In Paraguay, Fighting Graft With Eggs and Toilet Paper
ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay — Maria Esther Roa was fuming.
A powerful lawmaker had, once again, escaped punishment for his misdeeds.
But standing outside of Congress in Paraguay’s capital, Asunción, in early August of last year, Ms. Roa hatched an unconventional plan to bring some measure of accountability to the powerful. It involved pots, pans, dozens of eggs and lots of toilet paper — and it would inspire a nationwide grass roots crusade against corruption in this tiny South American nation.
As other Latin American countries took on corruption by powerful politicians and companies over the past few years, often in response to public outrage, Paraguay’s weak institutions and flawed justice system had left it lagging.
But Ms. Roa, a criminal lawyer, and a group of organizers, most of them women, decided to try to change that by turning public humiliation into a tool they call far more effective than criminal indictments.
Their first target: the senator José María Ibañez, who on Aug. 1, 2018, survived impeachment even after he admitted to using public funds to pay the salaries of three employees at his countryside estate. The night after the vote, Ms. Roa and a few acquaintances gathered outside his home to demand his resignation.
“Down with Ibáñez!” they chanted, banging on their pots and pans. Soon, the congressman’s home was covered in toilet paper and dripping with raw eggs tossed by the protesters.
“Clean yourselves up,” Ms. Roa said, describing the symbolism of toilet paper. As for the eggs: “The smell is pretty gross, so the reminder of the protest lingers for days,” she added with a smile.
What happened next stunned Ms. Roa: Mr. Ibañez resigned.
He was the first of three prominent senators dogged by corruption allegations to leave his post. Prosecutors in Paraguay filed criminal charges against five other officials targeted by anti-corruption protesters and have opened investigations into several more.
Politicians who have been targeted call the raucous, emotionally charged protests — known as escraches — a dangerous trend that has ruined careers and reputations without due process.
“This form of social violence that trumps individual and collective rights is very similar to the public lynchings of centuries past,” Mr. Ibañez said.
But with many Paraguayans feeling these denunciations are their last resort when faced with unresponsive or weak institutions, the protests have spread across the country.
Over the past seven months, protesters have cast an unflattering spotlight on scores of officials across the political spectrum, targeting governors, federal lawmakers and provincial officials suspected of wrongdoing.
“We can’t stop a person from being corrupt,” Ms. Roa explained months after the first protest, at once basking in, and seeming slightly overwhelmed by, the scale of the movement she helped trigger. “What we can’t accept is this degree of impunity.”
As videos of the protests spread on social media, politicians targeted by the movement started being turned away at expensive restaurants. Their spouses were no longer welcome at their regular beauty salons.
“We’re seeing the rise of a new generation that does not tolerate abuses of power,” said Mabel Rehnfeldt, an investigative journalist at the ABC Color newspaper who has broken stories that have fueled public outrage about corruption.
This type of protest originated in Argentina in the 1990s, when the relatives of people killed or “disappeared” in the 1970s and 1980s by a dictatorship sought to denounce the perpetrators who had been given amnesty for their crimes. The ire was later turned on government officials as the economy plunged into a brutal recession.
Since then, the tactic has been used across the Spanish-speaking world.
Felicita Cabañas, 44, said she started turning out at the protests in her hometown, Yaguarón, to draw attention to the lack of resources at her daughter’s school. As the school’s funds vanished, which parents attribute to graft, there was no money left for basics like food and maintenance.
“There used to be milk at the schools, but now even that is gone,” Ms. Cabañas said during a Saturday evening protest. With only two bathrooms to serve 900 students, parents have had to chip in a monthly fee to pay to have them cleaned, she said.
Opponents of the protests have pointed out that they can turn violent.
Mr. Ibañez called Ms. Roa and fellow activists “groups of agitators that are using children to destroy private property, vandalizing and terrorizing families with awful attacks, insults, rock throwing and personal threats that are echoed by leading news organizations.”
In some cases, protesters have vandalized commercial properties and gotten into physical altercations. In others, organizers have been attacked, which has given Ms. Roa and others pause.
Late last year, Luis Antonio Coronel Pérez, a volunteer who had made his 1985 Isuzu van available to carry protesters to demonstrations, woke up to find his vehicle had been set on fire overnight. Mr. Coronel, 48, said other prominent activists have received death threats.
“There is no precedent for the people toppling a senator,” he said, vowing to push forward despite the danger. “At least now we have hope. Before there was no hope.”
Ms. Roa recognized that a movement that was meant to be inspiring and educational has developed unruly offshoots, and said she hoped this would not turn into a permanent tool in the fight against corruption.
“Some escraches have become very violent,” she said. “That worries me because that violence can lead to a social clash and people could die.”
She and other leaders of the movement have used their newfound visibility and popular support to form working groups with prosecutors and officials at other key institutions. Their aim is to strengthen mechanisms for oversight and accountability.
In recent months, criminal cases that once languished in the courts without resolution for months are moving forward with unusual speed, a change Ms. Roa attributes to her group’s advocacy.
But until the justice system starts going after graft in a consistent, assertive manner, Ms. Roa said she intended to continue with the protests.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, she showed up outside the home of a politician from the ruling party who is in charge of an entity that has the power to investigate judges. They made a ruckus, using trumpets, whistles and upbeat cumbia and polka songs as they called for the resignation of the official, whom they accuse of protecting judges who have been soft on corrupt politicians.
“He must resign,” Ms. Roa demanded in an interview with television journalists who had come to cover the protest. “This is nothing personal, just institutional.”
As she spoke, a song about graft was blasted from loudspeakers, deliberately breaking the peace during the afternoon siesta.