Paraguay's Congress granted President Horacio Cartes power Thursday to order military interventions inside the country, a move that leftists called a dangerous backward step for a country still emerging from the legacy of a dictatorship.
With majorities in both the House and Senate, the president's Colorado Party and its allies agreed with Cartes' request for the power to unilaterally send troops to fight armed leftists in the northern jungles without Congress declaring a formal state of emergency.
Such declarations have been required whenever constitutional rights are suspended because Paraguay's charter says the military can be used only against foreign threats or to protect government stability.
But with the Senate's 29-11 vote Thursday, a day after approval in the House, Cartes can now send the military to undertake police work without prior legislative approval. The only requirement added by legislators was that the president inform Congress within two months of invoking the decree power.
Lawmakers moved quickly after five private security guards watching over a ranch in northern San Pedro province were killed Saturday, allegedly by the so-called Paraguayan People's Army, or EPP. A Facebook posting claimed EPP responsibility for the attack, which also injured two police officers and destroyed their trucks. The claim could not be verified independently.
"It's necessary to give the executive branch the necessary tools to combat this criminal group that operates in the north, because if we don't do this urgently, they could eventually reach the capital and other cities," governing party Sen. Luis Castiglioni said during debate.
Sen. Carlos Filizzola of the opposition Broad Front coalition argued that "we can't give more powers to the executive branch than it already has under the constitution. The president of the republic should ask us for a state of emergency for military intervention, and we'll give it to him."
But the leftists lacked the votes necessary to stop the measure.
Paraguayan media tallies have attributed the deaths of 19 civilians and 11 police officers to the armed criminal band in the last 15 years.
Human rights groups say 131 leaders of landless peasants have been killed without any proper response from the courts, police or military since the end of the Colorado Party-backed 1954-89 dictatorship of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner.
"This bill threatens the constitution by breaking the principle of balance of powers," said the statement from the Human Rights Coordinator of Paraguay, a coalition of 34 civil organizations. "This bill in practice enables the executive power to install a permanent state of emergency, without time limits or legislative control."
Congress in 2010 approved a request by previous President Fernando Lugo for a 60-day state of emergency to cover a campaign to capture the same armed group in the same area, but the military and police effort failed.