Justice obstructed after massacre of peasants and police in Paraguay

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Paraguayans mourn the deaths of 11 peasants and six police officers at Marina Kue, a piece of state-owned land where police attempted to dislodge landless families in 2012. A full investigation has not yet taken place despite national and international pressure.

by José Tomás Sánchez

What happened at Marina Kue? This question has become the rallying cry of civil society and international human rights organizations, who want a full investigation into the deaths of 11 peasants and six police officers on June 15, 2012 on Paraguayan state-owned land.

Many analysts say this massacre is yet another example of Paraguay’s long history of injustice around the land distribution in the country. Others add that the event was planned to create a political crisis for President Fernando Lugo, who in 2008 defeated the conservative Colorado Party after 61 years of rule. The tragedy of Marina Kue was used to force an unconstitutional impeachment against Lugo. For all of these reasons, the case deserves a full and proper investigation, which is far from reality now.

Here is what we know about what happened: More than 300 police officers in riot gear arrived on June 15, 2012 to expel a group of 60 landless farmers, including women, children and elders, who had occupied a piece of land months earlier.

The police had orders to use force against the peasants in case of resistance, as was done throughout the past decade on the land that politician and businessman Blas N. Riquelme claimed was his.

The peasants said, “We are not leaving until we see a document that proves this is Riquelme’s property.” They had proof that this land was Paraguayan state property meant for distribution but illegally taken by Riquelme.

The result of the June 15 police intervention was a shootout that left six officers and 11 civilians dead. The police surrounded the peasants, and no one seems to know how the shooting started. But what is clear is that it ended with multiple human rights abuses against civilians, including people who were visiting their relatives that day and were not involved in the occupation.

Organizations such as La Vía Campesina and Amnesty International have denounced cases of torture, brutal treatment of the wounded, illegal detentions and summary executions on the part of the police. Police manipulated peasants’ bodies to present them as “guerrilla soldiers” to the public and burned the peasants’ belongings.

The judiciary investigation that followed the tragedy was skewed toward the interests of the police and the landowner. The state prosecutor declared to the press that the peasants were the only ones responsible for the tragedy. He accused them of murder, criminal association and illegal invasion of private property. No officers were investigated.

He did not consider different hypothesis, such as the possibility that the officers were shot by high-powered military-grade weapons and not by the peasants’ hunting rifles. He did not open an investigation to determine what happened to the civilians, despite murder, torture and other abuses against them. Moreover, he did not contemplate the history of the land as a fundamental part of the case’s background or possible political interest in using the case to create a crisis.

Furthermore, by accusing all civilians present that day, the prosecutor annulled their conditions as witnesses. Only police officers were called to testify. The vague and incomplete narrative of the prosecutor was enough to put the peasants in jail.

Despite the rise of formal democracy in 1989, the process of Marina Kue has more similarities to a firing squad than to a 21st century trial. Democracy should be more than electoral procedures. It should be a regime with permanent equal rights for all citizens and a fair judiciary system.

It seems the truth may not be discovered in Paraguayan courts. Until the Marina Kue case is reopened in international courts, more awareness must be created about the violations of due process. True justice must be sought, not only for the peasants, police officers and their families, but also to advance agrarian reform and create real democratic institutions in Paraguay.

The history of land in Paraguay is rife with injustice. Since the Triple Alliance War of 1864 to 1870, the distribution of land has favored landowners, international capital and monoculture for export.

During the Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship of 1954 to 1989, 35 million acres were distributed illegally in the name of the agrarian reform to politicians, businesspeople, companies and the military. This produced a concentration of land and wealth for a limited few and the dispossession and poverty of the majority.   Today 85 percent of the land in Paraguay is owned by 2 percent of the population.

Even though the Constitution of 1992 established agrarian reform as a vehicle of national development and a right of peasants, no government has seriously promoted its implementation. Therefore, land conflicts are persistent, and inequality is sustained by violence and institutions that favor landowners. From 1989 to 2005, 75 peasants were killed and two activists were disappeared in the struggle for the agrarian reform, according to a 2007 report of the Coordinación de Derechos Humanos de Paraguay. None of the cases were seriously investigated.

Read the full reports on the case in Spanish at: quepasoencuruguaty.org

José Tomás Sánchez is a first-year graduate student at the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs. He was the Chief of Cabinet for the Minister of Public Function in the Fernando Lugo administration in Paraguay until 2012. This article was first published in the Winter 2013-14 edition of the CUSLAR Newsletter.

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