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Paraguayan farmers question probe into killings

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 5, 2012 at 4:31 pm •  Published: December 5, 2012

ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) — Lucia Aguero stood with the other farmers in the standoff. About 300 of them had occupied the rich politician's land that they insisted wasn't legally his. On the other side of the clearing were some 200 riot police. She watched as the two negotiators walked up to each other and began talking.

And then the shooting started.

The negotiators were both hit. The young woman threw herself to the ground, shielding a friend's 4-year-old boy beneath her as she felt a bullet's sting in her thigh. In the end, 17 were dead, including the men who were trying to resolve the six-week-old occupation.

Politicians opposed to President Fernando Lugo seized on the "Massacre of Curuguaty" on June 15 to vote the sandal-wearing leftist out of office for "mismanaging" the property dispute. Paraguayans' hopes that Lugo would make good on his promises of land reform died.

Six months after the shootout, there has been no official accounting of how a peaceful negotiation ended with a barrage of bullets that killed 11 farmers and six police officers. Farmers and their supporters say the official investigation is a one-sided effort to make an example of the farmers, so nobody will dare challenge the interests of powerful landowners ever again.

Grieving relatives suspect the dead farmworkers were wounded and then summarily executed by police after the firefight. In separate interviews, they described bullet wounds in three of the corpses that they said showed people were shot at close range in defensive positions.

Catalino Aguero, Lucia's father, lost his 24-year-old son, De los Santos, in the firefight.

"They gave me my son's decomposing body in a black plastic bag. He had bullet wounds in both feet, but a huge hole in his neck," Aguero said. "Witnesses of the tragedy told me my son begged for help, lying face down, because his wounds were painful, but a police officer came close and shot him."

His daughter Lucia, a 25-year-old mother of two, was arrested along with 11 other people, mostly farmers. She was taken to a hospital emergency room after she was wounded, but doctors were too busy with other victims to remove the bullet from her thigh.

"When I couldn't stand the pain any longer, I used a razor blade in jail to make a cut, and pulled out the .38-caliber bullet with my finger," she said

Aguero joined a hunger strike to protest being jailed without formal charges. She lasted 59 days, and nearly died before a judge said she and three others could return home under police custody until a hearing Dec. 17.

The former president, Lugo, has called the shootout a setup. His land redistribution efforts were threatening the economic interests of the country's most powerful businessmen, and they needed a scandal big enough to bring him down, he said.

"This government of coup-plotters has no interest or political will to seriously investigate and clear up the case. And the prosecutor's performance gives little credibility," Lugo declared last month.

Promises of land reform got Lugo elected, but he made no headway as president, with no available state land to redistribute or money to pay for expropriations. No major landowners wanted to sell, with soy prices reaching historic highs.

One leader of the new president's Authentic Radical Liberal Party, Deputy Elvis Balbuena, told the AP that Lugo has only himself to blame.

"He was entirely responsible for the Curuguaty case," the legislator said. "He has as his presidential legacy the deaths of 17 people. Lugo was commander of the security forces, he was a friend of the leaders of different groups of landless farm workers, and he . oversaw the office that administers the distribution or purchase of land."

Prosecutor Jalil Rachid has had six months to investigate and is expected to deliver his evidence to a judge Dec. 17. Police have made no comment, deferring to the prosecutor.

Despite complaints that he has ignored human rights violations by police, Rachid told The Associated Press that he's only building a case against the farm workers.

The suspects are "accused of murder, criminal conspiracy, invading private property and resisting authorities. We also have a list of 54 fugitives," Rachid said in a brief AP interview. "I'm only bringing forward these accusations."

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