BUENOS AIRES — Paraguay’s president hailed a raid last week on a guerrilla camp as a successful operation that killed two militants.
But within days, the government was struggling to explain itself. The two people it had killed were actually young girls — 11 and 12 years old — who had been visiting the camp from Argentina. The revelation prompted an international outcry.
Now, a former vice president is being held hostage in what investigators believe may have been a retaliatory strike carried out by the Marxist guerrilla group.
The two developments have suddenly raised the stakes of a yearslong conflict between the Paraguayan government and the Paraguayan People’s Army, a tiny guerrilla movement that had gotten little traction in its bid to overthrow the state.
“This is a war,” Interior Minister Euclides Acevedo said in a news conference Thursday morning.
The abduction of Óscar Denis Sánchez, the former vice president, occurred Wednesday about 20 miles from where government forces killed the two girls during the Sept. 2 raid on the camp of rebel fighters.
President Mario Abdo Benítez had traveled to the remote area in the country’s northeast last week to praise the operation as an intelligence coup that dealt a big blow to the insurgents, known as the EPP.
Federico González, the minister of international affairs, told reporters shortly after the raid that a group of about 12 fighters fled the camp following the “rapid operation,” and that two female fighters had been slain.
But within a couple of days that account set off a backlash after it became clear that the supposed fallen militants were actually two young girls from Argentina who had been visiting their fathers at the camp.
The government has since revised its version of what happened numerous times in the face of growing criticism in Paraguay and Argentina.
Photos of the dead girls wearing military-style uniforms were published in the local press. Officials said they buried the bodies quickly, following a protocol designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. They also said they burned the military uniforms the girls were said to be wearing, but only after a medical examiner stated the girls appeared to be in their mid- to late teens.
Officials in Paraguay ran the fingerprints of the girls though a national database, but didn’t get a match. That led them to seek help from the Argentine government in an effort to establish who had been killed.
Once their identities were revealed, the girls’ families and the Argentine government reacted with indignation.
“It is not possible to believe that those who witnessed these events didn’t notice the tender age of the girls,” Argentina’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
Relatives accused the Paraguayan military of hurriedly burying the bodies to cover up what had happened. The United Nations and the Argentine government are now pressing Mr. Abdo’s administration to conduct a thorough investigation.
The two girls have been identified as María del Carmen Villalba, 11, and Lilian Mariana Villalba, 12. Relatives said they had both traveled to Paraguay last November to spend time with their fathers.
Myrian Viviana Villalba, Lilian’s mother, said the girls planned to return home to Argentina in March to begin the school year, but got stuck in Paraguay when both countries shut their borders as the coronavirus began spreading in South America.
Ms. Villalba said both of the girls had fathers in the EPP, but she declined to identify the men, saying only that the girls themselves were not militants. Several members of Ms. Villalba’s family — including a brother and a sister — are leaders of the group, she said. Officials in Paraguay say the EPP recruits fighters in neighboring Argentina.
As questions about the raid mounted, officials in Paraguay exhumed the two bodies last weekend and transported them from the remote town of Yby Yaú to the capital, Asunción, nearly 200 miles away.
Daisy Irala, a lawyer in Asunción who is representing the girls’ families, said a judge refused to allow her, relatives or an Argentine diplomat to witness an examination of the bodies after they were exhumed. The authorities in Paraguay turned the remains over to a family member after the examination was completed.
“They’ve put on a show for the media to avoid clearing up what they have done,” Ms. Villalba said of government officials in Paraguay. “They thought our families would never demand to get the bodies back.”
Ms. Villalba added that she saw photos of the bodies that included burn marks and other wounds that led her and other family members to believe the girls had been tortured before they were killed.
“These were extrajudicial executions,” Ms. Irala said. “They are crimes against humanity.”
Paraguayan medical examiners said they found no signs of torture on the bodies. Mr. González, the minister of international affairs, called the allegation of torture “completely false.”
A group of well-known Argentine forensic specialists is expected to travel to Paraguay within the next two weeks to examine the bodies for clues to the girls’ final moments.
Jan Jarab, a United Nations human rights commissioner who focuses on South America, called on Paraguay to conduct a “fast and impartial” investigation into the killings. “This is a very serious case that resulted in the death of two girls that the state has a duty to protect,” Mr. Jarab said in a statement.
The events have put a spotlight on one of the last few insurgent groups in South America. The EPP has drawn little international attention since it began carrying out attacks in 2008 in an effort to create a communist state in Paraguay, one of the most inequitable countries in the world.
Mr. Abdo has made eliminating the guerrilla group, which has kidnapped civilians for ransom and carried out attacks on security forces, a priority for his administration.
Several leaders of the EPP, which has an estimated 100 members, have been killed in combat or are in custody. EPP fighters have at least two other hostages: a police official and rancher who were abducted in 2014 and 2016.
Mr. González said in an interview on Wednesday that the EPP uses minors as human shields and that at least one of the girls fired a weapon at Paraguayan forces during the raid. The Paraguayan government has filed a criminal complaint against the rebel group, accusing it of using children in criminal activities.
“All parents, when they see that their child is in danger, they put themselves in front to protect them, that is the reaction that comes naturally,” he said. “But in this case it’s completely the opposite.”
The abduction of Mr. Denis, 74, the former vice president, on Wednesday raised the stakes in the conflict. Mr. Denis was the country’s vice president for about a year, leaving office in August 2013, and had previously served in the Senate and as a governor. An employee of Mr. Denis was also kidnapped.
The EPP has not claimed responsibility for the abduction, but the authorities said that they found pamphlets for one of its brigades inside Mr. Denis’s car outside his home. “Everything indicates that this was carried out by the EPP,” Mr. González said Thursday.
Mr. Denis’s daughters pleaded with his kidnappers this week, saying their father suffers from several chronic health conditions, including diabetes and hypertension, and needs to take medicine daily.
While the abduction of Mr. Denis has shifted the focus away from the initial operation against the EPP and its outcome, Oscar Ayala, the executive secretary of Codehupy, a network of human rights groups in Paraguay, said it remains important to establish how the girls were killed.
Mr. Ayala said human rights groups have long contended that the military task force that was created to target the EPP is unconstitutional because it performs a mission that should be the responsibility of local law enforcement agencies.
“People say that they are trying to carry out a cover-up,” said Mr. Ayala. “And we believe there are elements to support that idea.”
Daniel Politi reported from Buenos Aires, and Ernesto Londoño from Rio de Janeiro. Santi Carneri contributed reporting from Madrid.