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Accused of Murder and Desperate for Justice, Peasants on Hunger Strike in Paraguay

Five landless peasants, accused of taking part in the killing of eleven farmers and six policemen during a land eviction procedure in June 2012 in Paraguay, have gone on a hunger strike for more than thirty days in order to demand justice and freedom. The issues of land distribution and judiciary corruption come to the forefront in one of the most controversial conflicts that the South American nation has seen in recent years. 

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Peasants accused of the Curuguaty massacre on hunger strike. Photo credit: Articulación Curuguaty.

Campos Morombí, or Marina Kue as the field property is commonly known among villagers in the city of Curuguaty, was the scene of a deadly clash between farmers and police officers. The massacre later served as a pretext to oust democratically elected President Fernando Lugo from office via an impeachment marred by a lack of due process and unsubstantiated claims.

The peasants asserted that the property belongs to the state and that Alfredo Stroessner, Paraguay‘s former dictator, had illegally passed it to Mr. Blas Riquelme. A former senator from the Colorado Party, powerful businessman and one of the dictator‘s close friends, Riquelme had claimed the land was his.

Cases like this are common in Paraguay, one of the most unequal countries in South America, which has more than 80% of the land in the hands of less than 2% of the population according to UN development reports [es]. 

After three hundred riot police entered Marina Kué to evict fifty landless peasants that had occupied the fields, including women and children, a fire shooting ensued resulting in the killing of both policemen and farmers. Although it was not clear where the shots began or who started them, the state prosecutor was quick to press charges against eleven peasants.

For more than a year and a half now, the peasants have been involved in a long legal battle. The peasants are accused of murder, criminal association and illegal invasion of private property, but no hard evidence that prove the accusations of the state prosecutor have yet emerged. According to activists and human rights organizations, the legal case is really a political one – a façade to cover up an orchestrated move to impeach Lugo and criminalize demands for land reform.

Some of the accused peasants are under house arrest, while Adalberto Castro, Arnaldo Quintana, Felipe Benítez, Néstor Castro and Rubén Villalba have been locked up in a small cell in the Tacumbú prison, from where they endure the hunger strike. Journalist Santi Carneri took some photos of them for his blog Fotoreportajeando:

Peasants jailed for massacre in Paraguay have been on hunger strike for one month

To add to the ambiguities of the case, the judiciary investigation has focused solely on the murder of the officers, while the killing of peasants, denunciations of torture, summary executions and other human rights violations that civilians suffered have passed unnoticed.

Furthermore, the question of whom the land belongs to remains unanswered. The defendants hold that here lies the most important issue at stake.

The hunger strike has reignited public outrage over the mishandling of the case. Alfredo Boccia, a well-known opinion writer for newspaper Ultima Hora, posted on his latest blog post:

El error de los huelguistas es el de ser paraguayos.Si hubieran sido de la oposición venezolana tendrían mejor prensa, parlamentarios que se rasgaran las vestiduras y políticos de todos los colores haciendo fila para visitarlos.

The strikers‘ mistake is that they are Paraguayans. Had they been part of the Venezuelan opposition they would get better press coverage, Congressmen crying foul and politicians of all ideologies standing in line to visit them. 

Precisely, in another twist of events that has sparked criticism, former president and now-turned senator Fernando Lugo and his colleagues from the political coalition Frente Guasu denounced that they were unable to see the hunger strikers due to “superior orders“.

Just like during the prime of the Stroesner dictatorship, senators from Frente Guasu were not allowed to enter the Tacumbu jail, due to a “superior order”

President Horacio Cartes should explain why senators from Frente Guasu were kept from visiting hunger strikers from Curuguaty case

In a letter [es] of solidarity and support, Argentinian Nobel Peace Prize Adolfo Pérez Esquivel criticized the unfair treatment that the peasants are receiving from the legal authorities:

Esta falta de humanidad y respeto a los derechos humanos de las personas,no hacen más que corroborar una política de evitar el esclarecimiento de lo sucedido realmente en el Caso Curuguaty

The lack of humanity and respect for human rights only serves to corroborate that there is a policy which will not allow any further clarification over what truly happened in Curuguaty.

As the hunger strike continues, the question “what happened in Curuguaty?“ will resonate ever stronger. The answer to that question will determine not only the fate of the accused peasants, but also the confidence of Paraguayans in their country's justice system and their hope for equitable development.

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