Punitivism and militarization in times of confinement in Paraguay

Published by alicia, on May 19, 2021
In this article, Mirta Moragas Mereles analyzes how sanitary measures against COVID-19 in Paraguay are reinforced by punitive systems and what this strategy reveals about the struggles of Paraguayan society.

Mirta Moragas Mereles[1]

Paraguay had the longest military dictatorship in Latin America (1954 - 1989) sustained by a permanent state of exception (protected by the constitutions of 1940 and 1967) and of a social control device that, among other strategies, created a network of spies or “pyragues”[2] that enabled anyone, even neighbors, to inform the police on the moves of those in opposition to the regime. The archives of the dictatorship maintain many reports detailing even the music heard at birthday parties and other activities that could seem relevant or superfluous nowadays. Those of us who were born during the dictatorship, or during its last years, vividly remember the fear, the curfews and the feeling of having the military or police in the streets watching our every step. 

With the irruption of the COVID-19 pandemic in Paraguay, health measures were implemented as soon as the first cases were known because the incapacity of our health system to properly deal with the outbreak was evident. These measures have been regarded as adequate and cautious with regard to healthcare, but showed a poor social and economic response to ensure the effective control of the pandemic for a population that it mostly dependent on informal employment and where even those formally employed don't have any rights and guarantees (such as social security). This is to say that the actual possibility of obeying sanitary measures depends on interdepartmental cooperation producing real solutions, not only within the healthcare sector. Our current reality is a state debilitated at the national, departmental and municipal levels after years of corruption and low social investment.

In this context, it is of concern that the sanitary measures were “backed up” by punitive measures that were, in a certain way, excessive or easily abused by law enforcement and that reinforce the idea that only these measures can keep “order”. Fear of being imprisoned and of police or even military intervention is supposed to be the source of rationality for a population that is already scared. On March 16, Resolution 3456/20, declared a “sanitary emergency” in accordance with the Sanitary Code, and imposed a curfew from 20:00 to 04:00 (as if the virus had selective circulation at night). This measure received criticism reminiscent of the dictatorship period when the free circulation was controlled by the state. Disobeying the curfew could result in the imposition of a fine by the Ministry of Public Health and Social Wellbeing (Ministerio de Salud Pública y Bienestar Social or MSPBS, for its acronym in Spanish) through administrative proceedings. It is not known if said proceedings have been filed so far. Additionally, the violent resistance to comply with this measure would be considered a criminal offense defined as “resistance” (article 296 of the a sanitary confinement was declared by Penal Code, law 1160/97)[3], punishable by imprisonment or a fine. On March 17, Resolution 99/20 of the MSPBS, that, in addition to the foregoing, enabled the application of article 10 of the law 716/96 which punishes disobedience of the confinement with fines or prison time. [4] On March20, the restrictions to circulation were extended to a whole week, from the 21st to the 28th of March, and a list of exceptions was published including the provision of services considered basic and the procurement of food and medicine. (Resolution 3478/20 of the MSPBS). 

In response to the public complaints of noncompliance with the measure (not only of those who cannot stay home due to their financial situation, but also of people who were simply not willing to comply), the government has raised its punitive stakes. During the first days, communications were made by the Minister of Health, Julio Mazzoleni, who conveyed calm, clear messages and precise information, calling for comprehension from a positive standpoint. Later on, the Minister of the Interior, Euclides Acevedo, appeared on scene with threats, sanctions and inaccuracies in times of distress, when it’s essential for the government to carry a sense of calm and trust. With an authoritative tone, he drew parallels with the circulation restrictions of the dictatorship and in response to the inquiries about cases of violence against women he couldn’t think of something better to say than “man also abused by woman”, in a press conference when the Ministry of Women was absent and not knowing there's an important increase in cases of abuse because women are “locked in” at home with their abusers.  

Deeply rooted cultural elements emerge socially in moments of crisis. Our society still carries the heavy legacy of a family that once was Stroessner’s close circle. Mario Abdo Benítez’ father was no less than the private secretary of the dictator. As an expression of a collective feeling, memes illustrating how proud the president’s father would be because of the ban on large crowds and others showing the “Caperucita,” a police vehicle used during the dictatorship for raids and arrests, have been circulating in social media. Moreover, the fact that we still mistrust our sense of collectivity and community (with remarks such as “I will comply with the measures, but I don’t know if others will”) shows how much we have yet to heal to rebuild the social fabric. 

Another aspect to this issue – also related to our culture – is that, as a reaction to the poor response of the states and in a climate of fear and uncertainty for the population, punitivism, fear and “shake” are still being regarded as the best strategies to care for – and discipline – the society. This is still our greatest answer, and that is concerning. This is why we need to keep on reflecting about punitivism as response strategy to social issues, including those that need an answer from the state, such as violence or the pandemic. 

I wonder who will be “chosen” by the punitive system to penalize the disobedience of confinement because, let’s not be naive, someone will be punished. Will it be the family who goes out for a ride because they “are bored”? Or those who go out to the streets because staying at home means having nothing to eat for the day? It is predictable that the same people will keep on being persecuted by a criminal system that has been consistently classist, sexist and discriminatory. I wish I’m wrong.

Mirta Moragas Mereles I Twitter: @michimoragas

Lawyer and feminist activist. Master in International Legal Studies specialized in Gender and Human Rights by the American University Washington College of Law. Member of Las Ramonas, Vecinas Feministas por la Justicia Social and Reproductiva en America Latina and RESURJ. 


(1)  I thank Natalia Ferreira for her proofreading and contributions to this reflection. 
(2)  In Guarani, “Pyrague” means “feet with hair” and makes reference to boots made with animal skin or hair used during the war against the Triple Alliance (Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, from 1864 to 1870) to walk silently. In times of the dictatorship it referred to the stealth with which spies moved. 
(3)  Article 296.- Resistance. 1st Who, through the use or threat of force, resists or physically attacks an officer or any other person officially in charge of executing laws, decrees, judgements, court decisions or legal provisions in the course of their duties, will be punished by imprisonment of up to two years or a fine. 2nd If such person or another participant does so carrying a weapon or causes severe injury or risk of death, the prison sentence may be extended to five years.
(4)  Article 10.- A penalty of six to ten months of imprisonment and a fine of 100 (one hundred) to 500 (five hundred) minimum daily wages for diverse, unspecified activities shall be imposed on:
b) Those who infringe closed seasons, environmental respite or sanitary quarantines.