Caracas, Venezuela, October 6, 2005—96 peasant leaders were assassinated in Venezuela between 1999 and 2005, according to a report of the attorney general’s office that was released yesterday. Venezuela’s Attorney General commissioned an investigation into the murders of 138 peasant leaders, following a protest from one of Venezuela’s main peasant organizations, the National Agrarian Coordinator Ezequiel Zamora (CANEZ), that the Attorney General has not done enough to prosecute those responsible.
CANEZ had presented a list of 138 contract killings of peasant leaders a few months ago, which a special commission of the Attorney General’s office investigated. The investigation found that of these 96 could be classified as politically motivated assassinations. Only five cases have led to convictions. Also, 23 arrest warrants have been issued, of which 16 still need to be carried out because the suspects have gone into hiding.
The total number of contract killings in Venezuela was 526 during the period of 1999 to 2005, according to Nerva Ramirez, who presented the Attorney General’s Office report. Ramirez stressed that the Attorney General's Office has very limited resources, as there are only 285 prosecutors who work on these types of cases and that these each has to process an average of 452 cases per year.
The assassinations almost always involve peasant leaders who are active in the land reform, usually in cases where peasants organize to take over and to cultivate land that is claimed by large landowners. In many cases the peasants have received title to the land as a result of the government’s land reform program, but where large land owners refuse to recognize these titles. According to peasant leaders and government officials, many large landowners have taken over state-owned land that is adjacent to their property and have simply claimed it as their own. Conflicts ensue when the National Land Institute, which is responsible for the land reform, issues titles for this land.
CANEZ and other peasant organizations, such as the Frente Campesina and the human rights group Provea, have repeatedly complained that the government is not doing enough to prosecute those responsible for peasant leader assassinations.
A recent Provea report says that at least state security forces, such as the police, are no longer the perpetrators of peasant leader assassinations, as used to be the case in previous administrations. Provea, though, does hold state security forces responsible for numerous extra-judicial executions of presumed criminals and has stated that the government must do more to put an end to such executions.