Armed Conflict | 3/17/2009 12:00:00 AM
The deadly fight for land in Colombia
Victims, who are reclaiming their land, are being assassinated, tortured, and threatened. Redress is failing and a bloody reversal of land distribution is occurring.
Over 5.5 million hectares were abandoned, taken over or transferred through spurious business deals, from which 385,000 families were expelled who are today trying to recover what they had lost. But instead of land, many of them have found death. Ten assassinations, 563 threats, rapes of women and children, beatings and flyers from the paramilitary Águilas Negras group in which they announce new massacres, offices of victims organizations that have been burned and looted. The harassment continues.
Just in Urabá four leaders who sought to recover their assets, stolen by paramilitary commanders but in fact are being held by frontmen, have died. In Córdoba many have given up reclaiming their property where today there are illegal crops. In Valle drug traffickers are killing peasants who received seized farms from the government.
How did it all happen?
Five types of plundering used by drug traffickers, paramilitaries and landowners who take advantage of forced displacement have been identified.
The most serious cases are those in which, with a pistol at the head, people had to sell at low prices. This is what happened in areas such as Urabá and in the areas where “Jorge 40” had his empire. Vicente Castaño, Raúl Hasbún and other paramilitary heads in the area used an ample network of frontmen to force the transfer of lands. There victims are reclaiming the return of 30,000 hectares.
Another form of stealing is that people, who although they have deeds for their land, they cannot return to it because it is occupied by armed groups, by frontmen or by squatters. It is the typical case that Salvatore Mancuso used in Córdoba. An example of it is what happened in Costa de Oro, where a farm of 885 hectares was awarded by the government to 59 small land owners in the early 1990s. They could never make use of the land because Fidel Castaño had installed himself there with his men, who let some of them stay as peons or tenants.
Later, Carlos Castaño “sold” the farm to Mancuso, who sent the message to the peasants who held deeds that either they “sell to me or I will buy it from your widow,” which was his battle cry. Some sold. But those who refused to do so were not able to return.
Another severe conflict is taking place between the very poor peasants and displaced persons. Many of those who abandoned the land had received them for the government. According to the law prior to 2007, if someone passed more than five years away from that land, it could be awarded to another. Today the displaced person arrives at the land showing the deed that more than a decade ago was authorized to him from Incora, the national land distribution agency, and finds a family – similarly poor or displaced - on his farm who also have a deed.
Lastly there are many lands of victims that simply became abandoned and continue being so. In this situation are something more than a million hectares located in very remote areas where there are no conditions of security – because of illegal crops, guerrillas or emerging gangs – and neither are there conditions of minimal development for a return that would guarantee a life of dignity.
The imminent failure of restitution and reparation of lands is reflected in the numbers. The paramilitaries have barely handed over 6,600 hectares to the victim reparation fund. Although they want to hand over more they cannot as Acción Social, the main government social agency involved in this process, receives only assets that are in full legal standing. That is, without debts and with up to date deeds. That is why many of their lands will end up in expropriated. Meanwhile they have only handed over about 60,000 hectares to displaced persons, many of whom have had to abandon their land again because of threats and mafia claims. The failure is such that only one percent of the lands usurped have been returned. That is a figure that should be declared a national shame.
Kafka in the countryside
In any country in the world that has a problem that is so crucial for economic and political life that involves so many people and that reflects in such a clear way the quality of the democracy that the country has the issue would be the center of debate. In Colombia no. The government believes that rather than applying grand policies, the cases should be resolved one by one and based on the legal challenges that the victims initiate. It is an exhausting path for the victims that lasts up to seven years fighting in courts for the recognition of their deeds.
Although many think that legal instruments are enough, in reality the resolution of the issue of land ownership that has historically been linked with violence and war, also needs a clearer political will. Especially in a context in which the consolidation of democractic security policies and how to address post-conflict issues is being discussed. In Guatemala, Sudan or in Rwanda, the return of displaced persons has been bloody because of similar motives that Colombia is experiencing.
Patricia Buriticá, a member of the Reparation Commission, says that the issue of expropriation of illegal assets needs to get unstuck. “Once the lands are seized they should be awarded to the victims. To begin with that is at least a half million hectares,” she says. In case that the government sees itself obligated to return this land to the alleged drug trafficker from whom it was seized, let the government indemnify them. If justice works well, these should be exceptional cases and not the norm, as has happened historically.
Another important thing is to rapidly create regional commissions for the return of assets. Given that there are thousands of lawsuits, problems of violence and weakness of local institutions, Bruiticá thinks that agreements should be made at the municipal level. “The restitution should be part of a process of reconstruction of the social and political fabric,” which would imply local authorities, landowners and victims sitting at a table to think about the future of the regions surrounding projects that generate wealth and reconciliation. Ultimately, this involves how to build state institutions in the rural areas where at times the mafias are more powerful than the institutions. It is essentially a political problem.
Perhaps it is a lot to ask but it isn’t impossible. One thing is sure and that is that today land deeds are not enough. A combination of new problems are setting the stage for the next war: armed groups are gaining territory, the illegal land owners are taking advantage of displaced people and the government continues to look at the problem askance. Or worse, the consolidation of a reverse land distribution, that is nothing more than an unfair and dark social order, built with blood and tears of many Colombians.