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News > Latin America

Paraguay's Curuguaty Massacre: A Pretext for a Coup

  • Activists protest outside Paraguay's Palace of Justice demanding impartiality in the Curuguaty massacre case.

    Activists protest outside Paraguay's Palace of Justice demanding impartiality in the Curuguaty massacre case. | Photo: EFE

Published 14 June 2017

Five years ago, a violent land conflict was used to unseat a leftist president who shook up the country's political status quo.

In 2012, Paraguay's largely right-wing congress exploited a violent confrontation between police forces and landless campesinos that resulted in 17 deaths in order to oust the first progressive president in the country's modern history, and immediately implement measures that favored the agribusiness industry that had long-ruled the South American nation.

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Five years ago, 300 heavily-armed police officers stormed into Marina Kue in the Curuguaty district of Paraguay in an attempt to evict 70 rural farmworkers who had occupied the land. The landless workers asserted that the land belonged to the state before former dictator Alfredo Stroessner passed it to its new owner, Blas Riquelme.

The conflict, which swiftly turned violent, resulted in the deaths of 11 campesinos and six policemen. The youngest of the campesinos was 18-year-old Luciano Ortega.

President Fernando Lugo, a former bishop influenced by the Marxist interpretation of christianity known as liberation theology became the first progressive head of state in a country that had been ruled by the right-wing Colorado Party 60 years prior to his 2008 election. Lugo was blamed for the massacre, which was subsequently used as a pretext to oust him a week later through an expedited, and widely criticized “impeachment.”

The coup was denounced by regional organizations like Unasur and Mercosur. It became the second successful coup in the region during U.S. President Barack Obama's time in office. The first was the military coup that removed Honduras' progressive President Manuel Zelaya, leaving the country in a perpetual state of crisis marked by government corruption and violence.

Because Paraguay's political and economic elites turned to lawmakers rather than directly to the army which had been the case in the past, especially between 1960s-1980s, this legislative "soft" coup and the de facto government was a little more palatable for the international community. This lesson wasn't lost with other right-wing forces in the region, as witnessed in neighboring Brazil where leftist President Dilma Rousseff was removed from office in August 2016.

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Three days after the 2012 massacre, Paraguay’s public prosecutor filed criminal charges against 12 campesinos on charges of premeditated homicide, invasion of property, and criminal association.

Two weeks ago, a Paraguayan appeals court confirmed the sentences issued in July 2016 that condemned four campesinos to prison sentences between 18 and 30 years, four other campesinos to four years, and the only three campesinas to six years of house arrest. Meanwhile, justice for the deceased campesinos has still not been served, despite indications that at least nine of them were executed by police officers during the eviction struggle.

The sentence was upheld despite the fact that various local and international human rights organizations made allegations of judicial irregularities in the trial, while five of the accused went on hunger strike for more than 30 days to demand justice and freedom, but instead were denied visits and punished. Social media users also launched a campaign with the hashtag #AbsolucionYa, or “Absolve them now,” demanding authorities remove the charges pending, because too many judicial irregularities had marred the trial.

Land ownership has long formed the basis for bloody disputes in Paraguay, where the state often acts in the interests of the elite; 2.6 percent of landowners hold 85.5 percent of Paraguay’s lands while 91.4 percent of small farmers — with properties smaller than 20 hectares — hold only 6 percent of the agricultural land, according to the 2008 agriculture census.

Agribusiness involved in the export of soy has been decried as one of the main culprits for the unequal land distribution in Paraguay. Soy cultivation also requires heavy use of pesticides and genetically-modified organisms, linked to many cases of lethal intoxication of rural campesino families.

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