May 20, 2013
Paraguay: at least 17 killed in land war
ASUNCIÓN — Paraguay deployed its army yesterday to resolve a violent land dispute in a remote northern forest reserve, where 17 people have been killed in gunbattles between police and landless farmers.
Police were trying to evict about 150 farmers from the reserve, which is part of a huge estate owned by a Colorado Party politician opposed to leftist President Fernando Lugo. Among the seven officers killed was the brother of Lugo’s chief of military security.
The peasants shot at the officers when they arrived to evict them from a privately owned farm in the Canindeuyú district and they returned fire, officials said. Ten farmers were also killed, and 27 other officers were injured as police kept up the firefights in the forest, some 240 km north of the capital Asunción.
Lugo suspended his agenda and called a Cabinet meeting. He said the army has his support to put an end to the violence and ruled out any connections to the Paraguayan People’s Army, a small leftist guerrilla group that has attacked rural police posts in the northern part of the country.
“I extend my sorrow and repudiation of the actions that led to the killing of these people,” Lugo told reporters. It is one of the most violent land disputes in decades in the usually peaceful South American nation. An official said as many as 80 people had been injured in the melee, some of them seriously.
The 2,000-hectare reserve is part of a vast ranch owned by Blas Riquelme, a politician opposed to leftist President Fernando Lugo.
“Twenty years ago we declared this a forest reserve but farmers have wanted to occupy it since last year,” said José Riquelme, the owner’s son.
Activists for poor farmers, however, say Riquelme acquired the land from the state decades ago and that it should have been put it to use for land reform. Paraguay is the world’s fourth-largest supplier of soybeans and land disputes have risen in recent years as farmers seek more land to grow the country’s top export earner.
Peasant rights group say the land was distributed during the 35-year dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, when allies of his regime were rewarded with vast tracts of prime farmland in the landlocked nation of six million people.
Lugo won election in 2008 in part on a promise of agrarian reform that would benefit 87,000 Paraguayan farm families, though as he nears the end of his term he has yet to deliver and the problems are more vexing than ever.
“Lugo can’t fix a grave social problem: the recovery of state lands seized decades ago by people like Riquelme who we not subject to the land reform,” said José Rodríguez, an adviser for the landless rights groups.
“We’re living a serious situation and it will just worsen because the poor need a piece of land,” Rodríguez said. “Our people resisting the police attack only have .22-caliber rifles; they don’t have army training or weapons to wage a war.”
“Lugo cannot solve a serious social problem: how to reclaim state-owned lands sold years ago to people in no way connected to the agrarian reform, such as Riquelme. We are facing a serious situation, which will only get worse because poor people need a piece of land,” Rodríguez said.
After the 8-hour violent confrontation, the farmers fled to hide inside the forest and police forces took control of the reserve, Deputy Minister of Security Gregorio Almada of the Ministry of Interior told reporters. Curuguaty chief of police investigations Walter Gómez told Cardinal de Asunción radio station that “gunbattling continues inside the forest because the squatters refuse to surrender and so we have to keep on fighting until we get the situation under control.”
José Tomás Benítez, leader of Paraguay’s Agrarian Movement, told reporters that the farmer’s action “is their way of fighting for a land which is necessary to their survival.” “I do not know how the shooting started,” Benítez told national radio Nacional.