In this farm town once ruled by drug-running rebels, Mayor Eliecer Vargas wants to pave the dirt roads, install water pipes and build parks. He wants to convince people that the government is on their side.
But hardly anyone living in and around La Macarena holds legal title to their land. As a result, they pay no property taxes, rendering the town hall nearly bankrupt.
“We should be taking in about 200 million pesos [about $100,000] per year,” Vargas said. “But there’s no way to collect.”
Here in the southern plains of Colombia where coca — the raw material for cocaine — has long been the main cash crop, the lack of land titles is more than just a tax concern: It’s a national security issue.
That’s because Colombia’s farm economy runs on credit. Coca growers trying to switch from drugs to legal crops can’t buy seeds, fertilizer or machinery because they lack the land titles required to secure bank loans.
Many peasants have lived on their land for decades yet have the legal status of squatters. This legal limbo makes it easier for drug traffickers — who are quick to provide start-up money — to convince them to grow coca and for guerrillas to recruit their sons and daughters into the war.
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