Charges sought against peasants in Paraguay deaths
CURUGUATY, Paraguay (AP) — The prosecutor says he has no physical evidence showing who killed six police officers during a bloody land dispute that prompted the downfall of Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo. He says he didn't even try to determine who killed 11 farmworkers who also died when the bullets started flying.
Even so, Jalil Rachid has said he'll ask a judge on Thursday to formally charge 10 peasants who survived the fusillade with attempted homicide, and punish them with up to 25 years in prison. He's also seeking lesser charges against four other people.
"It's obvious that the farmworkers ambushed the police," said Rachid, who spent six months investigating the clash.
Peasants and their supporters say the official investigation is a one-sided effort. But Paraguay's lack of institutional controls and the chaos of last June's deadly standoff have made it difficult to get at the truth.
In the official version he presented to Judge Jose Benitez, Rachid said that farmworkers fired first after police came to conduct a census of the families occupying land controlled by a powerful Paraguayan politician, and that police officers fired back in self-defense. The arrested farmworkers deny firing any weapons, and insist that the police provoked the clash.
Farmworker advocates say Rachid is biased because his father was close friends with the politician, Colorado Party Sen. Blas Riquelme. Rachid has dismissed those accusations, saying his critics are trying to influence the April presidential election.
The shootout gave the Colorados and other Lugo opponents the political ammunition they needed to vote the sandal-wearing leftist out of office. They accused him, among other things, of "mismanaging" the occupation and giving peasants false hopes for land reform.
The most detailed version yet of what provoked the fusillade was described by one of the 40 fugitives from the clash, who fled into the forested hills of northern Paraguay. Speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear for his life, he told The Associated Press that he was standing just a few meters from the first men to fall.
Tensions were already boiling over on the 5,000-acre (2,000 hectare) ranch known as Marina Cue in Curuguaty, a district some 200 miles (320 kilometers) northeast of the capital, where Paraguay's forests have been bulldozed into vast fields of soy in mechanized operations that employ relatively few people but bring vast profits to landowners.
The dispute went back decades, with peasants alleging that the land was stolen from the state by Riquelme, whose Colorado Party that supported dictator Alfredo Stroessner from 1954-1989. The former senator died of a stroke in September at age 82 without ever receiving title to the property.
Poor landless families living nearby had tried for years to persuade authorities to redistribute the land as part of Paraguay's long-promised agrarian reform.
Finally, several dozen families decided to occupy a small corner of the property. Hundreds of heavily armed officers from around the country responded, armed with a warrant from Judge Benitez to take a census of the occupiers.
The fugitive said gunfire erupted after Police Officer Erven Lovera, who was trained by the FBI to handle tense negotiations, spent five minutes speaking with Avelino Espinola, who represented the peasants.
"The discussion between the two was very heated. Espinola told the police chief not to cross a line, a wire fence, that divided the police and the farmworkers," said the fugitive. He said Lovera raised his voice, saying that conditions could not be placed on police carrying out a court order.
Then, Lovera "sprayed pepper spray at our comrade Francisco Ayala, who had raised a machete he was carrying. Lovera probably thought Ayala wanted to attack him," the fugitive said, speaking softly under the trees in Paraguay's native Guarani language.
When Ayala fell to the ground from the pepper spray's effects, Espinola pounded Lovera's chest with both hands in anger, and was immediately shot and killed, followed moments later by Lovera, the fugitive said. Waves of gunfire then ripped through the tall grass.
The prosecution insists the clash began with the farmworkers opening fire on the police. But the fugitive's account, if true, raises another possibility — that both negotiators, standing face to face and surrounded by hundreds of officers, were killed by police gunfire in response to Espinola's pushing of Officer Lovera. Without ballistics tests showing who fired the bullets that killed both men, it's a possibility that Rachid's investigation hasn't ruled out.
The farmworkers' defense attorney, Vicente Morales, said he had not previously heard anything about Ayala raising a machete or Lovera using pepper spray, because his clients were 100 or more meters (yards) away from the two negotiators when the gunfire erupted and were unable to see what happened.
"When Espinola fell dead, I saw Lovera fall as well, and I crouched down to avoid being hit by police gunfire," the fugitive recalled. He said he hid by crawling through the grass, had heard several wounded farmworkers pleading for help as he escaped.
"I haven't turned myself in to the prosecutor because I'm afraid the police will kill me," he said.
A surviving leader of the peasant movement who was expected to testify at the criminal trial, 48-year-old Vidal Vega, was slain by two unidentified gunmen in December.
Police quickly abandoned the crime scene last June. Hundreds of people then arrived, looking for bodies. Some collected hundreds of spent bullet casings, but Rachid refused to accept them because there was no way to prove where they came from.
Rachid didn't include any ballistics tests in his report that might support the farmworkers' version of events.
Instead, he focused on the officers: His report says five of the officers died of pellets from 12 and 28-gauge shotguns, and the sixth — not Lovera — was shot by a .38 caliber revolver. No such evidence was gathered from the dead farmworkers' bodies. Rachid's report says they were shot by officers "defending themselves using their standard police weapons," without describing what weapons or bullets were involved.
Most police in Paraguay don't carry standard-issue weapons, however: their departments are so underfunded that officers buy their own handguns and bullets.
The farmworkers' death certificates attribute the cause to unspecified "gun injuries."
Martina Paredes said she found the body of her brother Luis the next day, "already decomposing, with a gunshot to the head, from above to below."
"For us it was a summary execution, but the prosecutor didn't open any investigation," she said.
Rachid told a news conference late last year that he didn't know who shot whom. More than 330 officers from various departments participated in the clash. Of those, 84 officers gave sworn testimony to Rachid but none identified any gunman, or were able to say what weapons the defendants allegedly carried.
Defense attorney Morales told the AP that the evidence doesn't support attempted homicide, but fears the additional charges of criminal association, resisting authority, and invasion of another's property, may be harder to dispute.
Morales represents 13 of the 14 defendants, mostly farmworkers including Lucia Aguero, a 25-year-old mother of two whose younger brother De los Santos was killed in the standoff.
He's also defending a local businessman who gave a ride to a wounded survivor. Communist Party activist Ruben Villalba, who helped organize the occupation, has his own attorney.
If the criminal case was meant to send a message to other poor rural landless people in Paraguay, it didn't get through to about 150 people who have gathered outside the ranch since Sunday, threatening to invade the property again if the government doesn't agree by Friday to carve out parcels for them.
"We are outside the farm and ready to once again occupy the state's land," said Leonor Vega, president of Landless Commission of Curuguaty. "I hope that the process of our colleagues before Judge Jose Benitez doesn't block our fight for a piece of land."