Colombia’s peace process with FARC rebels is partly stuck because approximately 15% of the country’s national territory was stolen during the armed conflict and many owners don’t want to give it back.
Since Colombia’s war began escalating with the temporary legalization of paramilitary groups in 1994, approximately 8 million hectares, an area the size of Costa Rica, have been stolen and sold, leaving millions of small farmers displaced and without land to return to.
The phenomenon has been so enormous, it has become one of the significant reasons why more than half of the country’s national territory is private property of, according to the UN, only 1% of the population.
Colombians forcibly displaced because of conflict per year
FARC only 6.25% of the problem
To give you a sense of proportion, 500 thousand of these 8 million hectares are in the hands of Marxist rebel group FARC, according to President Juan Manuel Santos. This means the guerrillas would only own 6.25% of Colombia’s stolen land.
The remaining 93.75% is owned by individuals, corporations and former paramilitary commanders who, sometimes in coordination the military, carried out an anti-guerrilla offensive between 1997 and 2002 that severely reduced national territory under guerrilla control.
But, the consequent abandonment of an estimated 15% of Colombia’s national territory provided a cynical, but profitable investment or cheap expansion opportunity for ranchers, miners, multinationals and large land-owners who bought the lands after they had come free pretty much at bottom price.
In some cases, the same people who financed the initial formation of the paramilitary groups were the ones ending up making major profit of the war, a phenomenon we call “para-eonomics.”
Forced displacement — a crime against humanity — is a massive, systematic and long-lasting phenomenon, and to a high extent linked to the control of strategic territory. The latter characteristic proves that … there exist economic and political interests that push the dispossession of the civilian population’s land and territories.
Center for Historic Memory
The involvement of the political and economic elites with paramilitary death squads was so intimate that since the AUC’s demobilization between 2003 and 2006, dozens of Congressmen off all benches have been imprisoned for using the war against the FARC as a pretext to team up with paramilitary groups for political gain, a phenomenon called “parapolitics.”
The scum rose so high in the paramilitary sludge that it has already resulted in the imprisonment of the second cousin and the current jailing of the brother of former President Alvaro Uribe. In fact, Uribe himself is waiting investigation for his alleged role in the promotion and formation of paramilitary groups, and his responsibility for paramilitary crimes.
Land, not FARC, a reason for violence?
While the paramilitaries’ initial objective was to fight guerrillas, the AUC, and their associates in the establishment who had financed the paramilitary expansion, soon discovered the death squads effectively liberated territory for mining, land expansion and large-scale agriculture.
Both victim organizations and former paramilitary commanders have confirmed that the country’s mass dispossession of land became one of the AUC’s main objectives particularly in agricultural and gold-rich regions.
In some of these cases, economic rather than public safety motives were behind joint military and paramilitary operations with names like “The Pacification of Uraba.”
Because paradoxically, civilians were left displaced rather than enjoying an improved public security. Some fled out of terror. Others sold their lands to the paramilitaries afraid they’d get killed if they didn’t. Many lived on land whose titles that had never been properly formalized.
Imagine, those displaced farmers in San Pedro de Uraba starving and comes [paramilitary commander] “Monoleche” with his bodyguards and tells them: “Sell your land, we’ll give you 50 thousand pesos ($17) for it.” The farmer had no choice but to sell.
AUC commander Ever Veloza, a.k.a. “HH”
Many of the AUC’s leaders were extradited in 2008, but that was years after they had already sold their lands or secured the transfer to the new owner.
Ten years after they had formed their paramilitary umbrella group in 1997, 15% of Colombia’s territory had basically been stolen or embezzled from its original owners.
How to make stolen property legally owned: trick 1
In most countries, if you buy or own stolen property you have no right to ownership of that property. In fact, depending on the value of the property, in the United States you could even be convicted on felony charges disregarding the circumstances if property in your possession is stolen.
Most countries have these laws to deter people from stealing and allow a smooth return of stolen property if recovered.
But not in Colombia. Not when it comes to the 8 million hectares that were stolen or embezzled, then flipped and have now well-established owners with top reputations and businesses to lose.
While supposedly meant to repair the victims, the 2011 Victims and Land Restitution Law endorsed by the president, gave owners of stolen land the opportunity to keep the land if they could prove they purchased their property “in good faith.”
Consequently, many of the stolen land owners claimed to have bought the stolen property in good faith, forcing claimants into court cases they could impossibly afford.
Some of the stolen land owners even claim to be “land restitution victims” while others have formed paramilitary “anti-restitution armies” that seek to prevent returning stolen land by killing or threatening returning farmers.
The party of Santos’ predecessor, Uribe, tried to make this even more difficult by amending the victims law and relay the burden of proof on the land claimants. Fortunately for the victims, this initiative failed.
You get peace, we keep the stolen land
The interests of these stolen land owners are looked after by the former president, who recently led a successful campaign to sink an ongoing peace process with the FARC that would bring paramilitary collaborators, land thieves and government fencers to justice.
The former president is now negotiating with his successor to unfreeze the process.
One of Uribe’s primary demands is increased legal protection for stolen land owners and a restriction of the rights for victims of displacement.
Santos’ curious “good faith” clause in the Victims Law allowed Uribe to demand that peace with the FARC “may not affect honest owners and holders, whose good faith must be given the presumption … of innocence.”
Additionally, “the analysis of context [i.e. how the land came on the market in the first place] may not serve as evidence to incriminate the owners in good faith,” Uribe said in his proposal for amendments of the sunk peace deal. The proposal would allow stolen land owners to claim they acted in good faith even if it was public knowledge the land was either stolen, embezzled or extorted.
Additionally, Uribe proposed, any peace deal with the FARC “should recognize the existence of large-scale commercial production, its importance within rural development and the national economy, and the state’s obligation to promote this.”
Additionally, the former president audaciously proposed that a revived peace deal should allow those who in bad faith benefited from the mass theft of farm land to only voluntarily cooperate with transitional justice, in spite of the immensity of the crimes committed and the millions of landless and often homeless victims.
Some 24,400 members of the military and another 12,500 private persons or enterprises are expected to appear before the transitional justice tribunal that is part of the FARC peace deal because they have been either sentenced for or accused of having collaborated with the now-defunct AUC , the predecessor of the currently active “anti-restitution armies.”
How many individuals and companies benefited from the paramilitaries’ mass land flipping scheme and how many are still involved in illegal activity with armed groups is unknown. The sunk transitional justice system was supposed to investigate this and prosecute those accused of these crimes.