Eleven Paraguayan campesinos were sentenced to a total of 120 years on Monday for their role in the 2012 massacre of 17 people in Curuguaty during a violent standoff between landless farmers and police. The incident was the pretext for right-wing Paraguayan legislators' parliamentary coup that ousted the populist President Fernando Lugo.
The case has deepened political tensions in Paraguay, with many describing the campesinos as political prisoners, and the trial in which they were convicted as farcical. Campesinos maintain that their movement was infiltrated by undercover police officers who are responsible for the deaths of six police officers and 11 campesinos during violent clashes that ensued when more than 300 riot police forcefully evicted some 60 peasants from the Marina Kue they had occupied in May of 2012.
The suspects, including two minors at the time and relatives of campesinos killed in the massacre, were convicted of murder, invasion of property and other charges, and face from 4 to 30 years in prison. According to the Argentine news publication Notas, prosecutors have only investigated the death of the police officers. None of the riot police officers were put on trial for their actions.
Four years later, relatives and supporters of the eleven convicted campesinos demand that the so-called political prisoners be acquitted of all charges. Five women, including mothers of the accused, have chained themselves to a gate outside the courthouse for nearly a week to protest the impending sentence and demand a thorough investigation into what happened in Marina Kue.
The women’s sit-in is the latest in a series of demonstrations by relatives, campesino organizations, and members of the Catholic Church to reach a just outcome in the case.
“The Attorney General is only there to deliver justice to those who pay and to condemn campesinos,” Mariano Castro, father of two of the prisoners facing jail time for the massacre, said during a rally last week. “It’s all too clear for us, the campesinos, how this institution is run ... it’s used politically.”
“That’s why we all have to wake up and organize ourselves and take these institutions back from those who warm the seats and receive orders from above,” Castro continued amid chants from the crowd calling for President Horacio Cartes to resign.
Paraguay’s Parliamentary Coup and Conservative Revival
Cartes, from the right-wing Colorado Party of former dictator Alfredo Stroessner, has championed neoliberal policies and seen high disapproval ratings since coming into office in 2013 in the wake of the 2012 parliamentary coup against Fernando Lugo.
As the first progressive head of state after over 60 years of conservative rule, Lugo marked a break with the status quo with promises to roll out new social programs and develop long-neglected agrarian reform and tackle systemic corruption, two challenges that remain central political issues in the country.
But Paraguay’s place in South America’s socialist Pink Tide was cut short with Lugo’s ouster, and right-wing manipulation of the Curuguaty massacre played a key role in the conservative rollback of progressive governments in Latin America.
Months before the massacre, campesinos launched the Marina Kue land occupation to reclaim farmland allegedly illegally privatized during the three decade-long Stroessner dictatorship. After a year-long trial into the case that critics have slammed as a farce, the exact details of the eviction remain unclear. What remains unquestionable is that violence ensued as security forces exercised military-like force to remove the occupation.
And while the investigation into the massacre stalled, the event was quickly exploited by the country’s right-wing opposition to wage an expedited and ill-footed impeachment process against Lugo, holding him responsible for the tragedy.
New Right-Wing Offensive Against South America’s Pink Tide
Lugo’s ouster, widely condemned as a parliamentary coup across the region, marked one the most significant moves in a new era of right-wing maneuvering to delegitimize, destabilize, and remove left-wing governments that have swept power across South America in the wake of the election of late President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela over 15 years ago.
Such right-wing campaigns, epitomized in the recent parliamentary coup against suspended President Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, have done away with the strong-arm coups of the past in favor of strategies disguised in the rhetoric of institutionality and democracy.
As both Paraguay and Brazil have demonstrated, however, the true motives behind such questionable maneuvers is a right-wing power grab to reinstate the reign of the political and economic elite — including agricultural land grabs — after moves to redistribute wealth and tackle systemic problems with new social programs.
Legacies of Systemic Inequaity Continue
The land conflict at Marina Kue and the ensuing parliamentary coup against Lugo epitomize the lasting political challenges as Paraguay struggles to ensure stability and democracy.
The country continues to have one of the most unequal distributions of land in the region, which is significant given that almost half the population lives in rural areas and that more than a quarter of Paraguayans work in the agricultural sector, a huge economic driver. Even more people live off subsistence farming.
But vast swaths of the country are increasingly covered in soy monocultures, mostly Monsanto’s Roundup Ready variety, threatening small scale agriculture and local food security by fuelling displacement of rural populations and mostly producing for export. Upon being elected in 2013, Cartes’ government moved swiftly to implement pro-agribusiness policies.
Meanwhile, agrarian reform to address the country’s extremely unequal land distribution remains long been an unfulfilled demand of campesinos.
And while 11 campesinos will now face jail time for being behind a massacre — spurred by their repressed attempts at defending their land rights and manipulated as a fodder for a parliamentary coup — the land conflict in question at Marina Kue still has not been resolved in the Paraguayan courts four years later.