Threatened prominent land restitution advocate has told Colombia Reports why land is not being returned to those displaced in Colombia’s conflict.
The priest Jesus Alberto Franco, of Colombian NGO the Intereclesial Commission for Justice and Peace (CIJP), has accused associates of former president Alvaro Uribe of blocking land restitution, particularly those who have investigations against them for links to paramilitaries. Earlier this week, Franco’s car was shot at in what his organization calls an act of intimidation.
“There are economic reasons [for blocking land restitution], to do with control of resources,” he told Colombia Reports Thursday. “And the other reason is the protection of those who are scared of evidence being found of what happened. When I say people of Uribe’s entourage, I mean those people being investigated for ties to paramilitaries.”
The Victims and Land Restitution Law was passed by President Juan Manuel Santos in June 2011 with much hope that it would deliver some sense of justice to those affected by the nearly 50-year armed conflict, but since then little land has been returned. NGOs and other commentators have questioned the government’s commitment to the law, which is supposed to return over 4.9 million acres of land to its rightful owners.
BACKGROUND: ‘Colombia’s land restitution not yet working’
The CIJP, an NGO that has accompanied people attempting to reclaim their land, has watched the process since the beginning, and has watched people’s hopes fading.
“Officials of the government of Uribe, and persons of his entourage are engaging in actions legal and illegal [to block land restitution]. For example people were fraudulently chosen as representatives of their communities. They are businessmen or put forward by businessmen – businessmen linked to paramilitaries,” said Franco.
“Another problem is the creation of parallel organizations. They ignore the traditional indigenous organizations and create their own organizations. And another problem is the inactivity of the state in the implementation of the law. This happens constantly in this government – things get passed into law but the officials don’t respect the law.”
Franco states unequivocally that the motivations for blocking land restitution are rooted in paramilitarism. Unimpressed with the government’s attempted demobilization of the paramilitaries, the CIJP think that the same groups – now called neo-paramilitaries or BACRIM – are still pursuing the same goals on behalf of wealthy landowners, many of whom use the land stolen during the conflict to grow palm oil and other plantation crops.
“You have to see how many people of [Uribe’s] entourage are linked with illegal activities and are in judicial processes for links to paramilitaries. They are fundamentally related to paramilitarism, to a para-economy and parapolitics,” said Franco.
“So there are two motivations. It was a strategy of the paramilitaries to appropriate large quantities of land and then “legalize” this dispossession. It is about consolidation of resources. This involved criminality, businessmen, the military, police, and people with a lot of power. So the actions to avoid the restitution of land are to conserve and consolidate this situation.”
“The other reason is that judicial processes are being taken forward that are revealing the relations between people with economic and political power and this criminal dispossession of land. So they don’t want this evidence [from the restitution process].”
The organization Franco heads welcomed the Victims and Land Restitution Law, though they saw it as flawed. Over time their concern with the law’s problems have been substantiated they say.
The attitude of many officials carrying out land restitution is that the victims don’t matter, according to Franco. “There is a total contempt for the conditions of the victims. […] We have seen this mistreatment in a court in Medellin recently. […] The state re-victimizes those who claim their rights.”
The state is also failing to provide the protection to claimants that it promised, he said, naming two land restitution leaders assassinated last year in the community of Curburado [Choco] where CIJP works. Threats have been made against 49 members of that community and the protection provided is inadequate, said Franco.
Some problems have a slightly sinister edge. CIJP say that victims have discovered they are more likely to receive help if they say they were displaced by left-wing guerrillas such as the FARC or ELN.
“This means that people displaced by paramilitaries have told institutions that they were displaced by guerrillas. If you want to get benefits from the state you almost have to say you were displaced by guerrillas.”
FACT SHEET: Colombia displacement statistics
Another problem is that “third parties”, current owners of the stolen land, may claim compensation if they bought the land in good faith, but there is no definition in the law of how to determine good faith, and it is known that much stolen land was passed on to “strawmen”, or close associates of paramilitaries.
On Wednesday, about two weeks after first naming associates of Uribe who want to block land restitution, the car of Franco’s security escort was shot at while his bodyguards were out of the car and searching the area for potential risks. Three bullet marks were found in the windshield, probably an attempt, says CIJP, to test the strength of the car’s armor.
The CIJP also says that the police have made little effort to investigate the incident, not even bothering to collect CCTV footage from the area. They say this is normal for attacks against them and other human rights defenders.
Franco can’t confirm the exact motivation for the attack, although clearly it was intended to intimidate. Its timing coincides both with his statements on the failure of land restitution and with the progress of a case on which CIJP are working in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. That case accuses the Colombian military of working with paramilitaries in the human rights violating “Operation Genesis” in 1997.
Meanwhile the Intereclesial Commission for Justice and Peace, an NGO put together by various Christian groups, is being accused of being in line with the FARC.
“There is a campaign to delegitimize our work, including documents sent to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights making accusations against us,” said Franco.
Associates of Uribe, including former minister Fernando Londoño, and former general Rito Alejo del Rio Rojas, are leading this defamation campaign, according to CIJP’s recent statement.
The opposition to land restitution is not confined to former officials, according to Franco. In his view, paramilitarism and its economic imperatives permeate the institutions of Colombia, and this is why land restitution is not being taken forward.
“There are government ministers who say that the rights of the victims and of the indigenous people are a blockage to the development of the country,” he said. “So what hopes can we have for the restitution of land?”