Last weekend police found the bodies of three land reform activists in the central department of Tolima, Colombia. The victims, who were killed at gunpoint, were advocates for the repatriation of land to families displaced by the Colombian conflict.
According to government human rights agency CODHES, at least 41 land reform activists have been murdered since 2002, reports Semana.
The issue of land reform, which CODHES has previously called the “axis of the armed conflict,” is inextricably linked to organized crime. Nevertheless, under President Juan Manuel Santos, the government has created an ambitious agenda and is proposing to return two million hectares of land to victims of the conflict by 2014. But much of this land remains in the hands of drug traffickers or other powerful economic and political interests. Many of the original land owners, most of whom are indigenous or Afro-Colombian farmers, were forcibly displaced by paramilitary armies, who used the territory for coca farms or for military training camps.
In other cases, the property was turned over to shadowy groups of investors who set up massive palm oil plantations, especially in the departments of Antioquia and Choco. In one such case documented by Verdad Abierta, between 2002 and 2004 paramilitaries killed and displaced dozens of families in the coastal Cesar province, who say their land was then sold to several multinational coal mining companies.
Colombian social security agency Accion Social estimates that 6.8 million hectares of land was appropriated from peasant families by illegal armies over the past decade. But it is nearly impossible to guess how much of that land is now technically owned by individuals linked to drug trafficking. Often the property is registered in the names of family members or business contacts who have not been charged with crimes, making it difficult for the government to expropriate the rural estates. Under the demobilization process, paramilitaries returned 21,000 hectares of land to authorities, but this widely understood to be only a fraction of their former holdings.
Complicating matters is a corruption purge currently underway at the main anti-narcotics agency, the National Directorate for Drugs (DNE). The organization is responsible for managing thousands of assets seized by the government from drug traffickers, including luxury Bogota apartments and massive tracts of farmland in the countryside. The Santos administration has hinted that it will accelerate the process by which property seized by the DNE will be transferred to displaced farmers. But so far, as reported by John Otis in Time magazine, the government has managed to seize just three percent of the estates owned by drug traffickers. And DNE has now opened an internal investigation into the mismanagement of agency databases.
In one noted case, authorities have not yet been able to restitute the land owned in Colombia by Honduran trafficker Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros. In what may have been an early case of what later became known as extraordinary rendition, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents arrested Matta Ballesteros in Tegucigalpa in 1988, and took him by force to the United States where he was later convicted of drug trafficking.
But in Colombia some 1,971 hectares of Matta Ballesteros’ land have remained in the hands of a third party, rather than being redistributed to 35 families as ordered by the government’s agricultural reform agency. Neither has the government yet been capable to gain control of the properties registered under the name of infamous drug trafficker Pablo Escobar, who died over fifteen years ago in a police shootout.
Land reform looks to be one of the most important issues yet tackled by the still-young Santos administration. But the government will have to shine a light into some very dark corners of Colombia. Land reform advocates have previously reported receiving threats from the illegal armies still at large in the countryside, including the Aguilas Negras. With so many interests at stake, it could be another troubling year for land activists in search of justice.