A 1,600-hectare (4,000-acre) gated community, dubbed El Paraíso Verde, or Green Paradise, is being carved out of the fertile red earth of Caazapá, one of Paraguay’s poorest regions.
The population of the community – made up mostly of German, Austrian and Swiss immigrants – will eventually grow from 150 to 3,000, according to the owners.
The project’s website presents it as “by far the largest urbanization and settlement project in South America”, describing the colony as a refuge from the “socialist tendencies of current economic and political situations in the world” – thus that “5G, chemtrails, fluoridated water, mandatory vaccinations and health care mandates”.
Immigration to the colony has intensified since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, with residents interviewed on its YouTube channel attributing their move to skepticism about the virus and vaccines.
Caazapá, a rural region dominated by cattle ranching in the heart of Paraguay’s lush east, has grown from four new German residents in 2019 to 101 in 2021, according to official figures. “Anti-vaxxer” immigrants have also been reported settling in other parts of Paraguay.
A German citizen who lives nearby and does business with Paraíso Verde, cited discredited conspiracy theories about coronavirus vaccines to explain the outbreak. They claimed that Paraguay’s accommodating immigration laws have proven attractive to Germans who want to “escape the matrix” and flee the “deep state and one world order”.
“A lot of old people are coming. They understand that many people die in nursing homes [after vaccination]”said the German, who asked not to be named. “And the others, in their 40s, are trying to bring their children here to escape.”
But the appearance of an island colony of Europeans has been watched with concern by some in the nearby regional capital, also named Caazapá.
“Why are they here? We don’t know, but we want to know,” said Rodney Mereles, a former councilman.
On its YouTube channel, Paraíso Verde shares videos describing the pandemic that has killed some 5.5 million people as “non-existent”, promoting false dangerous “miracle cures” against Covid and announcing Paraguay as a country without pandemic restrictions – despite the government’s clear health protocols.
Even as Paraguay recorded the highest per capita death rate in the world in June 2021, the colony shared videos of major parties in violation of restrictions.
In Germany, sections of society radicalized by the 2015 refugee crisis have proven to be fertile ground for misinformation and conspiracy theories about the pandemic. The far-right Alternative für Deutschland party has tried to revive its waning electoral fortunes by railing against lockdown measures, mask mandates and vaccines.
And a small minority of those skeptics have decided to head abroad, with Bulgaria reported as another popular destination.
The presence in Caazapá of a large group of Covid skeptics worries the local health authorities. Dr. Nadia Riveros, public health officer for Caazapá, said the pandemic had been devastating for the region, which has no intensive care beds and only one fully equipped ambulance.
“We don’t want to go through that again. I think foreigners, wherever they come from, should be vaccinated before entering the country,” she said.
And as Paraguay faces a rapidly escalating third wave of Covid while struggling to improve South America’s second-lowest vaccination rate, the Health Ministry announced this month that non-resident foreigners entering the country must now present vaccination certificates.
At least six German nationals without vaccination certificates have been refused entry since the new regulations came into effect.
Paraguay has a long and sometimes troubled history of inward-looking immigrant colonies driven by ideological and religious zeal. The colonization projects of the Mennonites, the Australian Socialists and the Unification Church, among others, have all left their mark in the country.
Paraguay’s most notorious colony was Nueva Germania, the proto-fascist colony founded in 1886 by Elizabeth Nietzsche – the philosopher’s sister – and her husband Bernhard Förster. Förster died, probably by suicide, as Nueva Germania sank under the weight of financial problems, internal strife, and the settlers’ lack of agricultural knowledge.
While Nietzsche and Förster envisioned an Aryan colony free from Jewish influence, El Paraíso Verde founder and leader Erwin Annau spoke of preserving the Germanic peoples from the presence of Islam and – on a website that was recently taken offline – questioned the blame attributed to Germany for World War II.
In a 2017 speech to members of the Paraguayan government, Annau said, “Islam is not part of Germany. We are enlightened Christians and we care about our daughters. We see the Quran as [containing] an ideology of political domination, which is not compatible with democratic and Christian values.
Paraguay itself has a small but well-established Muslim community in several major cities. Abdun Nur Baten, missionary for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Paraguay, pointed out the apparent contradiction in Annau’s comments.
“They say that Muslim immigrants don’t integrate, that they don’t adopt German culture or norms, that they don’t assimilate. So it’s very hypocritical to go to another country and do exactly what you accuse Muslims of doing: it’s more than funny how hypocritical it is,” Nur Baten said. He said his community would welcome a peaceful dialogue with Paraíso Verde.
But despite concerns from the local community, Paraíso Verde is backed by growing political and economic power.
The group has met frequently with local and national officials and says it has held meetings with Paraguayan health authorities to lobby against tougher Covid regulations.
Gladys Rojas, former president of the Caazapá city council, claimed that Paraíso Verde was protected by ties to the political faction of former Paraguayan president Horacio Cartes. Cartes is a controversial businessman who has repeatedly disputed allegations that he is linked to cigarette smuggling, but is considered the richest and most powerful person in Paraguay.
Two members of the Cartes family have been members of the board of directors of Reljuv, a company owned by Paraíso Verde, and during the recent municipal elections, the president of the company, Juan Buker, was heavily involved in the electoral campaigns for the candidates supported by Cartes.
“They have politicians and money on their side,” Rojas said, adding that many residents of Caazapá, the region with the highest extreme poverty rate in Paraguay, were hesitant to ask questions because the colony became the largest employer in the region.
Rojas is currently facing trespassing charges for protests aimed at protecting Isla Susu, a nature reserve that suffered heavy environmental damage during construction work in Paraíso Verde. The settlement then paid a fine for the damage.
On a recent afternoon, the Guardian traveled the dirt road from the town of Caazapá to Paraíso Verde. Near the long perimeter fence, groups of locals strolled along the track in the slowly warming sun.
At the front door, a Reljuv employee emerged, flanked by guards armed with long guns.
After rejecting the opportunity to enter or interview, the employee aggressively demanded to examine the identity documents of everyone present, even as the journalist tried to leave.
“You know what to do,” repeated the employee, confused. Paraíso Verde did not respond to repeated requests for comment.