Pública* has interviewed two of the campesinos who were present at the massacre in Curuguaty on June 15th 2012 when six policemen and 11 peasants were killed.
Both are being held in Tacumbu, Paraguay`s notorious central jail, among 3000 criminals. The jail is located in Asunción, several hundred kms from Curuguaty.
One of the campesinos, Ruben Villalba, is accused of being a leader of the peasant movement that occupied land belonging to former Senator Blas Riquelme, one of Paraguay’s richest men and political ally of the deceased dictator, General Alfredo Stroessner. The other, Nestor Castor, had half his face shot away during the conflict. Currently being held in the prison hospital, he has also been accused of taking part in the massacre.
The official version is that 70 peasant farmers and their families illegally occupied the land and then ambushed the 300 police who had surrounded their camp-site after a judge ordered their eviction. The peasantsclaim that Riquelme`s title to the land, allegedly donated to him by Stroessner, does not in fact exist and that the area is the subject of a legal battle.
This massacre was then used by the right-wing opposition to impeach President Fernando Lugo, during a lightning trial lasting a few hours. He was accused of mismanaging the conflict.
Speaking with great difficulty, Nestor Castor told his story. Days before the conflict he had written out a list of all the families in the occupation, to ask the government to supply them with food. This list was found by the police, who used it to arrest everyone named and accuse them of murder, even those who were not actually present on the day of the massacre.
The police case is not supported by the available evidence. Ballistic tests have revealed that only one of the campesinos’ weapons, which consisted of rusty hunting rifles, was actually capable of firing. Postmortem tests have shown that the dead, including the policemen, were hit by dozens of bullets from automatic and semi-automatic weapons.
An independent investigation carried out by PEICC (the Platform for Studies and Investigation of Peasant Conflicts) which is an NGO directed by a former social democrat politician, Domingo Laíno, found so many mistakes in the official investigation that it demanded it should be scrapped.
Among other discrepancies, the official inquiry claimed there were no women and children present when the police surrounded the peasants’ camp but photographs clearly show women and children to have been present, a sign that the peasants were not planning violence.
Officially, no helicopter was present but a film posted on YouTube shows a helicopter flying over the scene and firing. There is also film of policemen manipulating the crime scene, putting weapons next to dead men. These photos and films were said to have been supplied by photographers who did not agree with what had happened.
The Pública reporter who went to the scene found capsules from an M16 rifle, a gun not owned by any of the landless peasants.
Lugo’s government received warnings in April that a bloodbath was imminent and that it would be used to impeach the president and to remove him from power. It was said that professional hit men, employed by the landowners, had been seen in the area.
The conflict cost the lives of six policemen, apparently shot by gunmen, as well as 11 peasants. But the landowners got what they wanted – Lugo was replaced by a rightwing politician, Frederico Franco. Twelve peasants are in prison awaiting trial. In early December one of the few surviving leaders of the peasant movement, who was to be a key witness at their trial, was shot dead by gunmen. The landowner, Blas Riquelme, has also died since the massacre, though in his case from natural causes, safe in the knowledge that in the countryside, little has changed in Paraguay since the days of Stroessner.
* Pública’s report, entitled Curugaty, a matança que derrubou Lugo, can be accessed here.