The job of Paraguay's President Fernando Lugo is on the line after lawmakers voted on Thursday to start impeachment proceedings over his role in deadly clashes between police and squatters.
The surprise move criticising Lugo's "poor performance" was approved by 76 votes in the lower house, after the Liberal Party withdrew support for the leftist president. Only one lawmaker voted against it.
Lugo delivered a televised address to the nation shortly after the vote and vowed to face his impeachment trial with "all its consequences."
Soon thereafter the Senate, where only five of 45 senators support Lugo, also approved impeaching the president. A motion to grant Lugo three days to organize his defense earned only three votes.
Lugo is scheduled to present his defence midday (1600 GMT) Friday, and the senators will act as judges. Senate officials said that a final verdict will be announced at 2030 GMT Friday.
Underscoring the gravity of the crisis, South American nations attending the Rio+20 United Nations sustainable development summit in Brazil immediately dispatched a ministerial mission to Paraguay.
The foreign ministers of all leading South American countries — including Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and Colombia — travelled aboard the same airplane and upon landing in the capital Asuncion headed directly to Lugo's residence.
Earlier, Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota said the ministers were dispatched "to insure the right to defend democracy" in Paraguay.
Latin American leaders, most of whom experienced the dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, are sensitive to any break in the democratic process in their region.
At least six police officers and 11 peasant farmers were killed Friday when police entered a privately-held farm in northeast Paraguay to remove squatters.
The poor farmers claimed the huge estate, owned by a businessman, was acquired by political influence decades ago.
Lugo, a former Catholic bishop once known as the "bishop of the poor," fought back at what he said is a show trial orchestrated by his political enemies.
"I refuse to renounce my functions and vow to abide by the political process with all its consequences," he said. The people's will is "under relentless attack by groups that are always opposed to change."
Lugo accused his opponents of trying to "rob the people of their supreme decision" when they elected him to a five-year term in 2008, ending six decades of rule by the right-wing Colorado Party.
Attorney General Enrique Garcia, who will defend the president during the impeachment, vowed to vigorously defend the president.
Mario Elizeche, the attorney who defended former president Raul Cubas in a 1999 impeachment, was appalled at how quickly events were moving.
"It is impossible to mount a defense in 24 hours," said Elizeche. "The defence needs time to prepare properly."
In Washington, State Department spokesperson William Ostick said that it is important that Paraguay's democracy and government institutions "serve the interests" of the people.
"It is therefore critically important that these institutions act in a deliberate and transparent manner, and that the principles of due process and the rights of the accused by scrupulously respected," Ostick said.
If Lugo loses power, Vice President Federico Franco would take the helm of one of South America's poorest countries. He leads the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, part of Lugo's ruling coalition.
In an attempt to defuse the crisis, Lugo announced on Wednesday the formation of a special group of "civilian notables" to investigate the killings.
The landlocked South American nation relies heavily on agriculture, and is one of the world's leading soy producers. Land disputes are common in a country where two percent of the people owning 80 percent of the land.
Most rural residents earn their living by subsistence farming, but the economy has grown with the rising price of commodities.
The next presidential election is scheduled for 23 April, and Lugo's presidential term officially ends on 15 August 2013.
Lugo, who was recently treated for lymphatic cancer, has said he will not seek another term.