Colombians marching to reclaim land in Cali

Neo-paramilitary criminal gangs are the greatest threat to Colombians trying to reclaim stolen land, according to US NGO Human Rights Watch, though these new generation groups are often working on behalf of older criminal interests.

A new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, The Threat of Returning Home, says while it is difficult to say with certainty who is behind the threats and killings of land rights defenders as there have been almost no prosecutions, evidence strongly points to paramilitary successor groups being the main culprits. HRW identifies the Urabeños, Colombia's most powerful criminal organization, as the group suspected of carrying out most of the abuses.

Though authorities have made considerable progress catching successor group leaders, they have "failed to significantly curb the power of such groups," said the report. They have also failed to charge anyone for the hundreds of threats reported by victims, at times failing to accept complaints or not contacting victims after complaints were filed. From the 49 cases of killings of land claimants and leaders being investigated by the Attorney General, only eight convictions had been secured as of August 2013, and in more than two-thirds of the cases no suspects had been charged. Successful prosecutions have been obtained in fewer than 1 percent of 17,000 criminal investigations of forced displacements, reported the Associated Press.

InSight Crime Analysis

Control over Colombia's land and its rich resources has always been a central part of the country's decades-long conflict, evidenced by the country's huge number of internally-displaced people (IDPs) -- at more than five million, the highest IDP population in the world. Paramilitary groups created or contracted by drug traffickers, land owners and big business were responsible for much of the forced displacement. Those powerful interests that used paramilitaries to illegally grab land then protect it still very much exist today, and unsurprisingly are still prepared to use illegal methods to maintain their control. 

The groups that emerged from the demobilization of the paramilitaries, known as the BACRIM (from "Bandas Criminales" or "Criminal Bands") are now hybrid organizations, combining facets of paramilitarism with more mafia like criminal structures and operations, and their main concerns are drug trafficking and other criminal activities such as extortion and illegal mining.

However, as they mostly emerged from the paramilitary networks that proceeded them, in many areas they maintain the ties to the economic elites that worked side by side with the paramilitaries and continue to protect their interests. As HRW points out, the BACRIM are contracted by powerful third parties in the same way the paramilitaries were, and have become the main tool for regional criminal elites to fight off claims on the stolen lands in their possession.

Investigations

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