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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
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Most of the suspects were among the wounded, while the fugitives' names came from a list of people who hoped to claim a plot of land through the occupation.

The farmers say the prosecutor should be investigating police, too.

Martina Paredes said her brother's body had one bullet wound in the leg and another in the head. "For me, they shot him from above," she said, execution style.

When the non-governmental Human Rights Coordinator complained to the prosecutor's office, it was told that "Paraguayan law doesn't penalize summary executions, so the prosecutor's office can't investigate a complaint about an act that's unpunishable," said the group's lawyer, Jimena Lopez.

Paredes said victims' families want to file an official complaint against the national police, but their lawyer's priority is to defend the 12 suspects — who face 18 to 25 years in prison if convicted.

Ballistics tests would presumably indicate whether the negotiators were felled by the kind of automatic weapons that police carried, or by one of the handful of low-caliber hunting rifles recovered from peasants. But Rachid has not revealed what evidence he's gathered.

Advocates for the farmworkers say he's biased because his father was close friends with the owner of the occupied ranch. Rachid has dismissed those accusations, saying his critics are only trying to influence the country's presidential election, scheduled in April.

The peasants say they're afraid. Early Saturday morning, one of this community's few surviving leaders, Vidal Vega, was killed by two masked gunmen on a motorcycle as he fed his chickens. He was expected to be a witness for the defendants.

"We think he was assassinated by hit men who were sent, we don't know by whom, perhaps to frighten us and frustrate our fight to recover the state lands that were illegally taken," Paredes told the AP.

Most of the jailed suspects are farmers. A businessman who gave a ride to a wounded survivor was also detained, as was a Communist Party activist who helped organize the occupation.

The underlying dispute that set up the clash was decades in the making. The area's poor residents allege the land was stolen from the state by Sen. Blas Riquelme, a leader of the Colorado Party that backed dictator Alfredo Stroessner from 1954 to 1989 and has dominated the nation's politics ever since.

Riquelme, who died of a stroke in September at age 83, took over the property in 1964, benefiting from a Stroessner law that granted free title to any adult male willing to farm fallow land. So many military officers, politicians and businessmen took advantage of the law that by the end of the dictatorship, all of Paraguay's rural state-owned land was in private hands.

Local farmers challenged Riquelme's claim, but after eight years of legal fights, the peasants lost patience and invaded a forested corner of the 135-square-mile ranch in May.

"Our leader, Ruben Villalba, told us with such conviction that the property would be divided up. And so we followed him," said Roberto Ortega, 58. He sold his tiny shack and plot of land to a neighbor for $3,000 and marched onto the Riquelme ranch with his wife, carrying all their remaining possessions. Their only son was killed there.

Most of the occupiers came from Yby Pyta, or "Red Dirt" in the native Guarani, a settlement of wooden shacks that runs along the asphalt highway that carries soy to Brazil. The town is surrounded by vast, privately owned industrial agriculture: the Riquelme soy operation across the highway, and an even bigger Brazilian-owned sunflower plantation behind them. Beyond that there's soy, and more soy.

For Lidia Romero, the mother of Lucia Aguero, the fight for a plot of farm land came at much too high a price.

"With my daughter in jail and my son dead, I am destroyed," she said. "I barely have the will to keep on living."