Paraguay: deadly clash as police evict armed peasant squatters

At least 16 people were killed and dozens injured June 15 in armed clashes that erupted as police evicted landless campesinos who had invaded a privately-owned "forest reserve" in Paraguay. The 2,000-hectare "reserve" is within the sprawling Morumbí hacienda, outside Curuguaty town in fertile Canindeyu department, near the borders with Brazil and Argentina. (See map.) The ranch is owned by Blas Riquelme, a former senator with the Colorado Party. Some 300 police were mobilized to the site, backed up with helicopters. Authorities said the campesinos were armed with M-16s and other assault rifles, and opened fire as police moved to eject them. The dead included six police and at least 10 campesinos.

President Fernando Lugo expressed his "absolute support" for the police and offered his condolences to the families of the fallen officers. Lugo summoned his interior and defense ministers, as well as the head of the armed forces, to assess the situation. Paraguay's senate held an extraordinary session to debate whether to declare a state of emergency in the area.

Among those killed was agrarian leaders Avelino Espínola and Rubén Villalba—who was shot down while speaking live by cell phone to Radio Fe y Alegría in Asunción, the capital. The Rural Association of Paraguay (ARP), a ranchers' organization, issued a statement warning that "this was not a simple group of 'sintierras,' but a strongly armed and organized group capable of delivering a mortal blow to the regular police forces." The statement asserted that Villalba was related to the brothers Carmen and Osvaldo Villalba, said to be leaders of a sporadically active guerilla group, the Army of the Paraguayan People (EPP). (AFP, Ultima Hora, Ultima Hora, Paraguay, Diario Popular, Paraguay, La Nación, Paraguay, InfoBae, Argentina, Semana, Colombia, June 15)

Land conflicts are frequent in Paraguay, where 2% of the popula