Ruben Quesnel, former head of Paraguay’s Indigenous Institute, recently received a six and a half year prison sentence for illegally selling indigenous land.

Paraguay Official Sentenced for Illegal Sale of Indigenous Lands, Faces Other Charges

Rick Kearns

The former head of Paraguay’s Indigenous Institute was sentenced last month to six and a half years in prison for illegally selling indigenous land; and is also awaiting trial for allegedly stealing $700,000 from the Institute that had been earmarked for poverty relief and development following a judgement against the country from the Inter American Court of Human Rights.

A Federal Paraguayan Tribunal handed down the sentence of six and a half years against Ruben Quesnel on April 16 for the illegal sale of 61,776 acres to Julia Vargas, who has returned titles to the land to the Institute while Quesnel’s accomplice, notary Justina Esteche, received a two year sentence for her role in the crime.

Quesnel became head of the Institute (known as INDI) in 2012, not long after the coup that ousted former President of Paraguay Fernando Lugo. In November of that year Quesnel made the illegal sale of land belonging to the Cuyabia community of the Ayoreo people in the Chaco region, on which 19 indigenous families were living.

According to The Indigenous World Report 2014 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Ayoreo community took action against the land theft.

“In an exemplary act of resistance, organization and mobilization, the indigenous Ayoreo came out in protest, setting up road blocks and demanding reparation of their rights in order to ensure that, despite the formal transfer of ownership, the community would still be able to live on its lands.”

Soon after the protests the case was referred to the Special Unit for Economic Crimes and Corruption of the Public Prosecutor’s Office. By 2014 the Prosecutors had filed charges against Quesnel and Esteche regarding the illegal sale of the Ayoreo lands which, like all indigenous communal property, is protected by the Paraguayan Constitution.

Before the Prosecutors had filed charges against Quesnel for the illegal sale they had already started to investigate the allegations that Quesnel and some associates had stolen $700,000 from INDI that had been earmarked for food, medical goods, road and housing works for the impoverished Yakye Axa and Sawhoyamaxa communities. The theft and corruption charges were then registered against Quesnel in late 2013.

The Yakye Axa and Sawhoyamaxa peoples had been displaced from their lands and were in the midst of a dispute with a powerful landowner when the theft occurred. These communities had been living in difficult conditions even after the Inter American Court of Human Rights had ordered Paraguay to return close to 30,000 acres to the communities.

According to activist Oscar Ayala, of the Tierra Viva legal advocacy organization, the monies would have provided much needed assistance to the indigenous communities.

“Both communities have been living on the edge of a road for 20 years,” Ayala said in a press interview in 2013.

“In the case of Yakye Axa, they have land but they cannot enter it to inhabit the forest areas because they have no roads; meanwhile, the Sawhoyamaxa people will continue to live on the side of the road waiting for Congress to approve the request of expropriation of 35,000 acres, in the same area, currently in the hands of German citizen Heribert Roedel.”

No date had been set for the charges connected with the alleged theft as of press time.

In late April of this year, Quesnel’s attorney announced that they would appeal the sentence for the illegal sale of Ayoreo lands.

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