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PARAGUAY
Government free to repress
Gustavo Torres, Paulo López
5/8/2015
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Authorities use various strategies to criminalize rural populations and peasants who defend their lands or demand the return of these.

Peasant organizations’ demands for access to land and adequate food are answered with government repression and criminalization of the organizations’ leaders.

The most emblematic case of repression and criminalization of the struggle for land in Paraguay’s recent history is the Curuguaty massacre. Curuguaty is located in the eastern department of Canindeyú, about 270 km (168 miles) northeast of Asuncion, and it is where 11 peasants and six policemen were killed. On June 15, 2012 a squad of more than 300 police officers brought a warrant to evict a camp with just over 60 peasants who had occupied the “Campo Morumbi” estate in the district of Curuguaty. The peasants demanded the return of some 2,000 hectares of public property usurped in recent decades by the former president from the right-wing Colorado Party, Blas N. Riquelme. These were the events that the Congress used as a pretext to impeach President Fernando Lugo (2008-2012) a week later.

The peasant leader Rubén Villalta was arrested in Sept. 2012 for the death of the police officers in Curuguaty, while no one has been charged with the death of the 11 peasants. The trial against the 13 peasants accused in this case, who face charges of trespassing property and criminal association, has been postponed by the court on several occasions.

Villalta, who was excluded from the case, has been in custody for 29 months and has been on three hunger strikes. However, Villalba was sentenced in February to seven years in prison for his alleged involvement in another case: obstructing the work of a prosecution investigative unit in 2008 that was investigating the complaint of the owners of a soybean farm in Pindó, in the Yasy Cañy district, in the northeastern department of Canindeyú. The peasants claimed that the owners of this property were fumigating crops without following minimum security measures. Villalta was charged with crimes of “illegal arrest, grave coercion and duress.”

With the deepening of the agro-export model by the current government of Horacio Cartes, organizations and communities are even more determined to prevent the fumigation of crops and cultivation of transgenic varieties in their communities. For this cause, organizations like the National Peasant Federation (FNC) — with a strong presence especially in the northern departments of San Pedro, Concepción and Canindeyú, which are major soy producing areas — put themselves on the line to prevent deforestation or fumigation.

In response, the government provides police protection to agribusinesses that fumigate and act in violation of environmental laws. The laws on the use of agrochemicals prohibit the use of “chemical defense” at 100 meters from any human settlement, local road or stream and require the treated plots to have a living barrier of at least two meters in height and five meters in width.

Even though most monoculture plots do not meet these requirements, the government deploys police operations to repress and detain peasant farmers. Added to this is a well-oiled judicial machinery that has indicted more than a thousand rural inhabitants who have risen up against the damage caused in their communities by glyphosate, which kills their animals, crops and has triggered cases of malformations and cancer in people exposed to the fumigations, even among the urban population that consumes the products treated or contaminated with agrochemicals. The latter is a fact according to studies by researchers from the clinical hospital associated with the School of Medicine of the National University of Asunción.

The latifundio
Diosnel Sachelaridi, Secretary General of the Organization of Struggle for Land (OLT), argues that the main problem that must be fought are the latifundios, or large estates, and the export model that is dependent on the production of commodities. In contrast to this production model, he sees the need for a state policy to industrialize raw materials so that development reaches everyone and not only a handful of agricultural exporters who manage the soybean and meat businesses, including the US company Monsanto, which has the largest presence in the country.

Among the strategies used to persecute rural organizations, Sachelaridi mentions methods of “self-coup” — referring to a possible set up to frame peasants who claim a plot of land — by landowners themselves to fabricate an excuse to persecute farmers. The last episode that created major tension is one that occurred on March 28 in the Pindó estate, located in Naranjito, Yvyrarovaná district, Canindeyú department, where, according to the official version, some 150 peasants — who demanded the return of 5,000 Ha of land — attacked a facility by burning machinery and tanks. The losses reported by the company range from US$500,000 to $1 million. In relation to this episode, OLT members Benigno Coronel, Milciades Coronel and Epifanio Giménez were accused on charges of aggravated robbery, criminal association, grave coercion, threat of criminal offenses and creating security threats. Sachelaridi rejected the accusations and said that setting facilities on fire is not a method peasants use to fight for land.

Consulted by Latinamerica Press, Ramón Medina Velazco, Organization Secretary of the Popular Socialist Convergence Party (PCPS) — which is part of the Guasu Front of former President Lugo and part of the Democratic Congress of the People (CDP) — emphatically stated that President Cartes accumulated “superpowers” from the moment he got approval for the PPP law (Public Private Partnership), which allows him to privatize assets, resources and public entities, and the amendment of the National Defense and Homeland Security Law to militarize the country without the consent of Congress.

Since Aug. 23, 2013, eight days after Cartes assumed the presidency, the legislation that amends the National Defense and Homeland Security Law has been in force, enabling the president to use the military to enforce internal mission orders without declaring a state of emergency and without congressional approval.

Cartes made the decision to modify the law when, two days after his inauguration, four workers and a policeman were found dead in an estate in the department of San Pedro (300 km north of Asunción). The policeman worked as an armed guard in the cattle farm during his “free time.” The attack was attributed to the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP).
 
Repression and death
In late November 2014, the humanitarian organization Service Peace and Justice-Paraguay (SERPAJ) — which monitors and analyzes the effects of militarization in society as a state security policy — submitted to the Human Rights Commission of the House of Representatives testimonies of residents of the militarized zone in the departments of San Pedro and Concepción. These testimonies reveal repression and death at the hands of the combined forces in the north of the country.

On Nov. 15, 2014, members of the Joint Task Force (FTC) — a group made up of police and military members that was created by presidential decree on Aug. 24, 2013, allegedly to repel the armed groups in the north of the country — killed Vicente Ojeda, a 29-year-old father and resident of the rural settlement Arroyito, Núcleo 4, in an operation that, the task force said, went after members of the EPP and the Armed Peasant Group (ACA). In such operations, the troops commit abuse and arrest civilians with suspicions that, in many cases, cannot be sustained by the Public Ministry, which is later obligated to dismiss the charges.

“The only tools available to the people against the abuse of the Executive are citizen mobilizations, and in that sense, the People’s Democratic Congress represents the space to articulate the discontent against the unpopular and repressive policies of Cartes’s government,” says Medina Velazco.

In this context of state violence and closure of institutional avenues to channel complaints, organizations assume that the only way is keep going in the constant struggle for agrarian reform in a country where, according to data from the agricultural census, 2.6 percent of farms have 85.5 percent of the land. —Latinamerica Press.


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Annual march of the National Peasant Federation in Asuncion to demand agrarian reform and against agro-export model. (Photo: Paulo López)
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