Criminal case delayed in Paraguay land killings

Thursday - 2/14/2013, 5:17pm EST

PEDRO SERVIN
Associated Press

CURUGUATY, Paraguay (AP) -- The prosecutor says he has no physical evidence showing who killed six police officers during a 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 concluded that 10 peasants who survived the fusillade should be charged with attempted homicide, and punished by 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.

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. Paraguay's lack of institutional controls and the chaos of last June's deadly standoff have made it difficult to get at the truth.

But peasants and their supporters say that the prosecutor led a one-sided investigation, and that both he and Judge Jose Benitez have blatant conflicts of interest.

On Thursday, Benitez indefinitely delayed his preliminary hearing after they accused him of "malfeasance" for hearing the case despite having ruled in 2009 that the politician, Colorado Party Sen. Blas Riquelme, could annex the land in question. That ruling was later appealed.

"Benitez lacks the moral standing to evaluate the prosecutor's evidence against my clients because years earlier he favored Riquelme, giving him the state land now in litigation," defense attorney Vicente Morales told The Associated Press on Thursday.

Morales says Rachid is biased because his father was close friends with Riquelme -- accusations Rachid dismissed as political threats meant to influence April's presidential election.

The shootout last June gave the Colorados and other Lugo opponents the political ammunition needed to quickly vote the sandal-wearing leftist out of office. They accused him of "mismanaging" the occupation and giving peasants false hopes for land reform.

The most detailed version yet of how the shootout may have started 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 AP 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 party supported dictator Alfredo Stroessner from 1954-1989. The former senator died of a stroke in September at age 82 without receiving title to the property.

Landless families 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 "sprayed pepper spray at our comrade Francisco Ayala, who had raised a machete he was carrying," said the fugitive, 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, surrounded by hundreds of officers, were killed by police gunfire after Espinola pushed 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.