Paraguay deployed its army on Friday to resolve a violent land dispute in a remote northern forest reserve after 17 people were killed in gunbattles between police and landless farmers.
The clash prompted Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo to accept the resignations of his interior minister and his chief of police.
The violence broke out as police tried to evict about 150 farmers from the reserve, which is part of a huge estate owned by a Colorado Party politician opposed to Lugo, who was a Catholic bishop before renouncing the priesthood to run for president.
Among the seven officers killed was the brother of Lugo’s chief of military security. Ten farmers were also killed, and 27 other officers were injured as police kept up the firefights in the forest, about 241km north of the capital, Asuncion.
After firefights that lasted about eight hours, the farmers dispersed into the jungle and police took control of the reserve, said Gregorio Almada, security vice minister for the Paraguayan Interior Ministry. Lugo suspended his agenda and called a Cabinet meeting. He said the army had his support to put an end to the violence and ruled out any connections to the Paraguayan People’s Army, a small leftist guerrilla group that has attacked rural police posts in the northern part of the country.
“I extend my sorrow and repudiation of the actions that led to the killing of these people,” Lugo told reporters.
Lugo did not explain why he accepted the resignations of Paraguayan Interior Minister Carlos Filizzola or Police Chief Paulino Rojas. The presidency did not say whether he had approved the eviction, or was even aware of it.
The 2,000 hectare reserve is part of a vast ranch owned by Blas Riquelme.
“Twenty years ago, we declared this a forest reserve, but farmers have wanted to occupy it since last year,” said Jose Riquelme, the owner’s son.
Activists for poor farmers, however, say Riquelme used his political influence to get the land from the state decades ago and that it should have been put it to use for land reform.
Paraguay is the world’s fourth-largest supplier of soybeans and land disputes have risen in recent years as farmers seek more land to grow the country’s top export earner. Lugo won election in 2008 promising farmland for 87,000 landless families. However, with few allies in Paraguay’s government, he has failed to deliver, and the problems are more vexing than ever.
“Lugo can’t fix a grave social problem: the recovery of state lands seized decades ago by people like Riquelme who were not subject to land reform,” said Jose Rodriguez, an adviser for the landless rights groups.
“We’re living a serious situation and it will just worsen because the poor need a piece of land,” Rodriguez said. “Our people resisting the police attack only have .22 caliber rifles; they don’t have army training or weapons to wage a war.”