The murder of a social activist’s in northern Colombia that sparked indignation across the country reveals the systematic inability of peasants to find land.
María del Pilar Hurtado dedicated the last months of her life to negotiating a way for a group of landless peasants to live on a piece of land owned by wealthy and connected men.
Before arriving in the town she was murdered in, Maria was forcibly displaced from her home in Puerto Tejada near Cali where local narcos threatened to kill the victims representative, other members of the Victims’ Roundtable of Puerto Tejada told newspaper El Tiempo.
From narcos to land thieves
In Tierralta, Cordoba, Del Pilar did not confront narcos, but the father of the town mayor, Fabio Otero, one of many large landowners who became wealthy by dispossessing land from farmers displaced by paramilitary violence and an ally of former President Alvaro Uribe.
Otero became mayor in 2016 thanks to the support of Uribe’s far-right Democratic Center party.
Maria settled on a plot on the outskirts of Tierralta where other landless farmers, victims of displacement and homeless locals had begun building a neighborhood of shacks in 2013, according to newspaper El Espectador.
At first, the mayor of the town met with the squatters to negotiate the terms of their living arrangements. Otero reportedly promised that if Del Pilar and her neighbors vacated the land for a short time, he and his father would work out a way to divide up some small plots and give it to them permanently.
Not soon after, the mayor broke his promise and told the occupants they could not settle in the area at all. Without a home or the means to relocate, the group felt forced to re-settle on the Otero family plot in late May.
The mayor’s office ordered riot police to disperse the people, according to Andres Chica, a local man that helped the community defend their rights.
The police were seen driving around in cars near the property and behind them were armed people on motorcycles, frightening them with shots in the air. This is why the people say that paramilitaries operate together with the security forces.
The next day, on June 1, pamphlets signed by paramilitary group AGC appeared in the neighborhood, The pamphlets warned the “unemployed sons of bitches” on the Otero plot they were now “military objectives.”
Three weeks after the pamphlet appeared, Del Pilar was assassinated. According to Chica, she was the third person on the death list to be killed.
Returning to Cauca
Her body and her four children returned to Cauca, the province Del Pilar had left to avoid an almost certain death.
Maria del Pilar Hurtado left Puerto Tejada because of death threats and today she returns in a coffin.
Victims representative Rocio Perez
Chica was also forced to flee Tierralta after his account of what happened in the town triggered a national wave of indignation and also he received death threats.
The mayor, the boss of the local police, will now have to deal with national authorities after the Prosecutor General’s Office sent a special investigation unit to investigate the social leader’s homicide.