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Brazil peasant massacre stirs anger 5 years later

CNN, Reuters, 18 April 2001

BRASILIA, Brazil (Reuters) -- Five years after the biggest peasant massacre in modern Brazilian history, poor rural workers still face ingrained police violence and huge inequalities in land distribution, activists say.

On April 17, 1996, police opened fire on thousands of peasant demonstrators who were blocking a highway to demand land near Eldorado do Carajas in the Amazon state of Para. Nineteen members of the radical Landless Movement (MST) were killed.

The massacre opened the world's eyes to the widespread violence in Brazil's vast rural interior.

But five years later, not one person has been convicted for the murders and activists say that little has changed for rural workers struggling to win a piece of land.

Taking justice into their own hands, peasant families organize mass invasions of land, especially large holdings that are thought to be underused.

Landowners usually call in the police to evict them or organize their own vigilante groups.

Torture, enslavement and violent clashes between squatters and officials, as well as vigilante groups funded by powerful landholders, are the reality for millions of peasants who have been left behind by the economic boom sweeping much of Brazil.

The massacre served to show the huge injustices that exist in Brazil where 1 percent of landholders own 50 percent of the land, said Jovelino Strozake, the MST's human rights spokesman. It is one of the world's biggest concentrations.

The date, April 17, was declared international agrarian reform day while in Brazil, the government created the Agrarian Development Ministry to try to overcome inequalities and redistribute land, but that has not been enough.

Despite the creation of the Agrarian Development Ministry, the violence continues, said Antonio Canuto, a director of the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), a wing of the Roman Catholic Church that sympathizes with the MST's struggle for land.

It is even more institutionalized now because (landowners) use the state judicial power to evict squatters, he said.

In the case of Eldorado do Carajas, the 150 police officers accused of murder are still awaiting trial. The three officers charged with ordering the massacre were acquitted by a Para state court in 1999, sparking public outrage.

The decision, which Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso criticized, was annulled a few months later and the new trial is expected to start this May.

The state justice systems are closely tied to the state's economic interests and to the land barons, Strozake said. Some 95 percent of peasant murders are met with impunity.

On Monday, MST members will begin assembling in state capitals for protests on Tuesday across the country to remember the massacre and pressure Congress to pass a law that would shift human rights cases to federal courts from state courts.

The MST and other rural groups represent one of the biggest social struggles in Brazil, a country defined by inequalities, where the richest 10 percent of the population earns 20 times more than the poorest 40 percent.

The CPT's Canuto said last year alone he received numerous reports of alleged torture and of work conditions very similar to enslavement.

Still, the government says it has made important steps in land redistribution by seizing land that lies fallow.

Cardoso says that under his two terms as president, starting in 1995, he redistributed more land than during all of the democratically elected governments before his, resulting in a decline in land invasions. In 2000, the government registered 226 invasions, down from 428 in 1999.