Paraguay's president calls for end to unrest after killing of activist

Laurence Blair in Asunción
Police guarding Paraguay’s congress in Asuncion. Photograph: Jorge Saenz/AP

Paraguay’s president has appealed for calm in a video published on his official Facebook page, after protests erupted this weekend over behind-the-scenes constitutional wrangling to enable him to run for office again in 2018.

Protesters stormed and set fire to Paraguay’s congress on Friday, with subsequent confrontations in the streets of the capital ending in the fatal shooting by police of a 25-year-old activist in an opposition party headquarters.

President Horacio Cartes, a soft-drinks and tobacco mogul who leads the right-wing Colorado party, offered his “most sincere condolences” to the family of Rodrigo Quintana, adding that “the perpetrators of this horrendous episode will face justice”.

Cartes claimed that business and media interests instigated the protests, lamenting that “citizens always pay with their personal sacrifice, while the promoters of these operations watch them on television without revealing their nefarious interests”.

Soon after the video was posted, Cartes made his first public appearance in several days at an investment conference feted by the government as an opportunity to showcase Paraguay’s fast-growing economy and attract outside investors. Addressing businesses and policymakers from around the region, Cartes said that Paraguay’s democracy was strong and highlighted the huge amount of red meat and soya beans exported by the country every year.

Paraguay’s President Horacio Cartes. Photograph: Jorge Adorno/Reuters

Meanwhile in the square outside Paraguay’s fire-blackened congress, which had been set alight on Friday, protesters gathered to hold a vigil for Quintana, a youth leader of the opposition Liberal party (PLRA), and to call for the president’s impeachment. More details also emerged over the the weekend about the circumstances of his death at the hands of police. Shocking video footage posted online, taken inside the party headquarters, appeared to show the moment that police burst into the building, shooting Quintana in the back as he tried to flee.

Forensic investigators found that Quintana died as a result of lead shotgun pellets penetrating his lungs. Witnesses claimed that the police threatened to kill everyone inside the building. “They kept saying that their comrades had been hit [by protesters] so they had to take revenge,” Silvio Nuñez, a Liberal party official, told the Guardian.

Gustavo Florentín, the police officer allegedly responsible – who, along with other implicated officers, could face up to 30 years in prison for homicide – claimed that he thought his weapon was loaded with rubber projectiles.

A police official denied that orders came from higher up to storm the headquarters of the country’s main opposition party and claimed that the police unit was responding to reports of fighting and shots nearby.

Soon after the details of Quintana’s killing came to light, both the interior minister and the chief of police stepped down.

Efrain Alegre, the leader of the PLRA, himself injured during protests on Friday – has promised to begin impeachment proceedings against Cartes, although the Colorado-controlled congress is unlikely to let the attempt get far.

The mayor of Asunción, Mario Ferreiro, called for the controversial constitutional amendment proposal to be withdrawn. “We’re facing a time bomb that could explode at any moment,” he said. “If this proposal [for re-election] didn’t exist, Rodrigo Quintana wouldn’t be dead today.”

The Organisation of American States, the US Embassy, and the Vatican have all called for dialogue, with the embassy calling for any changes to the constitution to be held in an open and transparent way.

Further protests were planned for Sunday evening, before the probable introduction of the constitutional amendment in the chamber of deputies – the lower house – next week.

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