Asunción, Paraguay – The Argentinian government and human rights organisations have reiterated demands for Paraguay to fully investigate the killing of two 11-year-old girls by state security forces in an operation against the left-wing Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP) one year ago.
Argentina’s foreign ministry expressed deep concern on Thursday that “there has been no clarification of events linked to the deaths” of Argentinian citizens María del Carmen Villalba and Lilian Villalba.
The cousins were killed on September 2, 2020 during the operation near the town of Yby Yaú in northeastern Paraguay by the Joint Task Force (FTC), a state security unit created to combat the EPP. Protests took place in Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay on Thursday to mark the anniversary of the event.
The killings marked the beginning of an escalation of violence between armed forces and the EPP, a small armed group to which the state attributes more than 70 civilian and military deaths and which it classifies as a criminal organisation.
The September 2020 operation was initially hailed as a “success” by President Mario Abdo Benítez, who promptly flew to the scene, appearing in photographs with operatives. He did not act to challenge press reports that two “downed females” were EPP leaders; only hours later was it confirmed that two children had been killed.
Aníbal Cabrera, director of the Paraguayan Coordination Group for the Rights of Children and Adolescents (CDIA) said that the state had acted to cover up the truth of the killings, pointing to misinformation provided regarding the girls’ ages, their rapid burial in unidentified graves, and the prompt burning of clothing and other evidence under misapplied COVID protocol.
“The series of irresponsible acts by the state attorney’s office and the FTC in the hours after the murder of the girls makes the Paraguayan state entirely uncredible”, Cabrera told Al Jazeera.
Paraguay’s foreign ministry rejected claims from Argentina that institutions had not acted transparently.
However, Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed grave concern in February that there had been no independent investigation into the two deaths, in addition to a lack of actions to clarify the disappearance in December 2020 of 14-year-old Carmen Oviedo Villalba, another child with links to members of the EPP. A report from NGO Human Rights Watch points to grave irregularities in Paraguayan authorities’ actions.
Two other girls who managed to escape from the 2020 FTC operation told the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions that María del Carmen and Lilian had been captured alive and later executed.
Laura Taffetani, a member of the Lawyers Guild of Argentina, a human rights organisation providing legal support to the girls’ family, told Al Jazeera that the minors had travelled to Paraguay from Argentina to spend time with their parents, who are members of the EPP.
“It’s terrible. I think it is something that has tended to happen in Latin America: there are states that claim to be democratic but that implement practices that are truly terrorist and, in this case, infanticidal”, she said.
The Paraguayan state has repeatedly rejected this version of events, claiming that the girls were brought into the armed group as part of the systematic recruitment of child soldiers.
Cabrera said that, if it is true that they were recruited, authorities had failed in their duty to protect and rescue them.
“Every time that the state has been faced with forcibly recruited adolescents in the country’s north, it has either murdered, tortured or kidnapped them,” he said.
The deaths of the two girls opened a period of increased conflict in Paraguay’s northeast. On September 9, 2020, former Vice President Óscar Denis was kidnapped from his ranch in what was considered a retaliatory blow from the EPP for the girls’ deaths. Denis has not been released.
In July, the EPP and two other self-declared left-wing rebels carried out at least seven kidnappings and attacks, including the bombing of a military truck in which three soldiers died.
Cristina Coronel of the Peace and Justice Service (Serpaj) said that local civilians are the main victims of the conflict, with both the rebels and the FTC reported as having perpetrated grave violations of human rights in local communities.
The intensifying situation has fuelled fierce debate over how to tackle armed groups in the poverty-stricken and violent region, which is also a centre of drug cultivation and trafficking.
While Arnaldo Giuzzio, the interior minister, pushes for a large increase in the FTC’s budget, others have criticised the continued existence of the specialised unit, calling for alternatives.
“We believe that at this point, with all their equipment, with all the spending that the FTC involves, there should be positive results: all armed groups in the zones should have been eradicated”, said Coronel.