ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) — Some 200 poor farmers on Tuesday temporarily reoccupied land where six police officers and 11 farmworkers were killed last year in a violent eviction that led to the ouster of President Fernando Lugo.
Farmworker Martina Paredes said they reoccupied the disputed soy farm because they believe it belongs to the state and not the family members of a late senator. But Paredes said the protesters fled when police arrived, fearing another clash.
“Many people began panicking when they saw the patrols with heavily armed policemen, and they started running towards the forest because they said they didn’t want to die,” said Paredes, whose brother died in the June 2012 gunbattle.
“Others were demoralized when police held three men without a court order. There was a lot of confusion. At the end, we got police to release them,” she added.
Police said the group’s leaders were demanding the release of the 12 farmworkers charged in the June 2012 eviction as well as compensation for the family members of farmers killed in the gunbattle.
Tensions were already simmering ahead of last year’s deadly clash on the 5,000-acre (2,000-hectare) ranch known as Marina Cue in Curuguaty, a district 200 miles (320 kilometers) northeast of the capital, Asuncion.
The dispute goes back decades, with peasants alleging that the land was stolen from the state by Colorado Party Sen. Blas Riquelme, whose party supported Alfredo Stroessner’s 1954-89 dictatorship. Stroessner’s government gave away land to anyone willing to put it to productive use.
Riquelme died of a stroke last September without receiving title to the property.
Landless families have tried for years to persuade authorities to redistribute the land as part of Paraguay’s long-promised agrarian reform.
Prosecutor Jose Zarza arrived at the site Tuesday and mediated an end to the 14-hour occupation. He said the dispute must be solved by Paraguay’s Supreme Court.
A judge in Asuncion is expected to decide soon whether to allow a trial on charges of attempted homicide and land invasion brought by local prosecutor Jalil Rachid against the 12 farmworkers over last year’s deadly clash.
Rachid has said he has no physical evidence showing who killed the six police officers. He has also said that he did not even try to determine who killed the 11 farmworkers during the gunbattle.
Lugo’s handling of the eviction of the farmers last year was seized on by the opposition to remove him from office.