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Paraguay: The History and Development of the Armed Forces
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > The History and Development of the Armed Forces


The nation's military tradition is rooted in the colonial past, when armed groups in what is now Paraguay fought against royal Spanish armies and Jesuit-led Indian forces. Elements of these Paraguayan armed groups were organized into a force of approximately 3,000 members that in 1811 repelled an invasion by Argentine forces seeking to annex Paraguay. As a result of that victory, Paraguay declared its independence.

The modern army and the navy owe their origins to forces built up under José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, who ruled as a dictator from 1814 to 1840. After heavily purging existing forces to ensure their loyalty to him, Francia imposed strict discipline within the ranks. Under his direction, army and naval strength was increased to deter Argentina from further attacks on Paraguay and to act as the infrastructure for his own autocratic rule. Francia instituted a program of conscription to meet the military's manpower requirements. He also placed landholdings confiscated from his opponents under the control of the army, which until the late 1980s partially fed and supported itself by either working the land directly or leasing it out.

The army and navy were further improved by President Carlos Antonio López, who ruled from 1841 to 1862. Like Francia, López used the military both to maintain his rule and to deter invasion by the nation's larger neighbors. López was succeeded by his son, Francisco Solano López, an army general who had studied military matters in Europe. The younger López completely reorganized the 7,000-member army he had inherited and began a program of rapid military expansion. By 1864 the army numbered 30,000 and comprised 30 infantry battalions, 23 cavalry regiments, and 4 artillery regiments. The navy was also strengthened, acquiring the world's first steamship built intentionally as a warship.

The buildup reflected López's aspirations to increase his influence in the region. Attempts to do so led to the 1865-70 War of the Triple Alliance, in which Paraguay faced Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay in a bloody confrontation that eventually drastically reduced the national population. Paraguay began the war with an extensive military establishment, but its opponents, especially Brazil, had far greater economic and manpower resources. Paraguay's military was able to make up some of the imbalance through its fierce fighting and its determination to accept total destruction rather than surrender. As the war progressed, however, even López's harsh methods of compelling devotion to battle proved insufficient, and the nation was reduced to conscripting boys down to the age of twelve, but boys as young as ten could volunteer. By the war's end, the army was made up of a few hundred men -- most of whom were wounded, old, or very young. Brazil's soldiers were stationed in Paraguay as an army of occupation until 1876.

The next few decades were spent in rebuilding the devastated nation, so there was little money for the military. Although the army remained small, it emerged as a center of political power and a primary source of national political leaders. General Bernardino Caballero became a national leader, governing first directly as president and later behind the scenes as the head of the armed forces. He also founded the National Republican Association -- which adopted red as its symbolic color and came to be known as the Colorado Party.

The bitter competition between the Colorados and their Liberal Party (Partido Liberal -- PL) opponents extended into the armed forces. The late 1800s saw the beginning of what came to be a pattern of army intervention in national politics, rebellions by army factions, and assumption of power by army leaders. The military saw action both in putting down armed revolts and in mounting them. Elements of the army fought on both sides when exiled PL members launched an invasion of Paraguay with the tacit support of Argentina in 1904, eventually deposing the Colorado government. The military again divided into warring groups between 1922 and 1924 when civil war broke out among PL factions. By that time, the army had become the chief source of political power and the most frequent instigator of political change.

Growing tension with Bolivia over a long-disputed boundary in the Chaco fueled a secret program of rearmament in the late 1920s A major clash between the two countries occurred in 1928; both nations then began to prepare for war, building up their military capability and stationing growing numbers of troops in the Chaco. After war broke out in July 1932, Paraguay rapidly mobilized and brought troop strength up to 24,000. The army succeeded several times in outflanking the more numerous Bolivian forces, cutting their supply lines and access to water. Paraguayan forces also benefited from the fact that Bolivian troops -- mostly Indians from the Andes Mountains -- were not used to the climate and low altitude of the Chaco. The Chaco War was the bloodiest war in the Western Hemisphere during the twentieth century. By the time a truce was signed in 1935, about 36,000 Paraguayans and an estimated 44,000 Bolivians were dead. The nation was also left economically devastated.

In keeping with the terms of the armistice with Bolivia, Paraguay reduced its army to under 5,000 soon after the war's end. The military had captured a large quantity of light arms, mortars, and artillery in the Chaco War. These made up a substantial portion of the army inventory for some fifteen years, because little new equipment was acquired in the 1940s. In the early 1950s, however, the military establishment expanded, and the army beefed up its artillery, infantry, and engineer forces. During the same period, Argentina and Brazil began to compete for military influence in Paraguay, each presenting the nation with its excess second-hand equipment, most of which had been manufactured in the United States. A small quantity of aircraft and other items were also turned over by the United States, so that by the 1950s most of the nation's military inventory was of United States manufacture.

Although the years following the Chaco War had been a period of stagnation for the armed forces in the purely military sphere, the same could not be said of the political sphere. Paraguayans had viewed the war as a defense of their homeland, and military service was seen as a matter of great pride and prestige. As had been the case after the War of the Triple Alliance, military figures who had made their reputation in the war emerged very soon as the nation's political leaders. The first of these leaders was the popular war hero Colonel Rafael Franco, who came to power in a 1936 coup against a PL government. He was supported by veterans dissatisfied with the settlement with Bolivia and with their remuneration for service, as well as by students, intellectuals, and members of organized labor seeking various reforms. Franco's supporters formed the Febrerista Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Febrerista -- PRF), more commonly known as Febreristas, named after the month in which the coup had occurred. Although Franco was deposed in a military revolt a year later, the Febreristas continued to be an active source of government opposition in the next two decades. Six of the eleven regimes during the 1935-54 period were headed by army officers, ending with the regime of General Stroessner. In addition, all of the five civilian presidents came to power with army backing and/or were deposed under army pressure.

The defense forces continued to be divided internally along political lines. Tension among factions that aligned with different parties sometimes resulted in open conflict. For instance, army units rose in revolt during World War II, when Paraguay, like most South American countries, declared war on the Axis powers. The most serious conflict came in 1947, however, after President Higinio Morínigo, an army general who had ruled since 1940 -- primarily with the support of the army rather than a particular party -- appeared to give increasing power to the Colorado Party. In reaction, civil war broke out after the air force and army broke into factions, most of the military supporting a coalition of Febrerista, PL, and communist elements. The rebel forces, joined by virtually the entire navy, were put down only with great difficulty by the government. Morínigo's cause was helped significantly by the fact that Stroessner -- then a lieutenant colonel -- committed his artillery regiment to the government side.

Because up to 80 percent of the military had joined the rebel side during the civil war, the government initiated a widespread purge of the armed forces, and the marines were disbanded entirely until the 1950s. As a result, the defense forces became almost completely an organization of the Colorado Party. Stroessner's own impressive performance in the war was responsible for his emergence as one of the nation's leading military figures in the late 1940s. Stroessner and fellow Colorado Party members viewed with particular bitterness the communist role in the civil war. After that time, the suggestion of a potential communist threat was sufficient to promote an immediate negative reaction by the government.

Transforming the armed forces into an organization composed almost exclusively of Colorado personnel did not rid them of factionalism. Warring elements within the party took part in coup attempts in 1948 and 1949, and Stroessner was a main player in each attempt. At one point, he was forced to flee to Brazil to escape reprisal for his role in an unsuccessful revolt. He was back in the country within a few months, however, after taking part in a successful coup in 1949. As a reward for his role, he was given a series of rapid promotions, rising to commander in chief of the armed forces in 1951. Stroessner himself came to power as president in an army-backed coup in 1954.

Stroessner inherited a military establishment still ridden by factionalism, as well as an economy damaged by civil war and political instability. After forces loyal to him forestalled a planned coup in 1955, he followed up by purging dissident elements the next year. During the late 1950s, opposition to Stroessner flared over austerity measures imposed by his government, and strikes and student demonstrations followed. The opposition drew inspiration and some funds from foreign sources. A government crackdown in 1958 and 1959 included another purge of the armed forces. After that time, virtually all members of the officer corps were either associated with a pro-Stroessner wing of the Colorado Party or personally loyal to or dependent upon Stroessner.

Opposition to Stroessner's rule was purely internal until 1959, when guerrillas that were allied with elements of Febrerista, PL, and communist opponents mounted sporadic and largely ineffective raids from bases in Argentina and Brazil. Never of sufficient size to threaten the government or seriously upset public order, these insurgencies were easily quelled by the military, which relied on intelligence provided by Colorado Party members throughout the country. Using the armed forces and the police, the government also cracked down on internal opposition, branding many of its opponents as communist. Guerrilla activity died out by 1964 as a result of harsh government reprisals, lack of support within Paraguay, and moves by Argentina and Brazil to close guerrilla bases in their countries.

By late 1988, in the absence of any external or insurgent threat, the armed forces continued to help enforce the government's tight control over the domestic political scene. The military leadership appeared to accept that national economic conditions dictated that the government's rhetorical support for the defense forces could not be matched by sufficient material support to replace or update the aging armed forces inventory. Although the military appeared to remain completely loyal to Stroessner, his government, and the Colorado Party, its personnel were not immune to factionalism within the Colorado Party. This factionalism manifested itself in political violence in the mid-1980s. As of late 1988, however, political factionalism within the armed forces did not appear to have seriously affected operations of any of the three services.

Data as of December 1988

Last Updated: December 1988

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Paraguay was first published in 1988. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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