Venezuela’s Peasant Leaders Demand Justice and Protection

Since the Venezuelan land reform was passed four years ago an estimated 130 peasant leaders and activists have been assassinated. On Monday, land reform and peasant groups marched on Caracas to demand justice and protection from the Venezuelan government.

Campesinos marched on Venezuela’s National Assembly, demanding justice and an end to impunity for assassins of peasant leaders.
Credit: ABN

Caracas, Venezuela, July 13, 2005—“Zamora took Caracas” on Monday, as agrarian workers affiliated with the National Agrarian Coordinator Ezequiel Zamora (CANEZ)—named after the 19th Century hero of Venezuelan peasants—marched through the city demanding an end to the assassination of land reform leaders.  Over 6,000 Venezuelan campesinos congregated outside the National Assembly, and later, outside of the Attorney General’s office to demand an end to impunity for those responsible for over 130 assassinations.

Since the Venezuelan government passed a controversial land reform law in 2001, conflicts between land reform activists and land-owners have resulted in at least 150 assassinations of campesinos, and possibly more.  Since January, 2005 when the land reform initiative was given a new push by President Hugo Chávez, violence in the countryside has escalated further.

Claudia Jardim, a journalist who produces a special bi-monthly documentary on the country’s land reform process says the political murder-rate in the countryside has jumped to an estimated one peasant leader per week since January.

Campesinos marching on the National Assembly and Attorney General’s office submitted a document listing a series of demands to secure government protection for those on the frontlines of the land reform and to seek an end to impunity for the material and intellectual authors of the assassinations.

Specifically, their demands included the establishment of a series of special prosecutors to be assigned to the states that have witnessed the most serious levels of violence over the past few years.

The CANEZ also submitted a document to the Attorney General complete with evidence linking specific latifundistas—landowners—to the violence.  Campesino leader and recent victim of an attempted assassination, Braulio Alvarez, was on hand during the protest and afterwards, where he was interviewed on state television channel 8.  According to Alvarez, some of the richest landowning families in Zulia, Cojedes and Yaracuy (see map) are responsible for contracting killers to rid them of bothersome peasant leaders.

A Worrisome Trend

But according to peasant activists, every agricultural state has seen the use of hired-killers, known as sicarios, against peasant leaders pushing for land reform.  In addition to the three states mentioned above, Lara, Guarico, Barinas, and Portuguesa have also seen violence directed against campesino movements, including the use of sicarios.

Marino Alvarado, Defense Coordinator for Venezuelan human rights group Provea told Venezuelanalysis.com that “Campesinos have been the targets of assassination in Venezuela for decades.”  Nor is the problem of hired-killers, the “sicariato,” anything new in Venezuela, according to Alvarado.  “Perhaps what is new is that the phenomenon has increased considerably,” he says.  “Since 2000, the number of campesinos assassinated has increased rapidly, under specific conditions suggesting the involvement of sicarios, hired-assassins… Today, the sicariato is a problem nationwide, though it remains very much concentrated in the frontier.”

“What has changed of late,” explains Alvarado, “is that sicarios have been increasing the number of victims, and they have been widening their reach.  In the past, sicarios tended to kill those linked to illicit activities, drugs, corruption, and so forth.  Later this was extended to incorporate political activists, whether related to land reform, human rights, or community politics.”  Over the past five years the sicario has been “diversifying his victims, and he has become more sophisticated in his methods.”

The state launched an ambitious land reform, argues journalist Jardim, without sufficiently advancing a strategy for protecting peasant leaders from the entirely predictable violent reaction of the landowning class.

From the Military to the Hired Assassin

For Alvarado, the sicariato represents another important development, and that is in the transition from the use of state sponsored repression, to the use of private killers.  Since the Chávez government came to power in 1998, says Alvarado, repression in the countryside has largely been at the hands of private forces, forces outside the state police and military apparatus.  2005 may become the exception, he warns, noting that two peasant activists have already been killed by the Armed Forces.

In the past, the Venezuelan Army, the National Guard, as well as regional police forces were regularly implicated in killings of peasant activists and leaders.  One infamous example was the 1988 Amaparo massacre, in which 14 “guerillas” were killed “in battle” by the Venezuelan military.  As it turned out, the alleged ELN Colombian guerillas were in fact Venezuelan peasants on a fishing expedition.  The military planted weapons on them and ELN insignia, then hastily buried the bodies without the required autopsy.

Since the Chávez government has redefined the role of the Venezuelan military, and radically challenged existing power relations in the Venezuelan countryside, landowners looking for retribution against peasant groups have turned to the sicario, the hired-killer to play the repressive role in rural areas that the military has largely abandoned.

Looking for Justice

The problem, says Ezequiel Zamora Front leader Domingo Santana, is the “situation of abandonment that peasants inhabiting frontier zones—especially in Apure—are currently living.”

“The most worrisome aspect of this entire issue,” says Provea Defense director Marino Alvarado, “is that the sicariato continues killing unpunished.”  “That is not to say that sicarios enjoy special protection or impunity,” says Alvarado.  In fact, they enjoy the same benefits of everyday murderers: a Justice system that is incapable or unwilling to adequately investigate these crimes and bring killers to justice.

With this impunity, warns Alvarado, the sicariato has been evolving into a truly developed class of professional killers, no longer restricted to operating in the frontier regions, but now essentially free to operate throughout the country, including Caracas.  Alvarado suspects that the car-bomb assassination of Public Prosecutor Danilo Anderson in November, 2004 was at the hands of sicarios—perhaps the same ones operating in the countryside.

CANEZ and other land reform groups have repeatedly suspected specific landowners in the assassinations of their leaders.  Often, the links appear clear, at least to the campesino groups in question: land reform activists occupy land for which they have legal title; they come into conflict with neighboring landowners who have illegal claim to the land; masked killers surprise the group’s leaders and kill them.

As a human rights group, Provea cannot say that landowners are clearly responsible for the killings of peasant leaders, says Alvarado.  “We do not have the proof that unquestionably links these landowners to the killings of peasants…It is not for us to accuse, that is the job of the Attorney General’s office…Nonetheless, it is presumed that in at least some of the cases, some of the people involved were contracted by landowners.”

This view has been widely corroborated by other human rights groups in the country.  Last April a group calling itself the Forum for Life, which brought together the most active and widely respected human rights groups in the country, issued a communiqué to the Venezuelan government, demanding that the state take a clear proactive role in protecting the lives of peasant leaders against assassination.

“The frequency with which in the past few years, activists and leaders of the campesino movement have been assassinated represents a grave situation that obligates the national government to present a prompt and fitting response,” reads the opening sentence of the report.  “The occurrences of violent acts in the Venezuelan countryside reflect the inadequacy of current security policies and evidence the state’s responsibility, due to omission.  Though high-level government officials have expressed their preoccupation with these events, mere declarations have proven insufficient.  What is required is a policy that facilitates investigations, guarantees the protection of campesinos and their leaders and, in general, the improvement of citizens’ security in the countryside.”

A Quick Response

Peasant leaders and activists marching on the capital on Monday were met by an impressive array of high-level government leaders.  At the National Assembly (AN), First Vice-President Ricardo Gutiérrez spoke to the crowd overflowing into the AN’s gardens and the streets outside, announcing the establishment of a special commission to discuss and respond to the principal problems of Venezuelan peasants.  Gutiérrez is currently leading a commission investigating the assassinations of and aggressions against peasant and indigenous leaders and activists.

Peasant movements will select 15 representatives to join the commission, which will visit the states in which sicarios have threatened to halt the land reform process now fully underway.  “We know you are here calling for justice,” Gutiérrez told the crowd of around 6,000.  “We will pressure the public institutions to do justice.”

Minister of Agriculture and Land, Antonio Albarrán, also addressed the crowd that came to Caracas from all over the country.  Albarrán announced the creation of a sub-commission to be presided by Alcides Rondón, Vice-Minister of Citizen Security of the Ministry of Justice and the Interior.  The sub-commission led by Rondón will also investigate the assassinations as well as formulate preventative policies designed to improve security in the Venezuelan countryside.

Albarrán added that representatives from peasant groups and from the Attorney General’s office would be incorporated into Regional Councils previously established to address rural and land reform issues.

CANEZ leaders were also received by representatives of the Venezuelan executive at the Presidential Palace Miraflores.  In a Monday night press conference Information Minister Andrés Izarra said the issue is of the utmost interest to the President, and should involve the cooperation and dedication of all relevant ministries.

Whether these responses will have the desired effect remains to be seen.  Organizers of the march stated that the “in the face of repeated assassinations, the alternative is to deepen the agrarian revolution, continue the expropriations according to the Land Law, mobilize the masses of campesinos, and secure decisive action by the Armed Forces against the guilty parties.”

But a resolution to the crisis in the countryside is likely far away.  The power struggle unleashed with the 2001 Land Law was widely considered to be a major motivation for the anti-Chávez opposition’s coup attempt in April, 2002, and it continues to be violently contested by landed interests in rural Venezuela. 

As evidenced by recent events, most notably the extra-judicial killings of an estimated 200 people over the past several years in the state of Guarico in which the Governor has been implicated, and the similar killings of three students two weeks ago in a Caracas neighborhood, the Venezuelan security apparatus is in need of complete overhaul.  While such an overhaul has recently begun, it will have to prove to be sufficiently profound for it to make a difference.

There is a culture of violence intrinsic in Venezuela’s police institutions in particular, but also including the military, which is by no means specific to Venezuela.  Police and military in Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina have all been implicated in horrible massacres over the past few years.  According to New York University historian Greg Grandin, this culture of violence is a legacy of Cold War state terrorism, one that many critics charge was bred by the infamous U.S. School of the Americas to which Latin America’s most notorious dictators sent their officers for training in “interrogation techniques,” among other hallmarks of “modern counterinsurgency.”  Replacing such a culture of violence with a mission to protect Venezuelan citizens goes further than merely neutering the military and police’s repressive capacity; it also means ending the impunity of Venezuelan criminals, whether their crimes are politically motivated or not.