From April 17th to 22nd, an SOAW (School of the Americas Watch) delegation from the United States visited Paraguay, joining with human rights organizations of the country, in order to better understand the situation there on the ground.
The delegation visited the Paraguayan campesinos arrested in the case of the Curuguaty massacre, who are now jailed in the nearby town of Coronel Oviedo. The delegation was accompanied by Professor Martin Almada, well known as the 2004 Right Living Award recipient (Alternative Peace Prize). The delegation and Dr. Almada, with Vidal Acevedo of SERPAJ-Paraguay, also travelled to the district of Curuguaty to visit the actual site of the June 15th 2012 massacre, which occurred in the small hamlet of Marina Cue, and to Britez Cue, where some of the campesinos are currently under house arrest. A site visit was also made to Yvyry Pyty where surviving family members are located.
Formal complaints of human rights abuses have been filed with several international human rights organizations; those complaints include extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, torture, and biased investigations within the prosecutor’s office.
Eleven campesinos and six police officers died during an attempt to evict landless campesinos, which ended in a hail of bullets in Marina Cue, 250 kilometers northeast of Asuncion. The 45 campesinos, including women and children, were surrounded by heavily armed district police, a SWAT team and a separate special forces group, plus mounted police, a helicopter with snipers, and by reported paramilitary forces – adding up to over 300 armed officers. The police were accompanied by at least three ambulances. The campesinos had occupied the lands that they thought were state lands and thus available for agrarian reform, alleging that these lands had been inappropriately obtained and occupied from the state by Blas Riquelme, a businessman and former Senator (now deceased).
The massacre triggered the impeachment of then-president Fernando Lugo on June 22nd, one week later. The impeachment has been widely questioned by the international community for blatant disregard of due process.
Recently, the International Human Rights Commission of the United Nations issued a report on Paraguay, expressing its profound concern about the Curuguaty case. “The information received shows a lack of impartiality in the investigatory process.” The UN also expressed specific concerns about the recent homicides of Vidal Vega, a campesino leader and the central witness in the case, and of Benjamin Lezcano, general secretary of a local campesino group’s steering committee.
After the massacre, the prosecutor’s office chose to investigate only the campesinos. There are 14 campesino men accused of criminal association, property invasion, and aggravated homicide. They were also accused of interfering with the processing of the case. The official investigation is based on an unidentified witness who maintains that the campesinos ambushed the police. The jailed campesinos have resorted to hunger strikes in order to demand justice and denounce judicial irregularities.
The SOA Watch delegation to Paraguay also monitored the national elections, which took place on Sunday April 21st, in which Colorado party candidate Horacio Cartes emerged the winner. These elections took place 10 months after the 2 hour impeachment process (“express coup”) of ex-President Fernando Lugo.
CONSIDERATIONS AND CONCERNS OF THE DELEGATION
After gathering information and meeting with local human rights organizations, victims, prisoners, and their families, the SOA Watch delegation members have concluded the following:
1. The lack of assistance on the part of the state for the family members and victims of the Curuguaty massacre concerns us. In the case of Juana Evangalista Martinez, widow of victim Arnaldo Ruiz, she is left with 6 children between the ages of six and twelve, with little possibility of supporting them adequately. She sporadically takes in her neighbor’s laundry, and depends on the solidarity of certain organizations for food and lodging.
Another concerning case is that of Luis Olmedo, his wife Dolores Lopez, and his sister Fanny Olmedo, who all reside with his mother, two small girls, and the couple’s recently born son. They are held under preventative house arrest and cannot step off the small lot the house is on even to go to the local store, let alone leave to go find work. They also depend on the assistance of solidarity organizations to survive. Fanny Olmedo is nearing the end of her pregnancy. Dolores Lopez gave birth on the 15th of April. Both women were imprisoned during their pregnancies, in flagrant violation of the Paraguayan civil code, only recently liberated after the outcry of organizations associated with the case and the pressure of the prisoners’ own 59 day hunger strike. The state has the specific obligation to assist them. We ask for governmental reparations so that they can cover their basic necessities.
2. The situation of those in jail because of the Curuguaty case is also worrisome. People cannot be deprived of their liberty for generic accusations, without conclusive evidence nor certainty of the individual identity of the presumed executors. We consider it to be a grave assault on their human rights to maintain these people without proof, and in many cases completely arbitrarily. As an example we cite the case of Felipe Benitez, who was not even an occupant of Marina Cue. He had gone to the camp to visit his 3 nephews, to go fishing with them and stay with them the night prior to the tragedy. Benitez, as well as Adalberto Castro and Arnaldo Quintana, who are currently in the Penitentiary of Coronel Oviedo, deny any involvement or participation in any confrontation, testify to having been tortured (two of these attest to having been shot) by police upon being arrested – including having almost suffered arbitrary execution by their captors. Diverse campesino testimonies, as well as parallel investigations to that of the prosecutor’s office, have all denounced the summary execution of up to seven of the wounded campesinos.
Public declarations about our concerns were made to the local authorities of Curuguaty. In the local police station, speaking to the chief of the station and with other officers present, we emphasized that the presumption of innocence has not being respected for these campesinos. We relayed our observations that there seemed to be a manifest partiality in the police investigation.
As an international delegation we also call on the government, upon the judicial authorities involved in the case, to either display some concrete evidence in the Curuguaty case or to give the prisoners their liberty.
3. We consider that the principle trigger for the tragedy of Curuguaty was the violation of the fundamental right to the distribution and possession of lands in an equitable manner, guaranteed under the Agrarian Reformation Act and as stipulated in article 114 of the Paraguayan Constitution. Also contributory are the unjust social conditions under which Paraguayan campesinos live. We note the statistic that 80% of cultivatable lands in Paraguay are in the hands of 2% of the landowners, while some 300,000 workers have no land of their own.
We cite again the case of Juana Evangalista Martinez, who lives on a small plot of borrowed land that she is unable to even cultivate. That her husband was landless led him to make the decision to join the occupants of Marina Cue, 8 days prior to the unexpected massacre “because he wanted to feed his family”, according to his widow in words to us.
Again we cite the case of Luis Olmedo, who lives on a small plot, a site to which his family does not have title nor do they even have the space to have a garden.
4. We consider that the tragedy of Curuguaty, starting from the judicial negotiations that made it possible, has grave irregularities that demonstrate the instumentalization of the State by de facto and mafiosa-like powers. According to what was declared just days ago by the Minster of the Supreme Court of Paraguay, the lands of Marina Cue are not the property of the Riquelme family. They were donated by the Industria Paraguaya to the State of Paraguay, who never changed the title to the lands. That is to say, neither the State nor the Riquelme family are in possession of title to the property. In this manner, the police incursion, disguised as an eviction, to eject the occupants, is illegal under any lights. This leaves one of the principal charges against the campesinos, the invasion of private property, without basis.
An impartial investigation should be aimed at the sectors of power that manipulated the justice system for their own benefit, among them the owner who ordered the eviction and the judge who gave the order. It is highly suspicious that the principal instigator of the illegal eviction, Blas N. Riquelme, since deceased, is of the same political party that afterwards used the tragedy to start the impeachment proceedings against President Fernando Lugo. The political sectors that benefitted from the tragedy should also be a subject of the investigation, since they negotiated through the Paraguayan congress to evict the campesinos from Marina Cue, thus benefitting Riquelme.
The political ties of the prosecutor, Jalil Rachid, friend of the Riquelme family and also son of the Colorado party politician Bader Rachid (also friend of the deceased Blas Riquelme), discredits him as a neutral figure to investigate this case.
At this moment, the lands in question have been prepared for cultivation of soy, using Brazilian workers. It is highly probably that transgenic Monsanto soy seeds, widely used in eastern Paraguay, will be planted. The campesinos are not allowed on the fields.
We lament that such base interests produced the loss of 17 human lives. The events of June 15, 2012 show the existence of a judicial and political system predominantly used for the defense of the elites, and at the same time dedicated to the repression and judgment of vulnerable sectors of the Paraguayan people who are trying to reclaim their rights, and who are a majority.
The mobilization of 300 policemen in a warlike show, utilizing heavy arms, including a helicopter, troops on horseback, SWAT teams, and ambulances (used to remove the dead policemen only), in order to evict 45 destitute and landless campesinos, shows the power of the sectors who manipulate the justice system for their private interests.
We find unsustainable the prosecutor’s thesis that the campesinos organized an ambush of the police. Their precarious situation, including the presence of women and children at the encampment, make highly unlikely the version that a battle scene was premeditated by the campesinos.
The SOA Watch delegation also turned its attention to the national elections, which took place on Sunday April 21st.
We recognize the publicly calm atmosphere in which the voting took place. Nevertheless, we feel the need to register our concerns about the return to power of a political sector that implemented 35 years of dictatorship (1954 to 1989), imposing a socio-political environment of human rights violations, persecutions, torture, exile, disappearances in multiple sectors of the population, and crimes against humanity.
In the post-dictatorship “transition to democracy” years of 1989 to 2008, the socio-political model in force — of pervasive patronage and widespread corruption — violated the basic rights of the most vulnerable sectors of the Paraguayan population. That model had been continued from the dictatorship years, through the transition to democracy period. Acts of repression continued against social organizations, resulting in the deaths of more than 100 campesino leaders in the struggle for land reform in recent years. At this time, 2% of the population owns 80% of the arable land – resulting in a growing number of landless campesino families.
We are taken aback by the recycling of commonly used and symbolic slogans from the dictatorship years, phrases revived by president-elect Horacio Cartes during the election campaign and during his party’s victory celebration. Additionally, we took note of his deprecatory remarks concerning people of different sexual orientations, his remarks about labor unions, and about his intentions to install his party in power “para siempre”. These words could denote totalitarian aspirations.
Accusations about Cartes’ connections with drug trafficking, contraband, and money laundering leave doubt as to whether he truly wants to change the political and economic model utilized by his Colorado party for 60 years.
We express our hopes and desire that Paraguay not return to the dark years of massive human rights violations.
In respect to the conduction of the elections, we note the irregularity of the announcement by the Electoral Justice minister Juan Manual Morales, who during mid-morning hours on the day of the elections indicated his opinion on who was going to win, in flagrant violation of the electoral code. This would discourage some sectors from voting and favored the Colorado party.
The SOA Watch delegation had interaction and communications with Paraguayans at five levels: with the families and victims of Curuguaty; with the police in the Curuguaty region; with Paraguayan civic organizations such as SERPAJ, Fundacion Celestina Perez, CODEHUPY, CLADEM, CONEMURI, MOC, Decidamos; with Paraguayan media such as E’a and Ultima Hora; and with international human rights organization United Nations Committee on Human Rights.
- Material solidarity with victims and victim’s families.
- Press coverage through TV, radio, print, and digital media.
- Strengthened ties with several important human and civil rights organizations, for the defense of those rights in Paraguay.
- Reports and final observations by delegation members were received at international and media levels (Spanish and English).
- Reports from UN and from Decidamos and from CODEHUPY given to each member of delegation, with plea to distribute and publicize within the United States.
- Received requests by several organizations to return at key points in the future, for further human rights defense collaboration.
- Send our report, via UN channels, to Paraguayan civil authorities who will assume office with the next few months, hoping to take advantage of the perceived need to “put the best foot forward.”
- Investigate opportunities to make the request that Paraguay cease to send soldiers and instructors to the SOA/WHINSEC. Within these discussions, we gave amplified knowledge about the SOA Watch mission within Paraguay.
ABOUT SOA WATCH
SOA Watch was founded in 1990 by Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeois. It is an organization of non-violent activists concerned about human rights, which monitors School of the Americas, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. The institution has for years trained Latin American soldiers and police forces, including scores linked to human rights abuses, earning it the nickname “School of the Assassins” and also “The School of Coups”. It was the training center for many of the most well-known torturers and repressors of the Latin America dictatorships. The non-violent activists monitor the work of graduates and instructors, and also campaign to close the SOA. SOA Watch has offices in Washington DC, Venezuela, and Chile.
From School of the Americas Watch/EEUU:
Martin Almada (Fundacion Celestina Perez de Almada)
Vidal Acevedo (SERPAJ-Paraguay)