Last week, some five thousand people attended a lively protest in Asuncion, the usually tranquil capital of Paraguay. It was the biggest demonstration in the landlocked nation of seven million since Federico Franco took the presidential oath on June 22.
Paraguay is a poor country, where the average income is about $2,400 dollars per year. But people at the event were not protesting about inflation, like in neighboring Argentina, or against high murder rates like in nearby Brazil. Instead, they were demanding that the current government explain the truth about a massacre that led to the impeachment of Paraguay's previous president, the left-leaning, former bishop Fernando Lugo.
Tensions between supporters of Lugo and the current government have been escalating in Paraguay since the beginning of the month, when unidentified gunmen murdered peasant leader Vidal Vega in the provincial city of Curuguaty.
Vega, 48, was a key witness to the massacre at Curuguaty, a violent incident in a rural area of the country, which resulted in the death of six policemen and 11 peasants, and also sparked the impeachment of president Lugo.
What happened in Curuguaty is still not clear. What is known for sure is that on June 15 a violent clash occurred in a soy estate that was occupied by members of a landless peasant movement, but belonged to a local company.
The incident had immense political resonance in the small nation, as it was used by Congressmen to argue that Lugo was allowing irregular groups of peasants to threaten public order, and to take over private property. Lugo's impeachment trial included accusations that he had "motivated the fight between rich and poor" by receiving peasant leaders for talks instead of taking actions against them. The Congress said Lugo had "political and penal responsibility" for the massacre.
The recently-murdered Vega was one of the few peasants that was going to testify in a trial that is attempting to clear up what led to the Curuguaty massacre. He was also working with an association of families of victims of the massacre, and was collaborating with a human rights organization investigating the deaths.
So, "What happened in Curuguaty?" posters at last week's protest asked.
The official version, presented by Paraguay's Attorney General in October, is that 70 peasants ambushed 324 policemen with hunting guns and a revolver. The government's investigator claims these peasants, who were occupying a disputed soy estate, had prepared the ambush days before, and that a peasant leader called Ruben Villalba, who has been jailed for two months as he awaits trial, is the mastermind behind the massacre.
This is the soy estate where the massacre of Curuguaty took place.(photo by Natalia Viana)
But in October, a report published by the Platform for the Study and Investigation of Rural Conflicts (PEICC), a human rights group, suggested that the official investigation had serious flaws.
According to PEICC, the results of the autopsy conducted on the bodies of those killed in the massacre, were nowhere to be found. Of the five shotguns that were seized by government investigators, and supposedly used at the scene of the crime, only one was fully functioning. The human rights group also found evidence that some of the bodies found at the crime scene had been tampered with.
The official investigation is also under criticism by PEICC because it is led by some people who may have a conflict of interest. One such person is Jalil Rachid, the leading investigator from the Attorney General's Office. Rachid's father headed the Colorado Party, the main opposition in Congress of deposed President Fernando Lugo. Another ex-president of the Colorado party, Blas Riquelme, owned Campos Morumbi, the company that was laying claim to the land where the massacre occurred.
What the Peasants Say
Behind the thick rusty bars of the national penitentiary of Tacumbu in the Paraguayan capital of Asunción, Rubén Villalba faces the allegation, made even by president Federico Franco himself, that he was the mastermind behind an alleged ambush on police.
Villalba says that when he was captured, he was beaten up and tortured, although local media and police have denied such reports. "There was a lot of psychological torture, 'you killed so and so, you are a part of a guerrilla group', they would say. They would climb on top of my loins, on my back and say 'urra,' it seemed to me that I was their trophy," Villalba said.
On Sunday 16, the Public Ministry accused Villaba of leading a criminal group whose aim was to ambush the police. He was formally charged with criminal association, invasion of property and murder. "The murder of six policemen was premeditated by this group headed by Ruben Villaba", stated Jalil Rachid in a press conference. "They were radicalized and very violent"
According to Villalba, the peasants expected there would be a dialogue with the police. "I thought they were going to hand us the documents showing the land title," Villalba said. "When the shooting began, I was hit by the first bullet. I went to the floor and couldn't understand what was going on, I was unconscious."
Apart from Villalba, another 50 peasants from the soy estate where the killings took place initially had investigations opened against them. Although it is unclear that there is evidence that connects them to the shootings. Fourteen have been arrested so far, and this week the government pressed formal charges against the rest of the members of this group.
Many of these peasants are potential witnesses to the massacre, but they don't plant to testify in court because they are currently hiding from the police out of fear.
Peasants who witnessed the Curuguaty incident are too afraid to reveal their identity (Photo by Natalia Viana)
We travelled to the region of Curuguaty to talk to some of them
A nurse that we met had two of her sons occupying the disputed land. When peasants were alerted that the police would try to evict them, her son – who asked not to be named – decided to stay. He was standing at a good distance from the spot where the gunfight began. "We heard a loud noise, we turned around and looked the other way. Then we ran through the grass, we hid in the marshland near the river," the young man said.
His sister, a 26 year old woman, only stayed in the occupied soy estate for 15 days. "I only heard of the massacre in the radio", she claims. But because her name was included in a list in of peasants who had asked the government for food aid while on the disputed property, she is now being sought for murder.
An Ambush on Police or an Attack Against Peasants?
Still, the biggest thorn in government investigator Jalil Rachid's side is PEICC's report.
The human rights group analyzed a video that was recorded by the police during the incident and found that a flurry of machine guns go off at the moment that the shooting starts. Rachid claims that only hunting guns and a pistol were used at the conflict by the peasants, who he says started the shooting against the police.
According to PEICC, the video indicates that professional mercenaries might have been present on location. The same video reveals that women and children were also present at the conflict which, in the PEICC's view, discredits the theory that an ambush occurred. "Nobody plans an ambush and leaves kids and women in the area", the report says.
Opponents of the PEICC say that this group's investigators are biased, and that their goal is to discredit the current government. They point out that the organization is led by Domingos Laino, a liberal politician who supported Lugo's government.
But the massive wave of arrests that followed the Curuguaty massacre and threats against potential witnesses, have some Paraguayan activists questioning whether the government is trying to hide something from the population.
"We think the massacre was planned", Jorge Galeano, a peasant leader, said during a press conference that was called to denounce the shooting of Vidal Vega and highlight threats against others who are trying to investigate what happened in Curuguaty.
Peasant leaders are now also demanding that the government investigate the murder of Vidal Vega. "We believe that the ones who planned the massacre also planned Vega's death," Galeano said in the press conference. "This was a political assassination."
Natalia Viana directs Publica, a nonprofit center for investigative journalism in Brazil