Paraguayan farmers question probe into killings

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In this Nov. 13, 2012 photo, a farmer walks behind black flags representing 11 landless farmers who were killed during clashes with police in the Yvy Pyta settlement near Curuguaty, Paraguay. The “Massacre of Curuguaty” on June 15 occurred when negotiations between farmers occupying a rich politician's land ended with a barrage of bullets that killed 11 farmers and 6 police officers. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) — Lucia Aguero stood with the other farmers in the standoff. About 300 of them had occupied the rich politician's land that they insisted wasn't legally his. On the other side of the clearing were some 200 riot police. She watched as the two negotiators walked up to each other and began talking.

And then the shooting started.

The negotiators were both hit. The young woman threw herself to the ground, shielding a friend's 4-year-old boy beneath her as she felt a bullet's sting in her thigh. In the end, 17 were dead, including the men who were trying to resolve the six-week-old occupation.

Politicians opposed to President Fernando Lugo seized on the "Massacre of Curuguaty" on June 15 to vote the sandal-wearing leftist out of office for "mismanaging" the property dispute. Paraguayans' hopes that Lugo would make good on his promises of land reform died.

Six months after the shootout, there has been no official accounting of how a peaceful negotiation ended with a barrage of bullets that killed 11 farmers and six police officers. Farmers and their supporters say the official investigation is a one-sided effort to make an example of the farmers, so nobody will dare challenge the interests of powerful landowners ever again.

Grieving relatives suspect the dead farmworkers were wounded and then summarily executed by police after the firefight. In separate interviews, they described bullet wounds in three of the corpses that they said showed people were shot at close range in defensive positions.

Catalino Aguero, Lucia's father, lost his 24-year-old son, De los Santos, in the firefight.

"They gave me my son's decomposing body in a black plastic bag. He had bullet wounds in both feet, but a huge hole in his neck," Aguero said. "Witnesses of the tragedy told me my son begged for help, lying face down, because his wounds were painful, but a police officer came close and shot him."

His daughter Lucia, a 25-year-old mother of two, was arrested along with 11 other people, mostly farmers. She was taken to a hospital emergency room after she was wounded, but doctors were too busy with other victims to remove the bullet from her thigh.

"When I couldn't stand the pain any longer, I used a razor blade in jail to make a cut, and pulled out the .38-caliber bullet with my finger," she said

Aguero joined a hunger strike to protest being jailed without formal charges. She lasted 59 days, and nearly died before a judge said she and three others could return home under police custody until a hearing Dec. 17.

The former president, Lugo, has called the shootout a setup. His land redistribution efforts were threatening the economic interests of the country's most powerful businessmen, and they needed a scandal big enough to bring him down, he said.

"This government of coup-plotters has no interest or political will to seriously investigate and clear up the case. And the prosecutor's performance gives little credibility," Lugo declared last month.

Promises of land reform got Lugo elected, but he made no headway as president, with no available state land to redistribute or money to pay for expropriations. No major landowners wanted to sell, with soy prices reaching historic highs.

One leader of the new president's Authentic Radical Liberal Party, Deputy Elvis Balbuena, told the AP that Lugo has only himself to blame.

"He was entirely responsible for the Curuguaty case," the legislator said. "He has as his presidential legacy the deaths of 17 people. Lugo was commander of the security forces, he was a friend of the leaders of different groups of landless farm workers, and he . oversaw the office that administers the distribution or purchase of land."

Prosecutor Jalil Rachid has had six months to investigate and is expected to deliver his evidence to a judge Dec. 17. Police have made no comment, deferring to the prosecutor.

Despite complaints that he has ignored human rights violations by police, Rachid told The Associated Press that he's only building a case against the farm workers.

The suspects are "accused of murder, criminal conspiracy, invading private property and resisting authorities. We also have a list of 54 fugitives," Rachid said in a brief AP interview. "I'm only bringing forward these accusations."

Most of the suspects were among the wounded, while the fugitives' names came from a list of people who hoped to claim a plot of land through the occupation.

The farmers say the prosecutor should be investigating police, too.

Martina Paredes said her brother's body had one bullet wound in the leg and another in the head. "For me, they shot him from above," she said, execution style.

When the non-governmental Human Rights Coordinator complained to the prosecutor's office, it was told that "Paraguayan law doesn't penalize summary executions, so the prosecutor's office can't investigate a complaint about an act that's unpunishable," said the group's lawyer, Jimena Lopez.

Paredes said victims' families want to file an official complaint against the national police, but their lawyer's priority is to defend the 12 suspects — who face 18 to 25 years in prison if convicted.

Ballistics tests would presumably indicate whether the negotiators were felled by the kind of automatic weapons that police carried, or by one of the handful of low-caliber hunting rifles recovered from peasants. But Rachid has not revealed what evidence he's gathered.

Advocates for the farmworkers say he's biased because his father was close friends with the owner of the occupied ranch. Rachid has dismissed those accusations, saying his critics are only trying to influence the country's presidential election, scheduled in April.

The peasants say they're afraid. Early Saturday morning, one of this community's few surviving leaders, Vidal Vega, was killed by two masked gunmen on a motorcycle as he fed his chickens. He was expected to be a witness for the defendants.

"We think he was assassinated by hit men who were sent, we don't know by whom, perhaps to frighten us and frustrate our fight to recover the state lands that were illegally taken," Paredes told the AP.

Most of the jailed suspects are farmers. A businessman who gave a ride to a wounded survivor was also detained, as was a Communist Party activist who helped organize the occupation.

The underlying dispute that set up the clash was decades in the making. The area's poor residents allege the land was stolen from the state by Sen. Blas Riquelme, a leader of the Colorado Party that backed dictator Alfredo Stroessner from 1954 to 1989 and has dominated the nation's politics ever since.

Riquelme, who died of a stroke in September at age 83, took over the property in 1964, benefiting from a Stroessner law that granted free title to any adult male willing to farm fallow land. So many military officers, politicians and businessmen took advantage of the law that by the end of the dictatorship, all of Paraguay's rural state-owned land was in private hands.

Local farmers challenged Riquelme's claim, but after eight years of legal fights, the peasants lost patience and invaded a forested corner of the 135-square-mile ranch in May.

"Our leader, Ruben Villalba, told us with such conviction that the property would be divided up. And so we followed him," said Roberto Ortega, 58. He sold his tiny shack and plot of land to a neighbor for $3,000 and marched onto the Riquelme ranch with his wife, carrying all their remaining possessions. Their only son was killed there.

Most of the occupiers came from Yby Pyta, or "Red Dirt" in the native Guarani, a settlement of wooden shacks that runs along the asphalt highway that carries soy to Brazil. The town is surrounded by vast, privately owned industrial agriculture: the Riquelme soy operation across the highway, and an even bigger Brazilian-owned sunflower plantation behind them. Beyond that there's soy, and more soy.

For Lidia Romero, the mother of Lucia Aguero, the fight for a plot of farm land came at much too high a price.

"With my daughter in jail and my son dead, I am destroyed," she said. "I barely have the will to keep on living."