Having arrived back in Caracas after more than two weeks visiting various rural communities, leaders from the National Campesino Front Ezequiel Zamora (FNCEZ) told us that the bodies of two of their comrades, missing since April 12, had been found.
Jose Joel Torres Leves and Agustin Gamboa Duran were leading land reform activists in the Comunal City Antonio Jose de Sucre, in Barinas state.
On April 12, they were kidnapped by a group of heavily armed men wearing balaclavas who raided their family home. The thugs beat and tortured other male members of the extended family present, then tied them up and covered them over with black plastic.
They warned the family that if anyone informed the authorities about their ordeal, they would be back to kill them all.
Two days later, the bodies of Torres Leves and Gamboa Duran were found on the outskirts of the city, 17 kilometres from their home and with execution-style bullet wounds in their skulls.
Their bodies were brutally disfigured almost beyond recognition.
Such stories are a cruel feature of the life and death struggle in Venezuela’s countryside, as rich large landowners fight to hold onto their power and privileges in the face of government-promoted land reform to the benefit of poor farmers.
On April 26, National Assembly deputy and leader of the Jirajara Campesino Movement (MCJ) Braulio Alvarez ― himself the victim of several attempts on his life by hired assassins ― denounced the murder of two more peasants in Barinas at the hands of paramilitaries.
Their murders took the number of peasants assassinated since the introduction of the controversial new land law in 2001 to 255.
When the law was first announced in November 2001, large landowners publicly burnt copies of the law on TV, saying they would refuse to obey it.
Since then, the government and peasants have faced a campaign of intimidation and violence every time they tried to implement a law whose purpose is to bring justice to the countryside.
In January, the government decreed the expropriation of idle lands in Zulia state ― uncovering cases of peasants being kept in slave-like conditions.
In response, local landowners burnt down the National Land Institute office that was coordinating government actions in the area.
As a result of constant death threats against officials from the institute, soldiers from the National Guard have had to be stationed throughout the area for protection.
Despite the violence, no one has yet been found guilty of these crimes.
Coti, an FNCEZ leader, explained that for decades the wealthy large landowners used their power to establish networks of influence and corruption within the judicial system, bribing judges, local police and military authorities.
The types of arms and vehicles used in the raid, Coti noted, suggested possible direct involvement of corrupt state intelligence agents in the atrocities committed against her two comrades.
Faced with this situation, the FNCEZ, together with MCJ and other social organisations, launched a campaign against impunity on May 13.
They declared: “Only a popular offensive, hand in hand with President Hugo Chavez, can detain these criminal actions against the people and rescue the justice system which has been taken hostage by the oligarchies.”
In this fight, the peasants count upon an important weapon promoted by the Chavez government ― peasant militias.
MCJ leader and national assembly deputy Joel Pineda said that the peasant movement can no longer continue “asking for justice from a system that has given impunity to large landowners so that they can continue assassinating peasants”.
“Instead, we must give life to the proposal to form peasant militias and put an end to so much negligence and injustice in the judicial system.”