- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 22, 2009

ASUNCION, Paraguay — When he was a Roman Catholic bishop, Fernando Lugo taught liberation theology to uplift the poor. Now as president, he is in the uncomfortable position of sending special forces into Paraguay’s northern forests to hunt for kidnappers whose leaders include a former student and his former altar boy.

The ties between Mr. Lugo and the kidnappers of a wealthy rancher are providing fuel for an effort to impeach the president, whose election last year ended 61 years of unbroken right-wing Colorado Party rule. Mr. Lugo’s government calls it a hypocritical campaign by politicians who committed far worse sins under the nation’s long and brutal dictatorship.

Known as “bishop of the poor,” Mr. Lugo was elected in large part for his advocacy of liberation theology, a Catholic movement that found inspiration in faith to push for social change, though the Vatican suppressed many versions and discouraged its teaching. Mr. Lugo renounced his church vows, saying he could do more for the poor as president than as bishop.

The kidnapping of rancher Fidel Zavala to finance what the band has called a revolutionary movement for the poor now threatens to turn Mr. Lugo’s past against him.

The kidnappers - a group linked to several bank robberies and other kidnappings in the past decade - showed up Oct. 15 on Mr. Zavala’s ranch wearing military uniforms and calling themselves the Paraguayan People’s Army.

The rancher’s family pleaded with Mr. Lugo not to send in the police, fearing that Mr. Zavala would be killed. But the president is in a tough spot. He is accused by critics on the right of coddling the kidnappers while those on the left say he has potentially violated the rights of poor forest dwellers by sending in police armed with U.S.-provided anti-terror equipment.

“Fernando Lugo continues to be deeply tied to the kidnappers,” Colorado Party Sen. Juan Carlos Galaverna declared on television earlier this month. He accused the president not only of mentoring the future kidnappers, but continuing to act as their “chief, or at least the protector of the band.”

Interior Minister Rafael Filizzola told the Associated Press that the allegation “defies common sense.”

“They’re trying to stigmatize the Paraguayan left because of this, but the left has always been nonviolent,” he said. “The violence came from [Alfredo] Stroessner, a right-wing dictatorship that tortured and killed. The violence never came from the left, nor the church.”

Mr. Filizzola described the kidnappers as dangerous and has asked Paraguay’s Congress for $1 million to finance the special forces’ overtime and to pay for tips on Mr. Zavala’s whereabouts.

“We have the objective of finding them, capturing them and making them face justice,” he said.

The kidnappers’ leader, Osvaldo Villalba, has been a fugitive since 2001 after getting a $2 million ransom to release the daughter-in-law of a former economy minister. Police later recovered $600,000 and arrested several members of the group, including the leader’s sister, Carmen Villalba, who is among about 40 people serving long prison terms.

The Villalbas - eight brothers and sisters in all - were raised in poverty by a mother who had trained as a nun in Europe and promoted liberation theology while working for a neighboring bishop who provided some refuge to opponents of the brutal 1954-89 dictatorship.

While Mr. Lugo denies knowing any of the kidnappers personally, Monsignor Adalberto Martinez of Mr. Lugo’s San Pedro diocese acknowledged that several probably studied in the seminary directed by Mr. Lugo in the 1990s. Osvaldo Villalba’s brother, Jose, also told the AP that one of the leaders was Mr. Lugo’s seminary student, and a former kidnapper, Dionisio Olazar, said another member of the band, Manuel Cristaldo Mieres, served as Mr. Lugo’s altar boy.

According to Mr. Filizzola, the People’s Army includes a core of about 20 uniformed combatants with military training and heavy weapons, a larger group whose members hold day jobs but sometimes participate in crimes, and a much larger group of backers who occasionally provide logistical support.

Mr. Filizzola rejects the idea that liberation theology inspired the gang to become kidnappers, and says there is little evidence of any guiding ideology since they began calling themselves guerrillas.

But the group clearly expresses political goals in pamphlets and statements delivered anonymously to local journalists. “We will look for radical and revolutionary changes, the only way to dignify the suffering and hunger of our poor people,” one reads.

Jose Villalba, a carpenter who also raises chickens and pigs on his subsistence farm, says armed revolution is a necessary response to extreme poverty.

“This president promised us poor people during his campaign that he would bring change, but now that he’s in power, he doesn’t do a thing,” Mr. Villalba said by telephone from the village of Santa Rosa.

Mr. Lugo’s opponents have cited Mr. Zavala’s kidnapping as evidence of a “failure to fulfill his presidential duties,” a vague but impeachable offense in Paraguay.

There were more than a dozen high-profile kidnappings during the previous president’s tenure, and no one pushed for impeachment then, but the threat is real in Mr. Lugo’s case because he has so little support in Congress - only three sure votes among 125 lawmakers.

Mr. Filizzola said using the Zavala case to push for the president’s ouster “is an act of opportunism for the same people who supported the dictatorship, who supported political assassinations, tortures, persecutions.”

c Pedro Servin contributed to this report.

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