Tension over Deadly Clash Between Peasants and Police in Paraguay

Natalia Ruiz Diaz. Inter-Press Service. June 18, 2012
http://www.ipsnews.net/2012/06/tension-over-deadly-clash-between-peasants-and-police-in-paraguay/

ASUNCION, Jun 18 2012 (IPS) – The death of 16 landless peasants and police
officers in a clash in northeastern Paraguay drew attention once again to
the long-standing problem of land ownership in the country, where 85
percent of all farmland is owned by just two percent of the population.

Discussing the incident, analysts mention conflicting political and
economic interests, a deeply-entrenched conflict, the danger of a social
explosion, and the return to a heavy-handed approach to security.

On Friday Jun. 15, 10 peasant farmers and six police were killed during an
attempt to evict peasants from land they had occupied, in the latest
episode of violence involving land tenure •  ‚¶ one of the most pressing social
problems in this South American country.

The incident has put moderate left-wing President Fernando Lugo, who is
already facing a threat of impeachment for other problems, up against the
wall.

Lugo responded to the killings by replacing Interior Minister Carlos
Filizzola with Rub•  én Candia of the Colorado Party, the main opposition
force, whose 60-year grip on power was only broken when Lugo won the 2008
elections.

He also removed police chief Paulino Rojas and his two immediate
subordinates, in an effort to mitigate the impact of the incident, which
has given rise to conflicting reports and versions.

Candia, who was attorney general until late 2011, was among those named by
a senior military officer in 2008 as allegedly taking part in a
conspiratorial meeting against Lugo, a former Catholic bishop who took
office on Aug. 15 of that year.

The new minister suspended the protocol for evictions of people occupying
land put in place by his predecessor, which required that the police
exhaust all avenues of dialogue with peasants occupying land before
carrying out an eviction.

“What happened clearly shows that there is an attempt to undermine the
legitimacy of social struggle and demands made by peasants for decades,
such as the recovery of land that was ill-gotten (by the current owners),”
Luis Aguayo, the head of the National Coordinating Board of Campesino
Organisations, told IPS.

The violent eviction took place on an estate in Curuguaty, in the
department (province) of Canindey•  ú, 380 km northeast of Asunci•  ón. The
estate is in the name of the Campos Moromb•  í SAC y Agropecuaria agribusiness
company, owned by Blas N. Riquelme, a Colorado Party businessman and
politician.

According to the Office of the General Prosecutor and the National
Institute of Rural Development and Land, the rural property in question
actually belongs to the state.

The Truth and Justice Commission (CVJ) •  ‚¶ which from 2003 to 2008
investigated human rights abuses committed during the 1954-1989
dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner •  ‚¶ also stated in its final report that
the property is publicly-owned.

The CVJ said the property was donated to the state by the La Industrial
Paraguaya SA, and was earmarked for distribution as part of the land reform
process.

“We cannot allow the democratic achievements gained after so many years of
struggle to be undermined,” said Aguayo, whose organisation publicly
denounced that the violence was caused by a group that infiltrated the
landless peasants, with the aim of triggering bloodshed and sparking a
political crisis.

For his part, Bernardino Cano, an analyst with connections to the Colorado
Party, maintained that the clash was caused by armed groups with ties to
the Lugo administration.

He said “the backdrop to this is the existence of sectors, which could be
of the extreme left or the extreme right, that do not want elections to
take place in 2013.”

Paraguay is already gearing up for the April 2013 elections, when Lugo’s
successor will be elected.

Cano told IPS that one big problem in Paraguay is that there are many parts
of the country where the state has no control, and marijuana is grown
widely. “It’s obvious that narco-guerrillas could have been behind what
happened,” he argued.

Sociologist Ram•  ón Fogel, meanwhile, told IPS that the reason these violent
incidents happen is that there are at least eight million hectares of land
that was sold or handed over under “irregular circumstances” in Paraguay.

He pointed out that eight peasants were killed in an earlier conflict in
January, in •  Ñacunday on the border with Brazil.

“That is the issue that all of the sectors should sit down to discuss
calmly, with each side compromising as necessary, in order to achieve
social peace,” he said. Otherwise, he warned, violence will spread out of
control in the country.

Fogel said that underlying the deaths in Curuguaty are growing inequalities
that marginalise peasants from development.

The conflict over land ownership is one of the most complex and thorny
aspects of this marginalisation, in a country where over one-third of the
population is rural, and there is no real solution in sight due to the lack
of political will among the different branches of government, he said.

“The judicial system doesn’t leave any avenue open for the recovery of
ill-gotten land and for the start of a truly transparent process with
respect to land titles and other aspects,” he said.

The latest agricultural census, carried out in 2008, found that 85.5
percent of the farmland is in the hands of just 2.06 percent of the
population of Paraguay.

The CVJ found that 6.75 million hectares of land were illegally sold or
handed over during the Stroessner regime, and one million in the following
15 years •  ‚¶ in other words, 64 percent of the land sold or distributed
between 1954 and 2008; 33 percent of all farmland; and 19 percent of the
national territory.

Fogel also mentioned another factor: “the hatred of poor Paraguayans, of
campesinos (peasants), especially among the elite,” in a country where 2.6
million people, out of a total population of 6.4 million, still live in
rural areas.

In response to the killings, Lugo has now handed national security and its
large budget to the opposition, ahead of the elections.

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