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Four Years and an Impeached President Later, Paraguay's Curuguaty Massacre Is Still in the Shadows

A poster from SomosObservadores campaign during a protest | Photo: SomosObservadores/Facebook

A poster from the SomosObservadores campaign during a protest. Photo: SomosObservadores/Facebook.

The early morning of June 15, 2012 shifted Paraguay’s history. Sixty landless campesinos (peasants) — men, women and children — occupying a plot of public land measuring 2,000 square meters in the city of Curuguaty woke up to the sound of helicopters flying above their heads. Soon, 300 armed officers from the Paraguayan Army and police Special Forces arrived at the property, demanding the landless to leave the place.

It did not take long for the shooting to start. A few hours later, 17 people — 11 campesinos and six police officers — were dead. And seven days later, President Fernando Lugo would be impeached.

Almost four years after the Curuguaty massacre, the case is still dragging through Paraguay’s courts. Fourteen people, one of them a minor, were charged with crimes related to the tragedy, including criminal association, attempted homicide and the deaths of six police officers. Eleven of them are facing prosecution together in a trial that has been postponed time and again over the past year.

No police officer was ever indicted over the massacre. Not one person was formally accused of involvement in the deaths of the 11 landless campesinos.

From the beginning, complaints of rights violations have dogged authorities’ handling of the case. The United Nations’ Human Rights Committee expressed concerns over the investigation, and a UN rapporteur pointed to the fact that only campesinos were pursued for the bloodshed as indicative of the judiciary's bias.

Observers have indentified other inconsistencies in the official narrative. For instance, even though police officers claimed they were not armed when they entered the Marinakue area — the public-private land that the campesinos were occupying — photographic evidence proved otherwise.

Last year, on the day the trial began, 12 defendants decided to fire their lawyers, due to lack of trust, and asked for public defense instead. Their new defense recently filed a request at the Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States for the trial to be suspended.

Enter the president's impeachment

The land that the campesinos were occupying belonged to the government and had at one point been included in agrarian reform measures meant to more fairly distribute the country's land. Paraguay is the fourth largest soybean exporter, and in a country where 2% of the population owns 80% of the lands, the problem of land ownership inequality has only increased by the expanding soybean plantations.

But the government had arranged some sort of deal with a company owned by the family of Blas Riquelme, a prominent politician with the Colorado Party, that allowed it to operate on the Marinakue land.

At the time of the deadly police operation there, the Colorado Party was out of power for the first time in 61 years. They had been ousted by Fernando Lugo, a former Catholic bishop who became the first left-wing president elected in the country.

Following the massacre, Lugo was impeached. His supporters say his impeachment was orchestrated by the country’s elite to stop agrarian reform.

The impeachment process was considered a coup d’état by other Latin American governments, since Lugo had no time to prepare his defense. And in less than a year, the Colorado Party was back in the presidency with Horacio Cartes. Curuguaty wasn’t even an issue during elections.

‘This was not a coincidence’

In 2013, Al Jazeera released a documentary on the subject, calling it “Paraguay’s Forgotten Coup“. Generally speaking, however, international media have given scant coverage to the case.

Two citizen-driven campaigns, “¿Que pasó en Curuguaty?” (What happened in Curuguaty?) and “Somos Todos Observadores” (We Are All Observers), have been trying to call the world's attention to the prosecution of the campesinos and the violations they say have been committed against the landless.

Last week, the trial resumed. Global Voices talked to the organizers behind Somos Observadores to understand what is happening now.

Global Voices (GV): What happened in Curuguaty on June 15, 2012?

El 15 de junio de 2012 hubo un operativo policial en una ocupación de campesinos sin tierra en el lugar llamado Marinakue. Las tierras correspondían a una fracción en disputa judicial entre el Estado paraguayo y una empresa llamada Campos Morombi. Este operativo se realizó por una orden de allanamiento emitida por la fiscalía. El grupo de campesinos reclamaba esas tierras para la reforma agraria, para lo cual debían haber sido destinadas de no haber sido por la apropiación ilegal realizada por la mencionada empresa. Los campesinos estaban en número aproximado de 60 personas y los policías eran más de 300. Al ingresar la policía al lugar se produjeron varios tiros iniciales, cuya proveniencia hasta ahora no fue identificada. Se desató una balacera, y terminaron muertos un total de 11 campesinos y 6 policías.

Somos Observadores (SO): On June 15, 2012, there was a police operation against a group of landless campesinos occupying a place called Marinakue. The lands belonged to a territory in legal dispute between the Paraguayan state and a company called Campos Morombi. This operation took place following a prosecution’s squatting order. The campesinos group reclaimed this land for agrarian reform, to which it should have been destined, instead of allowing the company’s illegal appropriation. The campesinos were about 60 people, while the police had 300 men. When police forces entered the place, a series of shots were fired, we still don’t know the origin of them. After the gunfight, 11 campesinos and six police officers were dead.

Weapons found with campesinos after the events in Marina Kue | Photo: Somos Observadores/Facebook

Weapons found with campesinos after the events in Marina Kue. Photo: Somos Observadores/Facebook

GV: What are the main grievances in the massacre’s legal process?

SO:

  1. La fiscalía nunca investigó cómo fue que se inició la masacre. Inmediatamente divulgó la versión de que los campesinos iniciaron el tiroteo, lo que ha sido negado por campesinos y por testigos. Hasta ahora nadie puede afirmar quiénes realizaron los primeros tiros.
  2. Hay elementos de prueba que no fueron incluidos en el proceso y que servirían para acercarse a la verdad (por ejemplo, casquillos de armas largas, mientras que los campesinos sólo portaban escopetas, de las cuales ninguna fue disparada, salvo una que fue denunciada como robada luego del suceso y que se incorporó como prueba de manera extemporánea).
  3. La fiscalía imputó a más de 60 campesinas/os a partir de un listado de aspirantes a obtener tierras, anotado en cuaderno, a lápiz, elemento de supuesta prueba que luego se perdió, por lo que no figura en el proceso.
  4. La fiscalía formuló acusación y pidió juicio para 14 campesinas y campesinos (2 de ellos adolecentes cuando la masacre), bajo las figuras de homicidio doloso en grado de tentativa, invasión de inmueble ajeno y asociación criminal. Afirma que acusa “en grado de tentativa” porque no tiene la certeza de quiénes dispararon. ¿Cómo es posible que pida la condena si ni siquiera puede afirmar que los acusados dispararon? Los acusan de invasión de inmueble ajeno, pero las tierras donde ocurrió la masacre son del Estado paraguayo. Los acusan de asociación criminal, por organizarse para luchar por un pedazo de tierra.
  5. La fiscalía no investigó la muerte de ninguno de los campesinos y formuló una acusación genérica e infundada de responsabilidad de los campesinos por la muerte de los policías. Hay testimonios y evidencias de que algunos de los campesinos fueron ejecutados, estando ya antes heridos o cuando intentaban esconderse. No se indagaron estos casos.
  6. Se mantiene a los campesinos acusados en prisión domiciliaria por ya casi 4 años. Obtuvieron el arresto domiciliario luego de tres huelgas de hambre límite que llevaron a lo largo del proceso.
  7. El fiscal que actuó durante gran parte del proceso, Jalil Rachid (hoy viceministro del Interior), tiene lazos estrechos con la familia de Blas N. Riquelme (ya fallecido, fue dirigente colorado y senador). A pesar de eso nunca se aceptaron las recusaciones, ni las que se realizaron contra otros agentes judiciales cuya imparcialidad estaba en duda.

SO:
1. The prosecution has never investigated how the massacre began. Instead, they immediately publicized the version that said the campesinos started the shooting — a fact that has been denied by both the campesinos and witnesses. So far, no one has been able to prove who fired the first shots.
2. There is evidence that has not been included in the process and that could help to get to the truth (for instance, spent bullet casings from long guns allegedly found at the site, while farmers were only carrying shotguns from which no shot was fired, except for one that was later declared as stolen right after the events, and was annexed as evidence later).
3. The prosecution went after more than 60 landless farmers from a list of people, written in a notebook with pencil, who were aspiring to get lands; alleged evidence that got lost and, therefore, is not included in the process.
4. The prosecution formulated the accusation and then asked for the trial of 14 campesinos — two of them were teenagers when the massacre took place — under the charges of attempted homicide, invasion of private property and criminal association. How can you possibly ask for a conviction if you are not sure that the defendants shot? They are accused of invasion of private property, but the lands where the massacre took place belonged to the Paraguayan state. They charged them with criminal association for fighting for a piece of land.
5. The prosecution didn’t investigate the killings of any of the campesinos, and formulated a generic and unfunded accusation on how the farmers were responsible for killing the police officers. There are witnesses and evidence that some of the campesinos were executed, when they were already injured or were trying to hide. These cases were never questioned.
6. The landless farmers charged have been kept under house arrest for almost four years. Throughout the process, they have endured three hunger strikes.
7. The prosecutor, Jalil Rachid (today, vice-minister of interior), who has been in charge during most of the process, has close ties with Blas Riquelme’s family. In spite of this, the complaints against him were never pursued, nor the ones against other legal agents whose impartiality was in doubt.

One of the Court sessions on Curuguaty case, last April | Photo: Que paso en Curuguaty/Facebook

One of the court sessions on Curuguaty case, on April, 2016. Photo: Qué pasó en Curuguaty/Facebook

GV: What is the official version presented in court regarding the campesinos’ and police officers’ deaths? Why was no one ever indicted for the 11 campesinos’ deaths?

SO: La fiscalía alega que los campesinos prepararon una emboscada para atacar a los policías y que iniciaron el tiroteo. Que las mujeres estaban presentes con sus hijos para “dar un ambiente de confianza” y que los policías entraran desprevenidos a las tierras.

No fue procesada ninguna persona por la muerte de los campesinos por parcialidad manifiesta de la fiscalía de los agentes del poder judicial que han actuado en el proceso (tribunal de garantías, tribunal de sentencia, tribunales de apelación y hasta la misma Corte Suprema de Justicia).

SO: The prosecution claims that the campesinos ambushed police officers and then started the shooting. They claim women were there with their children to give the place an “impression of safety” and that police officers entered the land unprepared.
No one was ever charged for the campesinos’ deaths because the prosecution and legal agents acting in the process were biased (Court of Guarantees, Court of Sentences, Court of Appeals and even the Supreme Court).

GV: There is a movement in Latin America alleging that the campesinos’ sentences are already decided. What do you think of that?

SO: Tenemos la certeza de que este es un caso afectado por lo que se llama “sentencia previa”, y que el juicio es apenas una farsa para ratificarla.

SO: We are sure that this is a case affected by what we call “prior sentence”, and that the trial is just a way to ratify it.

GV: The case is complicated by the political events that followed it — Fernando Lugo’s impeachment, the fact that Marinakue was claimed by Colorado Party member Blas Riquelme, the party's return to power less than a year after the impeachment. How can we interpret them from an outsider's perspective?

SO: La masacre de Curuguaty puede ser vista como un suceso desatado para dar elementos al juicio y golpe parlamentario al gobierno de Fernando Lugo. Se precisaba un elemento de shock para impedir reaccionar a la sociedad. Lo más lógico es suponer que no fue una casualidad, sino un suceso preparado de manera minuciosa.

SO: The Curuguaty massacre can be seen as an event orchestrated to feed the trial and the parliamentary coup against Fernando Lugo’s government. They needed a shocking element to prevent a pushback from society. The most logical thing here is to understand this was not a coincidence, but a success prepared in a meticulous way.

A mass in Marinakue remembers the six years of Curuguaty massacre in 2015 | Photo: Que Paso en Curuguaty/Facebook

A mass in Marinakue remembers the two-year anniversary of the Curuguaty massacre in 2014. Photo: Qué Pasó en Curuguaty/Facebook

GV: What happened in Curuguaty also speaks to the reality of landless farmers (campesinos) and land owners in Paraguay. Can you explain this topic a bit more?

SO: El caso Curuguaty muestra de manera evidente la situación de la tierra y el campesinado en Paraguay:

  • Tierras mal habidas, usurpadas por personas con poder adquirido durante la dictadura los periodos de gobierno colorados posteriores, constituyendo grandes latifundios.
  • Campesinos expulsados de sus tierras por el avance del agronegocio (la soja) y por los negocios ilícitos en grandes extensiones del territorio.
  • Campesinos sin tierras en lucha por la reforma agraria y por tierras para sobrevivir.
  • Un Estado al servicio de los sectores con poder y en contra de las luchas populares.

SO: The Curuguaty case very clearly shows the situation of land and peasantry in Paraguay:

  • Ill-gotten lands, usurped by people who acquired their power during the dictatorship of previous Colorado Party governments, constituting large landholdings.
  • Campesinos expelled from their lands because of the agribusiness advance (soybean production) and for illegal businesses in many parts of the territory.
  • Landless campesinos fighting for agrarian reform and lands to provide for themselves.
  • A state working for those who hold power and against popular demands.

GV: This month the campesinos’ trial once again got underway. Where do things stand now? What can we expect from the trial?

SO: De los 14 acusados: Un adolescente fue condenado pero con suspensión de condena (es un mecanismo usado para una persona acusada que admite culpabilidad; en este caso, se supone que la admisión de culpabilidad fue inducida indebidamente). Una acusada adolescente en el momento de la masacre aún espera el inicio del juicio, que se le debe realizar bajo las normas del derecho aplicables a la niñez y adolescencia. Ella está en libertad condicional. Para uno de los campesinos adultos se separó la causa y debe ser juzgado en otro juicio, debido a que su acusación era por complicidad, a diferencia de los demás.

Así que 11 campesinos están ahora en el juicio. De ellos 10 guardan arresto domiciliario en Asunción, en tanto se desarrolla el juicio (están en un albergue y se mantienen gracias a la solidaridad ciudadana, pues el Estado no provee para sus necesidades). Un campesino (Rubén Villalba) está preso en la cárcel de Tacumbú (Asunción) mientras se desarrolla el juicio, debido a que en medio del proceso por Curuguaty le “resucitaron” otra acusación anterior por otro caso relacionado con demandas de tierras, y lo condenaron de manera “exprés” a siete años de prisión.

SO: Of 14 defendants, a teenager was found guilty, but his conviction was suspended (a legal mechanism used when a person admits guilt; in this case, it is assumed that the admission of guilt was unduly coerced). Another defendant, who was a teenager when the massacre took place, is still awaiting trial and shall be judged as a minor; she is on parole. Another defendant had his trial separated from the others’ because he was charged as an accomplice.
So, 11 campesinos are now on trial. Ten of them are under house arrest in Asunción while the trial happens (they’re in a safe house and living on the solidarity of their fellow countrymen and women because the state does not provide for their basic needs). One of the campesinos, Rubén Villalba, will be tried while imprisoned in Tacumbú penitentiary (also in Asunción) because in the middle of the Curuguaty’s prosecution, another charge against him — also involving a land dispute — resurfaced and he was quickly convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Black flags mark three years and seven months since the massacre, in January, and protest Marinakue is not given back to the State yet

Black flags mark three years and seven months since the massacre (in January) and protest. Photo: Qué pasó en Curuguaty/Facebook

GV: How have campaigns such as Somos Observadores and Qué Pasó en Curuguaty been creating awareness of the case?

SO: Somos iniciativas ciudadanas independientes, constituidas por activistas sociales y organizaciones, que desde el inicio del caso hemos dado a conocer por diversos medios las irregularidades del proceso y hecho difusión sobre el caso Curuguaty. Ahora hay una campaña denominada “Absolución YA”, que busca la adhesión ciudadana nacional e internacional a la causa por la justicia del caso Curuguaty.

En general y en conjunto, hemos logrado poner en duda la versión oficial sobre lo que pasó en Curuguaty y llamar la atención sobre las irregularidades y violaciones de derechos humanos en el caso. Damos información y según las posibilidades de cada quien se organizan acciones de solidaridad con los campesinos presos y procesados.

A pesar de que en Paraguay ya se sabe que en Curuguaty NO pasó lo que dice la versión oficial, el cinismo y gran poder de los actores judiciales y estatales logra que hasta ahora esté en duda que se obtenga justicia y se investigue lo que de verdad pasó en Curuguaty.

SO: We’re independent citizen initiatives, created by social activists and organizations, that since the beginning of this case have been working though several means to show the irregularities in the legal process and publicize the Curuguaty case.
Now, there is another campaign called “Absolución Ya” (Absolution Now) that seeks national and international support in the quest for justice in the Curuguaty case. In general and together, we have managed to cast doubt on the official version of what happened and bring attention to the irregularities and the human rights violations in the case. We have provided information, and when we can we organize solidarity actions with the campesinos who have been arrested and prosecuted.
Even if in Paraguay people already know that Curuguaty DID NOT happen as stated in the official version, cynicism as well as the great power of the state and legal bodies still make us doubt that there will ever be justice or that we will ever know for sure what really happened in Curuguaty.

  • Steve Hendrix

    A “juicio politico” is how Lugo was removed from office. It is not so much an impeachment as a vote of no confidence by the Congress. Only then governments in Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela labeled it as a coup at that time. Your article also mistakenly says the land was being considered for agrarian reform – that was not on Lugo”s agenda. Lugo never did agrarian reform anywhere – a disappointment to many of his followers. When Lugo was removed, the Colorado party did not come to office, but rather the Liberal Party under Federico Franco. The facts are important.

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