Hitmen Attempt to Assasinate Venezuelan Land Reform Leader

Land reform leader Braulio Alvarez barely escaped an assassination attempt last Thursday, after receiving three gunshot wounds. Violence against peasant activists has increased dramatically since a Land Reform law was passed in 2001. Human Rights groups charge that inadequate progress has been made in investigations.

Caracas, Venezuela, June 27, 2005—Land reform leader Braulio Alvarez barely escaped an assasination attempt last Thursday, after receiving two gunshot wounds.  Alvarez was intercepted on a highway in the Venezuelan state of Yaracuy by two gunmen after leaving a meeting with local landless workers.  The assassination attempt against Alvarez appears to fit into a larger pattern of violence against leaders of Venezuela’s land reform that has emerged since the Land Reform law was first passed in 2001.

Alvarez, a deputy to Venezuela’s National Assembly (AN) as well as an historic peasant leader, was meeting with landless workers last Thursday in the Northeastern Venezuelan state of Yaracuy, a region that includes both large agricultural holdings known as “latifundios” as well as a large manufacturing center.  As he left the meeting, a Chevy Blazer pulled up along side him and two masked men opened fire on his car.  Alvarez received a gunshot to his right shoulder, and one to his right leg, but is reported to be stable in hospital.

Since Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez passed a land reform law in 2001, violence against those attempting to implement the government’s planned reform has skyrocketed.

According to an April communiqué by an alliance of Venezuelan human rights groups called “Forum for Life” (Foro por la Vida), “The frequence with which over the past several years, activists and leaders of the national peasant movement have been assassinated represents a grave situation that obligates the government to present a fitting and opportune response.”  “According to denunciations by peasant groups,” the communiqué continues, “over 80 peasants have been assassinated over the past 8 years.”

However, many peasant associations put that number much higher.  The country’s largest peasant organization, allied with the state in the land reform, is the National Agricultural Coordinator Ezequiel Zamora (CANEZ), named after a Venezuelan hero of the 19th century Federalist Wars who fought for peasant rights.  CANEZ counts over 100 assasinations of peasants and peasant leaders just since 2001.

According to Claudia Jardim, a journalist for the State Cultural channel Vive who produces a special program on the country’s land reform process, the number of assassinations has increased sharply since January, when Chávez declared war on the Latifundios.  Since January, says Jardim, the political murder-rate in the countryside has jumped to an estimated one peasant leader per week.  That means Braulio Alvarez nearly missed becoming the estimated 24th victim of 2005.

The Forum for Life communiqué continues, noting that the method is the sicario or hitman.  Yet despite the clear escalation, the Forum notes that “at present there has yet to be a serious investigation to determine the material and intellectual responsibility,” for the sicariatos (“hits”).  Nonetheless, the Forum believes “there are sufficient indications to presume that behind a majority of these killings are sectors interested in boycotting the process of agrarian reform spearheaded by the government.”

Venezuela’s Forensic Police (CICPC) are reported to be cooperating with the recently restructured Military Intelligence Police (DISIP) in an investigation into the assassination attempt against Alvarez.