A poster from the SomosObservadores campaign during a protest. Photo: SomosObservadores/Facebook.
The early morning of June 15, 2012 shifted Paraguay’s history. Sixty landless campesinos (peasants) — men, women and children — occupying a plot of public land measuring 2,000 square meters in the city of Curuguaty woke up to the sound of helicopters flying above their heads. Soon, 300 armed officers from the Paraguayan Army and police Special Forces arrived at the property, demanding the landless to leave the place.
It did not take long for the shooting to start. A few hours later, 17 people — 11 campesinos and six police officers — were dead. And seven days later, President Fernando Lugo would be impeached.
Almost four years after the Curuguaty massacre, the case is still dragging through Paraguay’s courts. Fourteen people, one of them a minor, were charged with crimes related to the tragedy, including criminal association, attempted homicide and the deaths of six police officers. Eleven of them are facing prosecution together in a trial that has been postponed time and again over the past year.
No police officer was ever indicted over the massacre. Not one person was formally accused of involvement in the deaths of the 11 landless campesinos.
From the beginning, complaints of rights violations have dogged authorities’ handling of the case. The United Nations’ Human Rights Committee expressed concerns over the investigation, and a UN rapporteur pointed to the fact that only campesinos were pursued for the bloodshed as indicative of the judiciary's bias.
Observers have indentified other inconsistencies in the official narrative. For instance, even though police officers claimed they were not armed when they entered the Marinakue area — the public-private land that the campesinos were occupying — photographic evidence proved otherwise.
Last year, on the day the trial began, 12 defendants decided to fire their lawyers, due to lack of trust, and asked for public defense instead. Their new defense recently filed a request at the Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States for the trial to be suspended.
Enter the president's impeachment
The land that the campesinos were occupying belonged to the government and had at one point been included in agrarian reform measures meant to more fairly distribute the country's land. Paraguay is the fourth largest soybean exporter, and in a country where 2% of the population owns 80% of the lands, the problem of land ownership inequality has only increased by the expanding soybean plantations.
But the government had arranged some sort of deal with a company owned by the family of Blas Riquelme, a prominent politician with the Colorado Party, that allowed it to operate on the Marinakue land.
At the time of the deadly police operation there, the Colorado Party was out of power for the first time in 61 years. They had been ousted by Fernando Lugo, a former Catholic bishop who became the first left-wing president elected in the country.
Following the massacre, Lugo was impeached. His supporters say his impeachment was orchestrated by the country’s elite to stop agrarian reform.
The impeachment process was considered a coup d’état by other Latin American governments, since Lugo had no time to prepare his defense. And in less than a year, the Colorado Party was back in the presidency with Horacio Cartes. Curuguaty wasn’t even an issue during elections.
‘This was not a coincidence’
In 2013, Al Jazeera released a documentary on the subject, calling it “Paraguay’s Forgotten Coup“. Generally speaking, however, international media have given scant coverage to the case.
Two citizen-driven campaigns, “¿Que pasó en Curuguaty?” (What happened in Curuguaty?) and “Somos Todos Observadores” (We Are All Observers), have been trying to call the world's attention to the prosecution of the campesinos and the violations they say have been committed against the landless.
Last week, the trial resumed. Global Voices talked to the organizers behind Somos Observadores to understand what is happening now.
Global Voices (GV): What happened in Curuguaty on June 15, 2012?
Somos Observadores (SO): On June 15, 2012, there was a police operation against a group of landless campesinos occupying a place called Marinakue. The lands belonged to a territory in legal dispute between the Paraguayan state and a company called Campos Morombi. This operation took place following a prosecution’s squatting order. The campesinos group reclaimed this land for agrarian reform, to which it should have been destined, instead of allowing the company’s illegal appropriation. The campesinos were about 60 people, while the police had 300 men. When police forces entered the place, a series of shots were fired, we still don’t know the origin of them. After the gunfight, 11 campesinos and six police officers were dead.
Weapons found with campesinos after the events in Marina Kue. Photo: Somos Observadores/Facebook
GV: What are the main grievances in the massacre’s legal process?
1. The prosecution has never investigated how the massacre began. Instead, they immediately publicized the version that said the campesinos started the shooting — a fact that has been denied by both the campesinos and witnesses. So far, no one has been able to prove who fired the first shots.
2. There is evidence that has not been included in the process and that could help to get to the truth (for instance, spent bullet casings from long guns allegedly found at the site, while farmers were only carrying shotguns from which no shot was fired, except for one that was later declared as stolen right after the events, and was annexed as evidence later).
3. The prosecution went after more than 60 landless farmers from a list of people, written in a notebook with pencil, who were aspiring to get lands; alleged evidence that got lost and, therefore, is not included in the process.
4. The prosecution formulated the accusation and then asked for the trial of 14 campesinos — two of them were teenagers when the massacre took place — under the charges of attempted homicide, invasion of private property and criminal association. How can you possibly ask for a conviction if you are not sure that the defendants shot? They are accused of invasion of private property, but the lands where the massacre took place belonged to the Paraguayan state. They charged them with criminal association for fighting for a piece of land.
5. The prosecution didn’t investigate the killings of any of the campesinos, and formulated a generic and unfunded accusation on how the farmers were responsible for killing the police officers. There are witnesses and evidence that some of the campesinos were executed, when they were already injured or were trying to hide. These cases were never questioned.
6. The landless farmers charged have been kept under house arrest for almost four years. Throughout the process, they have endured three hunger strikes.
7. The prosecutor, Jalil Rachid (today, vice-minister of interior), who has been in charge during most of the process, has close ties with Blas Riquelme’s family. In spite of this, the complaints against him were never pursued, nor the ones against other legal agents whose impartiality was in doubt.
GV: What is the official version presented in court regarding the campesinos’ and police officers’ deaths? Why was no one ever indicted for the 11 campesinos’ deaths?
SO: The prosecution claims that the campesinos ambushed police officers and then started the shooting. They claim women were there with their children to give the place an “impression of safety” and that police officers entered the land unprepared.
No one was ever charged for the campesinos’ deaths because the prosecution and legal agents acting in the process were biased (Court of Guarantees, Court of Sentences, Court of Appeals and even the Supreme Court).
GV: There is a movement in Latin America alleging that the campesinos’ sentences are already decided. What do you think of that?
SO: We are sure that this is a case affected by what we call “prior sentence”, and that the trial is just a way to ratify it.
GV: The case is complicated by the political events that followed it — Fernando Lugo’s impeachment, the fact that Marinakue was claimed by Colorado Party member Blas Riquelme, the party's return to power less than a year after the impeachment. How can we interpret them from an outsider's perspective?
SO: The Curuguaty massacre can be seen as an event orchestrated to feed the trial and the parliamentary coup against Fernando Lugo’s government. They needed a shocking element to prevent a pushback from society. The most logical thing here is to understand this was not a coincidence, but a success prepared in a meticulous way.
GV: What happened in Curuguaty also speaks to the reality of landless farmers (campesinos) and land owners in Paraguay. Can you explain this topic a bit more?
SO: The Curuguaty case very clearly shows the situation of land and peasantry in Paraguay.
Ill-gotten lands, usurped by people who acquired their power during the dictatorship of previous Colorado Party governments, constituting large landholdings.
Campesinos expelled from their lands because of the agribusiness advance (soybean production) and for illegal businesses in many parts of the territory.
Landless campesinos fighting for agrarian reform and lands to provide for themselves.
A state working for those who hold power and against popular demands.
GV: This month the campesinos’ trial once again got underway. Where do things stand now? What can we expect from the trial?
SO: Of 14 defendants, a teenager was found guilty, but his conviction was suspended (a legal mechanism used when a person admits guilt; in this case, it is assumed that the admission of guilt was unduly coerced). Another defendant, who was a teenager when the massacre took place, is still awaiting trial and shall be judged as a minor; she is on parole. Another defendant had his trial separated from the others’ because he was charged as an accomplice.
So, 11 campesinos are now on trial. Ten of them are under house arrest in Asunción while the trial happens (they’re in a safe house and living on the solidarity of their fellow countrymen and women because the state does not provide for their basic needs). One of the campesinos, Rubén Villalba, will be tried while imprisoned in Tacumbú penitentiary (also in Asunción) because in the middle of the Curuguaty’s prosecution, another charge against him — also involving a land dispute — resurfaced and he was quickly convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison.
Black flags mark three years and seven months since the massacre (in January) and protest. Photo: Qué pasó en Curuguaty/Facebook
GV: How have campaigns such as Somos Observadores and Qué Pasó en Curuguaty been creating awareness of the case?
SO: We’re independent citizen initiatives, created by social activists and organizations, that since the beginning of this case have been working though several means to show the irregularities in the legal process and publicize the Curuguaty case.
Now, there is another campaign called “Absolución Ya” (Absolution Now) that seeks national and international support in the quest for justice in the Curuguaty case. In general and together, we have managed to cast doubt on the official version of what happened and bring attention to the irregularities and the human rights violations in the case. We have provided information, and when we can we organize solidarity actions with the campesinos who have been arrested and prosecuted.
Even if in Paraguay people already know that Curuguaty DID NOT happen as stated in the official version, cynicism as well as the great power of the state and legal bodies still make us doubt that there will ever be justice or that we will ever know for sure what really happened in Curuguaty.
This article was previously published by Global Voices.