Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Paraguay, six months later

Site of the June 15 confrontation in Curuguaty, Paraguay (source: CODEHUPY).

December 22, 2012 marked six months since Paraguay’s Congress, acting with remarkable haste, voted to impeach the country’s elected president, Fernando Lugo, who was in his last year in office. The incident that triggered the vote was a violent confrontation between campesino land squatters and police in Curuguaty, which left 17 people dead on June 15th.

Six months later, Paraguay’s neighbors continue to question President Lugo’s rapid expulsion. The country remains suspended from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) political bloc, and from the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) economic bloc.

The Curuguaty episode of June 15th, meanwhile, remains unresolved. While both sides — landless peasants and police — acted violently, so far charges have only been filed against the peasants.

In its year-end report, the National Human Rights Coordinator of Paraguay (CODEHUPY), an umbrella group of 26 organizations, discusses what has happened. Here are translated excerpts:

Like a bolt of lightning on a clear day, on the morning of June 15 came the confrontation in Curuguaty — which even today remains confused — that cost the lives of 11 peasants and six policemen. The episode took place on lands in dispute known as Marina Cue. The land had been fraudulently appropriated years before [during the 1954-1989 dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner] by Blas N. Riquelme, a businessman, ex-congressman and ex-president of the [long-ruling, but opposition in June] Colorado Party, and had been occupied for about a month by peasants who requested that the National Institute of Rural Development and Land designate the property for land reform.

An independent investigation carried out by CODEHUPY revealed that there was no proportional use of force in the repression. In that investigation, credible eyewitnesses said that at least two peasants, Adolfo Castro and Andrés Avelino Riveros, were executed by police agents when they had surrendered with their hands up. The accounts affirm that Adolfo Castro was holding his young son when police shot him in the head.

Other testimonies contend that several peasants wounded during the repression were executed afterward by police agents, after the shots had already ceased and the security forces already controlled the site.

The first accounts of the confrontation caused shock and commotion in public opinion. While there had been a long prior history of violence and repression against peasants fighting for land, never before in recent history had the country seen a situation with so many dead.

The pain was followed by a search for whom to blame. But neither the government — taken by surprise — nor the press had precise information about how and why the Curuguaty massacre had happened, leading to a wide variety of claims about who shot first. At first there were strong rumors about the presence in the zone of snipers from the Army of the Paraguayan People (EPP [a very small group claiming to be leftist guerrillas]), but that version was discarded during initial investigations.

Opposition political parties took advantage of citizens’ confusion and indignation to accuse [then-President] Fernando Lugo, once again, of encouraging violence in the countryside. They were supported in this campaign by much of the written and broadcast media hostile to the government.

The possibility of impeachment began to be mentioned. The country was only nine months away from its next general election, and there was no evidence that the government had encouraged peasant violence.

On June 21 and 22, 2012, the Paraguayan Congress carried out the impeachment, which was questioned in its impartiality, objectivity, as well as in its respect for the principle of due process. Its result was the removal of President Fernando Lugo MĂ©ndez, who was democratically elected on April 20, 2008.

Since then, the criminal investigation of what happened at Curuguaty has developed in a most troubling way. At least 13 campesinos were detained at the site of the incident, and held without charge until December. Several of those arrested went on a hunger strike to protest their long imprisonment.

Prosecutors had six months to put together a case. On December 14th, the government’s prosecutor issued charges of land invasion and murder against fourteen campesinos. A judge will review these charges in February.

No police agents are under investigation, much less facing trial, a situation that Amnesty International calls “shocking,” since “according to reports, during the confrontation there were more than 300 officers, many of them with firearms, as opposed to only around 90 peasants.”

In early December, a key possible witness in the campesinos’ defense was killed. Vidal Vega, a local peasant leader who was not present at the Curuguaty massacre, was shot four times by hitmen on a motorcycle. “Vega was expected to be a witness at the criminal trial,” reported the Associated Press, “since he was among the few leaders who weren’t killed in the clash or jailed afterward.”