ASUNCION – Several hundred people marched on Wednesday through the streets of the Paraguayan capital to demand the acquittal of 11 landless peasants charged in deadly clashes four years ago in the remote eastern community of Curuguaty, a controversial episode that resulted in the deaths of 17 people and led to the removal from office of President Fernando Lugo a week later.
Peasant, student and labor organizations, as well as religious leaders, artists and representatives of leftist political parties and human rights groups said there was no evidence linking the defendants to the crimes of intentional homicide, criminal conspiracy and invasion of private property.
Prosecutors have requested prison terms of between five and 30 years, while defense attorneys are demanding a verdict of not guilty. The trial is scheduled to end on Monday.
The charges stem from the events of June 15, 2012, when several hundred heavily armed police moved in to evict around 70 peasants who had squatted on land in Curuguaty to demand its inclusion in an agrarian reform program.
A clash erupted during the law-enforcement action that resulted in the deaths of 11 peasants and six security forces, but the federal Attorney General’s Office has not investigated the squatters’ deaths and only brought charges against those accused of killing police.
Mariano Castro, father of two of the defendants, Nestor and Adalberto Castro, and of Adolfo Castro, who was killed during the confrontation, told EFE that the accused were victims of what he described as a massacre.
“We’re not going to rest until what happened in Curuguaty is cleared up. If our comrades aren’t acquitted, we’re not going to stand idly by. The trial ends on Monday, and we hope the judges show consciousness and ensure justice is served,” he said.
The protesters marched to the headquarters of the AG’s office and the Interior Ministry, denouncing both entities for allegedly acting at the service of large landholders who were behind the eviction that led to the deadly clashes.
“The whole legal system is being used to criminalize the social struggle, to defend the interests of the oligarchy, who are above all large landholders,” Marcial Gomez of the National Peasant Federation said.
He added that at the root of the Curuguaty case was the struggle for land and the confrontation between two economic development models: one promoted by peasants based on the production of food and industrial raw material and another defended by agro-exporting companies that is based on soy monoculture on large estates.
For her part, Alicia Amarilla of the National Coordinator of Rural and Indigenous Women, or Conamuri, said the proceedings amounted to a show trial in which “not a shred of evidence” has been presented against the defendants, whom she says have been accused “because of their ideology, for having fought over land.”
Concentration of land ownership in Paraguay is among the highest in the world, with 85 percent of cultivable land in that South American country in the hands of just 3 percent of the population, she said, adding that 117 peasant leaders have been killed or gone missing since the end of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner’s 1954-1989 dictatorship.
Paraguay’s Truth and Justice Commission said in a 2008 report that the Stroessner regime illegally awarded titles to nearly 6.75 million hectares (16.66 million acres) of land.
A week after the Curuguaty clashes, Lugo, whose 2008 election ended decades of one-party rule, was ousted in a lightning-quick impeachment trial after being found guilty by Congress of mishandling the deadly land dispute.
Numerous regional governments slammed the impeachment proceedings as a coup.