International human rights advocates on Wednesday commended Colombia on the return of stolen land to 32 displaced families in the northwest Cordoba department. However, some reservations remain.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) which had previously been critical of the Victims’ Law which includes the Land Restitution Law, hailed the occasion as “a major step.”
Returning the stolen land is only the first step to successful redress however, as “leaders and families seeking land restitution have faced widespread threats,” according to Max Schoening, a Colombia researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Authorities should take “vigorous measures” to protect those whose land has been returned to them said HRW. Although many land claimants have been provided with “protection measures such as cell phones, bullet proof vests and bodyguards,” there has been “very little progress in ensuring accountability for abuses against restitution leaders, which is the most effective form of protection,” Schoening told Colombia Reports.
This ruling by the land restitution tribunal returned 405 acres of land to farmers who had been forced from their homes by members linked to paramilitary group the AUC between 1999 and 2002.
Nearly 30,000 people have put in claims to have their land returned to them and so far 16 rulings have been issued returning approximately 1,200 acres of land, which has been seen in some corners as a facade.
However reports of threats and violence against those who are seeking the return of their land is widespread. Mario Cuitiva, leader of the claimants in this case, has reported several threats against him, even forcing him to flee Cordoba last November, according to HRW.
The previous leader of the group Yolanda Izquierdo was shot dead in 2007. Sor Teresa Gomez was convicted of her murder in absentia in 2011. Gomez has reportedly been identified as a former AUC member and part of the notorious Los Urabeños crime gang.
The human rights group says that the most important thing at this stage is to protect the families who are returning to their land. “Beyond bodyguards and security force protection, this means holding accountable and locking up those responsible for stealing the land and abusing the leaders who have tried to get it back,” said HRW.
FACT SHEET: Colombia displacement statistics
Interview with Max Schoening, a Colombian researcher with HRW