Paraguay’s land conflict has exploded in a region which some officials say is a base for guerrilla group the EPP, but attempts to link the land movement to organized crime don't add up.
A shootout left some 19 people dead in the east of the country on Friday, after police tried to remove a group of landless farmers occupying territory owned by a former senator. One academic told BBC Mundo it was the bloodiest confrontation over land ownership in Paraguay's recent history.
More than 200 police were deployed to dislodge about 150 people occupying a forest reserve, which protesters say was illegally appropriated by former military dictator Alfredo Stroessner, then parceled out to his political allies. A video, filmed on a cell phone from the point of view of the police, shows a line of officers in riot gear approach a distant line of protesters. Gunfire rings out, although it is not clear who shot first. The clip ends with police dragging injured officers through the grass and calling for an ambulance. At least six police were killed during the confrontation, while the latest reports put the number of dead protesters at 13.
The clash took place about 250 kilometers northeast of capital city Asuncion, in the province of Canindeyu, which borders on Brazil. While this is one of Paraguay’s most impoverished provinces, it is also said to have some of its richest soil. Over the past decade, much of the territory has been bought up, primarily by Brazilian agribusinesses, and used to cultivate soybeans. This has added fuel to Paraguay’s land conflict, where about 2 percent of the population owns 80 percent of the land.
One of the most strident opponents to the land protest movement, San Pedro Attorney General Lilian Ruiz, offered a strongly worded evaluation of the latest clash. “What agrarian reform? No ... these are criminals,” she said, describing the protesters. Authorities in the interior were “fighting against armed guerrillas,” she added.
Ruiz has made such allegations before. In March, after she ordered the removal of 50 farmers occupying land in protest in San Pedro, which borders on Canindeyu, she said the occupiers had a strategic interest in holding the property because it was connected to a region occupied by elusive rebel group the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP). She has also described an agrarian reform group as “the arm of the EPP.”
Leaders of the land occupation movement have strongly denied these allegations. “We are not guerrillas. If we were guerrillas, something serious would have already happened to Attorney Ruiz,” one of the leaders of the land movement told the Associated Press in March.
Ruiz’s statements are largely baseless. The EPP, estimated to have between 50 to 100 members, has shown little interest in the land reform issue. Most of the group’s activities has revolved around kidnapping and occasional bombings targeting the security forces. When there have been reports of the group trying to gain the sympathy of local populations, there is little evidence that they have been successful.
And given that establishing any sort of tie with the EPP would drain credibility from the land movement, there is little incentive for agrarian reform groups to do so.
But while Ruiz’s take on the EPP has frequently been divorced from reality -- in 2011, she claimed the group was changing their name to “the Society” -- other officials have hinted that the rebels could be playing a role in the land conflict. On Sunday, one cabinet minister said that while the protesters in Canindeyu were not armed, there were “infiltrators” in their movement who carried “high-grade military weapons.” Aside from saying they were not farmers, the minister refused to say who the supposed infiltrators were.
If more allegations emerge that the EPP had something to do with the latest land clash, it will feed into a larger debate over whether the group is expanding its influence. Part of this debate revolves around whether the EPP has extended its military presence into San Pedro, an epicenter of the land conflict. The group has historically been far more active in the neighboring province of Concepcion. But after a young man survived an alleged kidnapping attempt in San Pedro in early May, the attorney general for the province's anti-kidnapping unit said she could not rule out EPP involvement, implying that the elusive rebels were now expanding their presence from Concepcion to San Pedro. Police fed the rumours by releasing images of what they said was an EPP campsite in the province, although it looked more like a hole in the ground surrounded by trash.
The fallout from the violent land confrontation has already resulted in the firing of both the interior minister and the national police chief. The incident may prompt more discussion over whether the EPP, or other criminal elements, do indeed have ties to the land reform movement. But linking farmers’ groups to organized crime, even if there is no evidence supporting such allegations, is a strategy widely deployed across Latin America to discredit agrarian reform activists. It is a familiar accusation in both Honduras and Colombia. And so far, there seems to be little evidence that it applies to Paraguay's land reformers.