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Human Rights Developments

      Elections in Paraguay in 1991 marked an important step toward the consolidation of democracy. Three months following the 1989 overthrow of longtime dictator General Alfredo Stroessner, coup leader General Andrés Rodríguez had held a quick election to legitimize his power. However, nationwide municipal elections held on May 26, 1991, were in some respects more significant. Not only were municipal officials elected for the first time in Paraguay's history _ previously they were appointed by the president _ but the triumph of a leftist candidate in Asunción represented the first real test of President Rodríguez's promise to permit political pluralism.

      By honoring the election results, the Rodríguez government reinforced Paraguay's democratic direction as it encouraged broad sectors of civil society to participate in a national debate over the country's future constitution. On December 1, voters elected delegates to the convention charged with rewriting the constitution, a task which will take between 120 and 180 days.

      Another unquestionable sign of change was the convening of the first public congress of the Paraguayan Communist Party in July. Espousing Marxist ideas remains a criminal offense under the current Constitution. Official tolerance of the Communists' legal activities was greeted by most sectors as an indication that President Rodríguez seriously intends to guarantee political rights.

      However, there were also less auspicious developments in 1991. The problem of "land invasions," as they are known in Paraguay, exploded beginning in 1989 as landless peasants assumed that democracy would bring agrarian reform. The government has reacted with violence, including beatings, to expel thousands of peasants who have dared to move onto large estates (latifundios) that are eligible under Paraguayan law for expropriation. Evictions often occur without judicial warrant. Homes and crops are systematically destroyed. The peasants' tools and other belongings have been stolen by the police and soldiers. Community leaders have been arrested and held for days and sometimes weeks without proper judicial procedures. Hired gunmen have begun to operate with considerable impunity in rural areas, threatening and in a few cases killing peasant leaders.

      Rural gunmen in 1991 also intimidated and in one case killed reporters investigating contraband and drug dealings. On April 25, Journalists' Day in Paraguay, civilian gunmen shot and killed Santiago Leguizamón, a correspondent for the daily Noticias and an announcer for local radio station Radio Mburucuyá. The murder took place in the rural district of Amambay and came after the reporter had received a series of death threats warning him to stop investigating narcotics and contraband activities in the area. The journalists' union had sent a letter to the minister of interior requesting protection for Leguizamón before his death. Despite a May 1 march organized by the labor confederation to demand the detention and punishment of those responsible, the investigating judge has taken a largely passive approach to the case so far, and the investigation is stalled.

      Other journalists have also been systematically harassed by gunmen. Héctor Guerrín, correspondent for ABC Color in Ciudad del Este, Alto Paraná, published a series of articles about a clandestine airstrip on the property of an important local politician of the ruling Colorado party. Some thirty gunmen who guard the property have physically threatened Guerrín with death, and harassed him in his home and office. Guerrín has given an investigating judge the names of the individuals involved, but no legal action has been taken to prevent further violence. A parliamentary delegation attempting to carry out an on-site investigation was also confronted by the armed guards and told at gunpoint that they must immediately leave.

      The government has not adequately addressed the problems of lengthy pretrial delays and police beatings of prisoners. According to lawyers from the Tekojoja Foundation, of the 1,420 inmates in Tacumbú National Prison, only 142 have been convicted of a crime. In the rehabilitation institution for minors, La Emboscada, only three of the more than 140 inmates have been convicted. Many of these prisoners were forced to sign confessions under torture during the Stroessner era. The great majority of prisoners are eventually released once they serve the maximum jail term for the crime they are accused of committing. But those released under these circumstances have their identification cards stamped with a mark that, for the police and future employers, is tantamount to a previous conviction, even though the former prisoners never received a trial.

      Numerous incidents of severe beating of men, women and adolescents in police precincts throughout the country were reported in 1991. Human rights lawyers report an increasing numbers of minors subjected to torture, and complain that prison authorities in the detention center for minors do not cooperate in facilitating medical exams to confirm injuries.

      Reports were also received that the military continues to detain minors under the minimum draft age of seventeen and to induct them into the military. For example, sixteen-year-old Claudio Norberto Cuevas disappeared and was later found forcibly serving in a military barracks in Mariscal Estigarriba. On June 10, the newspaper ABC Color reported that the boy had been shot and killed.

      The courts are currently investigating over a dozen cases of torture and assassination from the Stroessner era. While Paraguay is the only new democracy in the Southern Cone in which no amnesty law protects those responsible for committing abuses during past regimes, trials have generally not moved forward. Only one case, regarding the murder of Mario Schaerer Prono, has reached the trial stage. Four police officials are in detention awaiting the decision, although press reports indicate that at least two of these infamous torturers have been seen walking the streets of Asunción. Most observers believe they are given special privileges and are allowed to return to their homes on weekends.

The Right to Monitor

      Several nongovernmental human rights groups now operate in Paraguay, generally without interference. However, three leading human rights lawyers involved in judicial prosecution of police responsible for past human rights violations reported receiving numerous telephoned and written death threats. The lawyers, Pedro Darío Portillo, Rodolfo Manuel Aseretto and Francisco de Vargas,50 formally demanded an investigation in March. On March 10 unidentified gunmen opened fire on de Vargas's home.

U.S. Policy

      Over the last several years, Americas Watch has applauded the stance taken by the U.S. Embassy in Asunción on human rights issues. Ambassador Timothy Towell did not hesitate to condemn human rights violations publicly, and most recently, in February 1991, denounced the threats received by journalist Hector Guerrín and a parliamentary delegation involved in an investigation of an illegal airstrip in Alto Parana.

      The new U.S. ambassador, John Glassman, has continued this tradition, despite criticism in the Paraguayan press that he is paternalistic and interventionist. Ambassador Glassman has been active in the defense of press freedoms and, in September, intervened in two separate cases in which journalists had been charged with slander by private citizens closely linked to the government. In one of those cases, the ambassador's expression of outrage brought about the release from custody through a judicial pardon of radio journalist Víctor Benítez, who had been convicted on criminal charges of slander for an opinion he expressed about the owner of the newspaper Hoy, the probable future treasury minister.

      The United States gave Paraguay $175,000 in military-training assistance and $400,000 in counternarcotics police aid during fiscal year 1991. The Bush Administration noted in its aid request that "the armed forces may also soon take a more active role in interdicting narcotics smugglers" _ a prediction which appears to explain the additional $500,000 in military grants requested by the Administration for fiscal year 1992.

      In February 1991, trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences were reinstated. During the Stroessner era the United States had suspended benefits, as required by U.S. law, in response to the government's labor rights violations. Americas Watch opposed the reinstatement of benefits because of continuing labor rights violations and a failure to reform repressive labor laws.

The Work of Americas Watch

      In February, Americas Watch published a newsletter, "New Outburst of Violence in Land Disputes," which documented abuses committed by soldiers and police during evictions. The report also described the failure of the government and the judiciary to address the problem of gunmen hired by landowners to intimidate and in some cases murder peasant leaders.

      An Americas Watch mission visited Asunción in February to present the report to government officials and meet with local reporters. Considerable press attention was given to the visit. In response to reporters' questions on his reaction to the report, President Rodríguez implicitly acknowledged abuses but tried to justify them. After charging that the report was "slightly exaggerated," he went on to say that "above all I would like to tell all those that believe we are committing abuses or not keeping our promise to respect human rights, that here the people don't respect the law either."51

      In April, America Watch sent a letter to President Rodríguez expressing concern over the continued use of violence during evictions. Another letter was sent to the Paraguayan Rural Association in response to an advertisement published in several newspapers complaining that the newsletter had not taken into account the human rights of the landowners. The letter explained Americas Watch's belief that the government should guarantee the rights of both parties to such conflicts, but that so far, at least, the judiciary, the police and the armed forces appear to have been at the disposition of only the landowners, while the rights of peasant squatters have been ignored.

de Vargas is also a congressman for the opposition Authentic Radical Liberal Party.

ABC Color, March 1, 1991.

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