Paramilitaries and drug traffickers may have controlled 10% of Colombia’s land, according to a 2007 diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks Sunday, via El Espectador.
The figure came from a series of studies which showed that the criminal groups had the potential to exert larger-than-expected control over areas by forcing people from their land.
Results from a World Bank report included in the same cable provide some support for the scale of illegal control, though their report put the figure at a lower rate, accounting for only 4-5% of Colombia’s total land area.
The issue was compounded further by warnings from several opposition organizations who believed that the pending Congress Rural Development Act in 2007, an initiative oriented toward land redistribution, would instead allow illegal groups to formalize their control over the land through legal avenues and then sell it back to the communities from whom it was stolen.
Although Colombia’s Institute for Rural Development (Incoder) rejected these claims, saying that the land belonging to communities was constitutionally protected and thus immune to legal appropriation by a criminal group, the U.S. Embassy in Bogota expressed its pessimism on the matter.
The cable relays how the U.S. believed the Act faced serious problems relating to the establishment of the property rights of indigenous, peasant and Afro-Colombian communities. Furthermore, it had considerable doubts over the legitimacy of Incoder as a handling agency for the process due to its former director being enveloped in corruption allegations linking him to paramilitaries.
As a result, the Embassy stated that it would conduct an investigation into U.S. aid to the country in order to be sure that none was being received by the groups responsible for stealing land.
Although the demobilization process of the AUC from 2003-2006 involved a clause whereby the paramilitary organization promised to return all stolen land to its rightful owners, only a very small portion has so far been transferred back.
Part of the reason for this is the emergence of neo-paramilitary and drug trafficking organizations out of the demobilization process. These groups have since supplanted their predecessors in illegally appropriating land for illicit activities.
Last year the Constitutional Court estimated the amount of illegally obtained land to be around 13.6 million acres, roughly 5% of Colombia’s land area. However, at this moment in time there exists no exact figure.
President Juan Manuel Santos has initiated a drive under the as yet to be ratified Victims Law which aims to hand back five million acres over four years, some of which has already been redistributed this year.
However, one of the biggest obstacles to redistribution efforts remains the fear and intimidation utilized by armed groups in order to keep stolen land. Leaders representing the displaced claimants are frequently targeted by these groups, with seven already having been assassinated this year.