Paraguay sent the Army after at least 18 people were killed and over eighty wounded, many of them seriously, on Friday in armed clashes that erupted when police tried to evict landless peasant farmers squatting a privately-owned farm in Paraguay, officials said.
A few hours later following public opinion outrage and demands from Congress the Minister of Interior Carlos Filizzola and the Chief of Police Paulino Rojas resigned. President Fernando Lugo named former Attorney General Ruben Candia Amarilla to replace Filizzola.
While still on the post Filizzola told reporters that eight police officers and at least ten peasants died in the incident in Curuguaty, located 400 kilometres northeast of the capital Asuncion.
Police had arrived with an eviction order at the farm, owned by a powerful politician and local businessman, Blas N. Riquelme to dislodge the peasants when the violence began.
The peasants shot at the police officers trying to evict them in Canindeyu department, in a region close to Paraguay's borders with Brazil and Argentina that is considered to be the most fertile in the country.
The peasants have high-calibre automatic weapons like M16 rifles local police official Walter Gomez told television network 13. Gomez said some of the 150 peasants involved in the incident handled weapons very well and were “sharp shooters”
They shot cleanly to kill us, to the head and to the neck, above our bullet-proof vests. This is a critical situation, he said.
In total, about 320 police officers were deployed to the site and at one point surrounded the peasants in a wooded area with the help of helicopters.
We acted in accordance with the law Filizzola said.
The squatters were identified as belonging to a group called the “carperos” or “tent people” which are known to be armed and counter police actions. In this particular case according to the Paraguayan media the head of the Special Forces that commanded the operation when seeing the situation asked to freeze actions until reinforcements arrived. But he was given the order to proceed and was one of the first to be killed in action.
Filizzola also said that the group that rejected the police action did not belong and was not linked to the EPP, Paraguayan Popular Army, a small radical group known to have links with Colombia’s Marxist oriented FARC, and which has been involved in shootouts with the police and kidnapping of rich farmers in that area.
In a brief statement, President Fernando Lugo expressed his absolute support for the police and offered his condolences to the families of the victims.
Lugo summoned his interior and defence ministers, as well as the head of the armed forces, to assess the situation. The country's senate held an extraordinary session to debate whether to declare a state of emergency in the area.
Territorial disputes are not unusual in Paraguay, where 5% of the population holds 80% of the land. Although there are limits to land ownership by foreigners, there is a flourishing trade of land rights belonging to the indigenous population.
Most of the land taken over was acquired by rich Paraguayans and rich Brazilian farmers that tend to have settlements on both sides of the border. They are know as “Braziguayos” (A simplication of Brazilian.Paraguayan) and are much hated by the displaced peasants and a sector of Paraguayan public opinion who feel the country is becoming in real terms a “colony” of rich powerful neighbouring Brazil.
When Paraguayan public opinion heats up and has a political impact which in some cases leads to squatting of Brazilian holdings in the country or attacks on their property, strong diplomatic pressure from Itamaraty can be followed by Brazilian military exercises along the shared border.