Friday, August 28, 2009

Bridge to Service at the Peace Corps Office

August 7th, 2009

Yesterday we all went to the Peace Corps Office in Asunción. The agenda for the day was something like:
  • Orientation to and tour of the office
  • Security Briefing
  • Other Peace Corps Paraguay Sector Presentations
  • Administrative Tasks
Of these, the security briefing was the most interesting, and the only thing I think anyone reading this might be interested in. The Regional Security Officer, an FBI agent, gave the briefing to our group of 18 soon to be volunteers. That’s pretty cool right? FBI agent!
I am going to summarize his presentation.

Overall, Paraguay as a whole is a pretty safe country, especially when compared with many other countries, both developing and developed. He broke down the security situation in Paraguay geographically, looking at departments, cities, and areas within cities.

The department of San Pedro has traditionally been a rejected department and is the poorest segment of Paraguay. EPP is an organization that exists within that department. They’re a revolutionary, guerilla group that has made a call to arms and wants a violent overthrow of the government. A few weeks ago, $30,000 was found in the woods, and was linked to a kidnapping of an affluent individual executed by members of the organization. That sounds a whole lot worse than the situation really is. They are a small organization without a lot of resources at this point. However, there were 2 or 3 bomb incidents in Asunción about a year ago, and they haven’t yet determined whether or not EPP was responsible. So even though they are really small and don’t have many resources, they still deserve mentioning and the ongoing attention of the governments of Paraguay and the US.

There are also a lot of campesinos sin tierras (country folk without land). They have formed a group called “Sin Tierras.” Land distribution has been a historic problem in Paraguay. Paraguay is in the Top 10 countries with the largest income inequalities, and they are number 1 in Latin America. 10% of the population with land owns almost 67% of available land. The country folk without land are pretty upset about this, and are trying their best to do something about it. They often squat on land and form squatter villages, execute pretty big demonstrations, block roads, march in front of the President’s house, etc... Usually, there is a big threat, and they announce a day of demonstrations promising numbers like 50,000 people, but usually only about 5-10,000 show up. Their demands are to remove the Minister of the Interior along with several Supreme Court judges and to redistribute the land. I’ve heard what they want is impossible and will never happen.

He pointed to the Southern part of the country, and said that overall it is pretty safe and stable. The department of Misiones is more developed and very safe.

Ciudad del Este is a city in the East of the country where the borders of Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina all converge. As such it is a hub of illegal contraband, and a source for terrorism fundraising. Some of the money made there ends up in the hands of Hezbolah, so the government keeps close surveillance on this area. The reason it is a hub for illegal contraband is because there is a huge under valuation of imports and exports, lots of corruption, and little control in the area.

Amambay and specifically Pedro Juan Caballero, is probably the most dangerous part of Paraguay. It is lawless there due to a lack of police. There is a lot of drug trafficking and intra-gang warfare in the area. Peace Corps doesn’t send volunteers into that area, and it is recommended we not go there.

There is also a lot of drug trafficking across the Chaco on the way to Bolivia. I think cocaine gets trafficked from Brasil through Paraguay.

The traffic situation in Paraguay is dismal. Like many countries, traffic deaths far exceed any other crime. First the road infrastructure is horrible. There are very few highways; most of the country has dirt and stone roads. There are minimal standards and regulations with respect to traffic. It’s wild riding on busy roads with Paraguayans. They weave in and out of traffic, run red lights, hit the gas and breaks hard, pass in the double yellow all the time, go off road to avoid speed bumps or other cars, etc... The bus drivers drive like maniacs! You will be riding down a two lane road, and they’ll pass a slow truck on a double yellow with a car coming head on without blinking an eye. Often there are several cars or motos occupying the same lane. Speed limits aren’t enforced. It’s actually pretty a rollercoaster every time you get in the car with a Paraguayan.

The US has a great relationship with Paraguay, and the Peace Corps is well receipted. The US embassy in Paraguay is the second largest US embassy in the world, second only to that in Iraq. We have around 200 volunteers in country. President Lugo, newly elected President of Paraguay, mentioned the Peace Corps in his first meeting after being elected. When he was a priest in San Pedro, he knew Peace Corps volunteers and their work in the country. One of Lugo’s only meetings in the US was with Peace Corps returned volunteers and executive staff. Paraguayans as a whole are very amiable with Americans, so overall, the security situation in Paraguay is pretty optimistic. The most popular crime that Peace Corps volunteers fall victim to is petty theft, and we were given strategies to avoid this happening to us.

I always seem to comment on the food, so I’ll tell you the special treat we had for lunch. Mike, Jenna, Carlos, and I went to Pizza Hut. We had two family size pizzas. They were amazing. Oh and I’ve become so unpicky by this point. Everything, including onions, was on the pizza. I can eat, and like, so many more things now than before. While at the restaurant we saw two guys that looked like wizards, a hippie, and girls beautiful and tall enough to be models. We talked about how this one wizard was probably in wizard training and the other was a retired wizard, and how they both knew we were talking about him....We were in a silly mood. It was funny if you were there...

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