The paramilitarization of the countryside with the expansion of soy

The paramilitarization of the countryside with the expansion of soy

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By Javiera Rulli

This shocking account of the paramilitarization of the countryside in the distant but always sister country of Paraguay is an omen and a warning of what can happen in Mexico, and of what is happening with the differences in the case. To give land and territory to large companies and to those who would like to recreate the large estates of the 19th century is to condemn millions of peasants to forced exile or poisoning by pesticides.


This Bulletin presents various records of violence against the peasant and indigenous population in Paraguay that are related to the agro-export model of soy. In many areas of South America there have been escalations of violence as a result of the expansion of soy monocultures. This text is not intended to criminalize
soybean cultivation, but it does propose to analyze the agro-export model that increases violence by worsening access to land.

Paraguay could be classified as the country where agribusiness takes the cruelest face, displacing and violating the rural population with total impunity. The militarization and para-militarization of the countryside are linked to the expansion and safeguarding of soybean crops, which not only grow on the land of the latifundistas but also, and to a large extent, on the surface of the peasant and indigenous communities. The Center for Documentation and Studies (CDE) explains the antecedents of the conflict as follows: "In the peasant colonies there is a process of smallholding of the plots, especially in those older due to population growth; to this fact is now added the compulsive displacement of the inhabitants of the peasant communities, due to the advance of commercial or mechanized agriculture ".

Various missions of international observers have been able to witness the violence produced by soy monocultures on the Paraguayan rural population. In this sense, the conclusions of the international mission of FIAN (1) and Vía Campesina in 2006 were emphatic: "the unbridled expansion of soy cultivation causes harassment, attacks and murders committed by police forces, parapolice and private armed groups , against peasant leaders ".

Likewise, the existence of death squads within the National Police, responsible for the death of at least 18 peasant leaders who were executed by these groups, has also been denounced before various state and human rights organizations. In other cases, the murders of peasant leaders have been committed by the citizen security commissions. These organizations, which act as an instrument of repression and social control just at a time when agrarian conflicts intensify, are accused of carrying out totally illegal practices such as evictions, raids, torture, murders, attacks on freedom of expression and of religion, against those who do not accept his order.

The second expansion of soy in Paraguay occurs around 2000 with the introduction of GM (genetically modified) soy, and is directly reflected in the rapid increase in landless peasants in recent years, due to the fact that this latest wave of Expansion takes place mainly on peasant lands, at a time when public land reserves have been depleted. At the same time, communities that live surrounded by soy monocultures are directly or indirectly violated. The practice of the "armed guard", in the large estates that surround the community, or the guards of the soybean producer who rents land within the community, entails the paramilitarization of the countryside, the corruption of the forces of order and the harassment of organized sectors of the communities.

Finally, another type of violence must be attributed to the soy model: deaths from poisoning, massive poisoning, "legal" expulsions from their lands, alienation of the national territory, loss of food and territorial sovereignty that the country suffers.

It cannot be ignored that in Paraguay the historical impunity that large landowners enjoy determines a benign climate where agribusiness can advance rapidly. This is one of the inalienable characteristics of attracting foreign investors to the country. The certainty of being able to act with impunity and in a mafia way to establish their business, in a territory where the only thing that matters is having capital, there are no laws or any moral principles to follow. The turn from dictatorship to democracy in the 1990s has not significantly improved the human rights situation (2).

Since 1989, the year the dictatorship fell, more than 100 peasant leaders have been assassinated, of which only one case was investigated and the perpetrator convicted; the rest remain in impunity. The criminalization of protest is also very serious; in 2004, peasant organizations registered 1,156 arrests, the rural population being approximately 2.3 million people (3). It is an alarming record if one considers that in the same year in Brazil there were 421 arrests in the countryside, where the rural population reached 32 million.

Selective killings

A report published in 2007 by the Paraguayan Human Rights Coordinator (CODEHUPY) detected in a preliminary census 75 victims of arbitrary executions from 1989 to 2005, a supposedly democratic period in Paraguay. These cases are not all that have been registered but they are those that have been confirmed.

The report's census shows that the majority of those killed are young men, grassroots leaders, involved in land reclamation to implement peasant settlements. Half of the 75 murdered were between 20 and 39 years old and 45% did not have their own land. Likewise, 66% of the victims were rank-and-file leaders and / or militants, since these people are the ones who are constantly in the areas of dispute over territory, they are the visible heads of the peasant resistance and therefore also the subjects most vulnerable. According to the authors themselves, many of these arbitrary executions were designed to cause terror in peasant communities, to stop spirals of resistance and social protest or to decapitate grassroots organizations. These crimes in most cases can be directly related to the expansion of large-scale monocultures. In this case, soy affects the young peasant population to a greater degree, since it hinders access to land, it also generates violence against sections of the organized rural population.

An important detail that should be noted is how the rate of executions has increased significantly since 94. Since that year, 69 executions have been perpetrated, with an average of one every 2 months. This stage coincides precisely with an increase in the soybean expansion rate to 150 thousand ha / year (4). In 1995 800 thousand hectares were cultivated; in 2003 it reached 2 million and currently soy covers 2.4 million hectares.

Likewise, the regions where there have been more executions coincide relatively with the regions where the frontier of mechanized agriculture is located. Parapolice guards or hitmen were the perpetrators of 53 cases of executions, while the national police committed 22 executions.

When analyzing the report, the motive for the crimes that take place is highlighted, as mentioned before, in the framework of a process of acquisition of land by a community and where the owners of the land, using the police or para-police, they carry out ambushes in order to assassinate the leaders of the local movement. In the regions of Itapúa and Alto Paraná, these murders occur in a context of clear expansion of soy, such as the cases of Santa Fe del Paraná in Alto Paraná, when in 2000 Francisco Espínola, leader of the "Santiago Martínez" landless camp (5), was assassinated by assassins guards of the large estate rented by the Brazilian William Welter. Later, in 2005, another leader, César Marcos Ferreira, was assassinated for the same cause. These cases clearly reflect the violence of which the Paraguayan Peasant Movement is a victim as a result of its struggle to achieve the expropriation of land rented to soy producers in an irregular manner, according to the Agrarian Statute.

Also noteworthy are the murders of Isidro Gómez Benítez in 1995 and Víctor Díaz Paredes in 2002 in the Itapúa area. Both murders occurred during the occupation of land by the company Agrícola, Comercial, Industrial, Forestal, S.A. (ACIFSA), owned by a Brazilian named Bortolini. Likewise, Bortolini appears involved in the murder of 2 young people in 2004, Almir Brandt Kurtz and Bruno Carlos Da Silva, both shot by peons from a disputed large estate.

The most recent case of killings directly related to soy monocultures is that of peasants murdered in August 2007 in San Vicente, Department of San Pedro, north of eastern Paraguay. This incident clearly demonstrates how on the frontier of expansion of mechanized crops, soybean latifundios are drowning the population, alienating them from access to natural resources. On August 18, 4 peasants left the community to go hunting in their usual place, a mountain located within a 93,000-hectare large estate called Agroganadera Aguaray, owned by Euvaldo de Araujo, a Brazilian who lives in Sao Paulo. This large estate has been mostly deforested to implement large monocultures with soybean-RR rotation with corn or wheat. The 4 peasants were ambushed and riddled with bullets surprisingly by latifundio guards who had stationed themselves in a hiding place built with branches on the side of the road. The same guards declared to the police that they had carried out the orders of their employers.

Violence in land occupations

Another moment of violence against peasant organizations occurs in the evictions. Although in Paraguay most of the legalized peasant colonies exist thanks to the struggle and conquest of the land by peasant organizations, there is a continuous process of criminalization of these actions. The advance of soybean monocultures is one of the main factors of depletion of the land, and inaccessibility, due to the high prices generated by real estate speculation. This has had a serious impact on the violence in evictions and the persecution of landless sectors. The last step has been the reform of the penal code that has determined prison sentences of up to 5 years and irreplaceable, for charges of trespassing.

Not having land and fighting to acquire it is penalized by jail, in a country where almost 30% of the rural population does not have land. To make matters worse, 10% of those with more land own 66.4%, and 60% of the population with less land own 6.6% (6).

According to FIAN, these evictions represent a serious violation of the right to food, the right to housing and civil rights such as the right to physical integrity, liberty and due process of the affected persons.

The last land occupation campaign of the National Coordinating Board of Peasant Organizations (MCNOC) in 2006, claimed many victims and reprisals. The organization mobilized more than 10,000 people for a month to maintain 15 occupations throughout the country to accommodate 2,000 landless families. In response, a tremendous wave of repression and violence was carried out against the peasants. The evictions began in Itapúa on July 31, when a community was evicted for the fifth time after 6 years of struggle, 40 families were violently repressed and 5 members of the community jailed for several days. This situation continued on August 9 when the evictions from new and old settlements in Alto Paraná, Caazapá and San Pedro resumed. The eviction of San Pedro had a casualty as balance. Thus, the violence culminated on the 19th of the same month, when more than 1,000 people were repressed in a protest in Caazapá, resulting in 51 injuries. On this occasion, it was reported that more than 200 protesters were severely beaten in a period of 2 hours.

Another case that has been registered in the Alternative Report of Civil Society on the situation of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR) in Paraguay, is that of the landless peasants of the "Tetaguá Guaraní" Neighborhood Commission, district of Iruña and Naranjal, Alto Paraná Department. This neighborhood commission made up of 1,200 families is, since 2003, fighting for access to 15,000 hectares of the property of AGROPECO SA, a company that is suspected of having incorporated large tracts of public land under its control and that has also deforested the entire surface to implement soy cultivation, two reasons that are sufficient to justify the expropriation. However, the Sintierra camp was violently evicted on three occasions during 2004. On these occasions, the police and armed civilian groups working for the AGROPECO company destroyed the crops for self-consumption, burned the farms, food and supplies , beds, mattresses, clothes and contaminated water wells with garbage and poisons.

An emblematic example that demonstrated the coldness and violence of the soybean entrepreneurs is that of the murders in the eviction of the Tekojoja community in 2005, precisely called "the soybean trench", in the district of Vaquería. This land reclamation maintained by the Agrarian and Popular Movement began in 2003, when, faced with the massive sale of lots of peasant land to Brazilian soy producers and the consequent fragmentation of the community, the peasant movement decided to enter and reoccupy the poorly sold lots. , that is to say the right ones, settling in 320 hectares. In the following 3 years, the Sintierra families suffered 3 evictions, in which the participation of prosecutors, military, police and armed guards of the soy producers. However, in none of these cases did the prosecutor have an order from the judge in the case to proceed with the eviction, rather the evictions always responded to independent actions by other local judges in clear collusion with agribusiness interests.

In these 3 evictions there were destruction of crops, burning of houses and theft of livestock. But it is in the last eviction when the highest degree of violence occurs. Eighty blue helmet police officers and 40 security and order police participated in this operation, with the presence of 2 prosecutors. During the eviction, Ademir Opperman, the soybean who disputed the peasant lands, along with several heavily armed men, entered the community with all-terrain cars, trucks and tractors, robbing, burning and destroying the houses before the complacent gaze of police and prosecutors .

The conflict ended with around 150 people arrested, including 60 children. Opperman and his men shot a group of peasants, wounding 5 of them and killing 20-year-old Ángel Cristaldo and 49-year-old Leoncio Torres. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the land dispute of the peasants, it ruled that land from the Agrarian Reform program could not be sold to foreign entrepreneurs, subjects who are not beneficiaries of the Agrarian Statute and the lots have been awarded to the sinierra. Also thanks to the action of the Pastoral Social de Caaguazú, 57 houses are being rebuilt for the families as part of compensation for the abuse suffered.
At present, the trial for the double murder is still being held. However, Ademir Opperman is a fugitive from justice after being granted house arrest, with only one of the guards in prison. The trial has been suspended several times and has been severely hampered.

Violence for defending against fumigation

The intensive agriculture model also uses another tool to dislodge and empty the rural territory of its population: pesticides are the hidden weapon that degrades the living conditions of rural communities, making crops, livestock and people sick, until the settlement becomes unbearable and people flee for their lives.

The best known case of intoxication caused by fumigations in soy plantations is that of the Talavera Villasboa family, from the Department of Itapúa. On January 2, 2003, 11-year-old Silvino Talavera, on his way home, was sprayed with pesticides by soybean farmer Herman Schlender who was spraying his land. When the boy arrived home, the family, unaware of what happened, cooked the food that Silvino brought, which had also been fumigated. A few hours later, the entire family fell ill and suffered nausea, vomiting and headaches. Silvino, who had directly absorbed the pesticides, had to be hospitalized. Four days later he returned from the hospital, but that same day another soybean producer, Alfredo Laustenlager, fumigated his field just 15 meters from the Talavera Villasboa home, ignoring the wind that carried the pesticides. After this new fumigation, 3 of Silvino's brothers had to be hospitalized, as well as 20 other neighbors. Silvino could not bear this second fumigation and died on January 7, 2003.

Silvino's case is the most renowned but it is not the only one. The Paraguayan press published a series of articles in April 2006 about a peasant community in Itapúa, where 6 babies were born with congenital malformations (anencephaly). A journalistic investigation confirmed that "of the 57 families that are within the affected perimeter, 17 houses are in the middle of soybean crops and the last 3 women who had their babies with anencephaly became pregnant in the place." However, the investigation of the Ministry of Health finally published a report that concluded that the malformations were not related to pesticides. What was peculiar was that the doctor responsible for the investigation refused to sign this document.


In this work, an attempt has been made to frame the human rights situation in relation to the soybean agro-export model. Some cases have been presented that are documented and are representative of the national situation, but many others have been ignored where the strength of the organizations has not been sufficient to document with sufficient rigor.

The imposition of agribusiness and its inclusion in global markets has deepened the cracks in Paraguayan society. The entry of this capital has become an ungovernable force that has increased the levels of corruption and violence against the rural population. The Paraguayan government, an accomplice and participates in these operations, also contributes by criminalizing poverty and the exclusion of the population displaced to the cities.

These brief summaries should give rise to consider that the consequent social and environmental problems of the production of commercial crops such as soybeans cannot be remedied with technical solutions, since the conflict exceeds the environmental situation. Rather, it addresses the frameworks of the armed conflict, a kind of war against the peasants. It can be elucidated that, behind this violence, the implicit strategy is to empty the territory and then repopulate it with a population submissive to this new power. The submission of the new population would take shape through credit and dependence on the market.

You can talk about a war even if it is a silent and covert type and that not only ends in deaths. More than 20 million liters of agrochemicals are spread annually over the Paraguayan territory and thus, in 2004 alone, 400 people were registered in the Acute Pesticide Poisoning Surveillance Center of the Ministry of Health. This reality is what soy importing countries and some large conservation NGOs intend to make invisible or have already put aside the desire for change, and are submissively shaping Round Tables on Responsible Soy with banal criteria on technicalities that have no foundation. For this reason, in the two Round Table meetings that have been held, there have been demonstrations by the peasant and environmental sectors to demonstrate the rejection of these attempts at corporate makeup.

On both occasions the social movements made extensive Declarations (7) that were ignored by the NGOs involved, although these declarations left no doubt about the situation of violence that is being experienced and the impossibility of the soy model being sustainable. As a peasant from Santiago del Estero mentioned in 2005, "you cannot dialogue with the one who is pointing a gun at you." In the same way, it is impossible for the Paraguayan peasant sectors to find a way of dialogue with the economic sector that moves the threads of violence against the population.

* Javiera Rulli
BASE Social Research, Buenos Aires, Argentina


1. FIAN, FoodFirst Information and Action Network, is the international human rights organization that promotes and defends the right to food. Founded in 1986, it has consultative status with the UN.

2. In Paraguay no trial has been carried out for the crimes of the dictatorship. Nor have victims been compensated, nor have illicit enrichments been investigated during the military process. The Legislative Power has repeatedly denounced the estimate of 12 million hectares of land badly allocated to "faithful" of the former dictator Stroessner.

3. In November 2004 the government decided to take the military out to rural areas to contain the wave of landless peasant occupations. In February 2005, 18 new military detachments were created in the interior of the country, especially in the Departments of San Pedro, Concepción, Caazapá and Guairá, precisely areas with the greatest presence of peasant organizations.

4. In Paraguay, soy has maintained an average of 125 thousand hectares / year and represents a growth of 191% during the period 1995/96005/06.

5. The settlement bears the name of a leader of the Paraguayan Peasant Movement (MCP), murdered in the Department of Caaguazú in 2001. The murder is suspected of being linked to the recovery of land on a large estate belonging to the Oviedo family.

6. According to data from the 2002 Census, carried out by the General Directorate of Statistics, Surveys, and Census.

7. Final document of the Iguazú Meeting on the impacts of soy and monocultures, March 2005, The Irresponsible, Unsustainable and Anti-Democratic Development Model in Paraguay today, June 2006.

Bibliographic references

1. Maeyens, A. (2006). Soy expansion continues to trigger violent evictions and repression amongst Paraguayan peasants, in:

2. Pilz, D., Quintín, R., Rodríguez, R., Villalba, R. (2004) The peasant struggle (1990004), CDE Socio-union Area, Asunción-Paraguay.

3. FIAN (2006). The Agrarian Reform in Paraguay, Report of the Investigative Mission on the status of the realization of the Agrarian Reform as a Human Rights obligation, in:

4. Rulli, J. (2006) Peasant family in Paraguay condemned by agrotoxins, in: Justice campaign blog for Silvino Talavera.

5. CODEHUPY (2007) Report Chokokue, Coordinator of Human Rights Paraguay.

6. (2006) History of the Agrarian and Popular Movement. Various articles on the Agrarian and Popular Movement, in:

7. Amarilla, O., Gómez, I., Palau, M., (2006) Civil Society Report on compliance with the ICESCR in the rural context (2000 - 2005) BASE IS, CIPAE and Tierraviva.

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