside of her home, which the media and public contend was mismanaged from the start by public officials.
Cubas’ murder the latest in a string of highly publicized kidnappings has aggravated fears that what was already Latin America’s most corrupt country and famous for its kidnapping for ransom, might be rapidly headed toward yet anther downward spiral. “Cecilia is a symbol of what is happening today in Paraguay,” said Raúl Cubas, on February 17.
Cubas, who was president for a mere nine months before his resignation in March 1999, compared his daughter’s fate to the nation’s surge of violence and kidnapping, and asked his nation to “use her memory to work to build a better country.”
As the former president suggests, the continued corruption and recent crime wave have exacerbated the already destitute conditions of a majority of Paraguay’s 6 million inhabitants, a country whose economic stagnation and distortion is so marked that one-fifth of its GDP comes from contraband traffic. Moreover, the “tri-border” region it shares with Argentina and Brazil has become a transshipping hub for coca leaves, a regional epicenter for small arms traffic and money-laundering, as well as an alleged breeding ground and fundraising site for Islamic terrorists.
Clear and Present Danger?
On February 23, President Nicanor Duarte Frutos forced the resignation of Interior Minister Nelson Mora, who had received the brunt of media and public-generated flak for failing to rescue Cubas before her death. Rogelio Benítez, former mayor of Encarnación, will replace the beleaguered Mora, who throughout a five-month stint as head of Par-aguay’s security apparatus was inundated with questions regarding his office’s apparent ineffectiveness.
In a February 18 statement, Attorney General Diego Latorre alleged that Cubas’ kidnapping was planned and carried out by Osmar Martinez leader of the small leftist Free Fatherland Party (PPL), which had won only 1% of the vote in the last legislative election, and a heated opponent of Duarte’s Colorado Party (PC) to swell PPL coffers in preparation for a rural struggle against the government.
Adding a twist to the case and presenting a further challenge to Duarte’s image as an effective president, Latorre cited a series of alleged email exchanges between Martinez and Rodrigo Granda, the “Foreign Minister” of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) which, in coded language, outlined details of FARC training and advice for handing the details of Cubas’ kidnapping. However, Mart-inez maintains that he had no involvement in the abduction, but acknowledged in fact having spoken with Granda in the past.
While Latorre continues to rouse suspicion regarding official PPL-FARC ties, if any, the FARC vehemently denies that it had any participation in Cubas’ kidnapping. FARC spokesperson Raul Reyes concede that the FARC and Paraguayan leftists maintain “political relations,” he reaffirmed that his organization’s kidnapping operations are reserved only for Colombia-based initiatives.
FARC in Paraguay
Verification of FARC operations in Paraguay, however, would not likely fade soon. The 17,000-strong guerrilla force is thought to have long used the porous nation as a transshipping point for its claimed smuggling and trafficking operations. Yet, its involvement in Cubas’ kidnapping would indeed represent a qualitative leap in terms of the FARC’s known method and range of operation a scenario that would have Latin America’s most formidable leftist insurgent force offering well-honed kidnapping expertise and a Marxist political agenda to like-minded guerrillas abroad.
If true, the FARC’s cooperation with overseas opposition groups in Paraguay, namely the tiny Martinez-run PPL, could prove to be a challenge for Duarte and his ruling Colorado party, as well as a harsh introductory test for Rogelio Benítez, the newly appointed Interior Minister. Even more importantly, it would perhaps provide just enough justification for Washington to mobilize efforts to deal with the situation. For those with connections to the Latin American guerrilla scene, there is considerable skepticism over the extent of the ties between the FARC and the miniscule PPL. At best, the relationship is little more than an exchange of ideas, information and advice between seasoned kidnappers and novice abductors.
Trial by Fire
Emblematic of a country still fraught with organized crime, Benítez becomes Paraguay’s fourth chief security officer of the country’s venal apparatus in only 18 months and will now spearhead efforts to thwart an emerging “culture of death,” as labeled by Duarte. However, Benítez’s first task will be to re-constitute a scandalously inept national police force which Duarte purged of 32 top officials on February 23, including Mora and the heads of the anti-kidnapping, intelligence and special crimes unitsto ease the worries of a citizenry increasingly concerned about the quality of their state’s law enforcement units. The removal of these officials falls in line with Duarte’s promise to restore order to his landlocked nation, ensure government efficiency and shutter violence.
Duarte Poised to Evict Violence
Paraguayans are whole-heartedly backing Duarte’s anti-violence message. Since assuming office, the former education minister (who in his April 2003 bid for the presidency received 38 percent of the popular vote, 13 percent higher than the nearest challenger in a multi-candidate race), has made strides in implementing a three-pronged plan comprised of greater transparency, public service evaluation and social responsibility. Each of these measures is intended to generate a new, corruption-free Paraguay.
The executive thrust himself into fulfilling this plan during his first year in office, initially taking aim at reforming the nation’s inefficient judicial system. He replaced nine supreme court judges on the basis of their lack of qualifications, rather than their allegiance to his party. The fiery president’s recent purge of the police force helps illustrate this hard-lined approach, which is a policy of zero tolerance for ineffectiveness and a stalwart conviction that order can be brought to his nation.
Duarte’s anti-corruption and drug-running initiatives have gained wide popularity with the citizenry, which gave him an approval rating of just over 60 percent in a recent poll. With popular support behind him, Paraguay’s president seems ready to fight to keep his nation on a very difficult path toward civic rectitude. However, he must first follow through on his asserted claims that he will thwart the recent surge in crime.
Patrick Quirk is a Research Associate with The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.