The long guerrilla war in Colombia has forced nearly 5 million peasant farmers off their land–and many of their properties were stolen. Now, the Colombian government is trying to return this land to its rightful owners. But the effort has been sabotaged by a new round of threats and killings.
Land lies at the heart of Colombia's war. One of the main grievances for peasant farmers, who formed Marxist guerrilla groups in the 1960s, was lack of access to farmland.
The war made things worse.
Legions of small farmers have been killed or uprooted by right-wing paramilitaries who accused them of collaborating with the rebels. Others were run off their land by guerrillas. All told, they left behind nearly 15 million acres, roughly the size of Maryland and Massachusetts put together.
"Instead of land reform having occurred in Colombia," says Max Schoening, a Colombia researcher for Human Rights Watch, "there has been a counter land reform that's been driven by atrocities like massacres in which armed groups would enter into towns and start killing civilians, torturing them in public. And after they abandoned that land, they would acquire it for themselves."
In 2011, the Colombian government passed a land restitution law that aims to return millions of acres to displaced peasants over the next decade. But the armed groups that stole the land in the first place are still operating in many parts of the country. These gunmen have killed more than a dozen land-rights activists in the past two years and have threatened hundreds more who have tried to reclaim their farms, according to a new Human Rights Watch report, written by Schoening.
The land restitution law was designed to help places like the state of Arauca, where fighting has displaced more than a third of all residents. One of them is Ricardo Sanabria, who heads a group of peasants trying to get their land back.
"It's a huge risk to go back to your land in Arauca," Sanabria says. "There are threats and killings. People are extremely frightened."
Another hitch is that many people in Arauca have never even heard of the law. Even if they had, the closest office to file a claim is 200 miles away.
At a government human rights office in the town of Arauca, desperate families often show up to plead for help. That's where I meet William, his wife, and 5-year-old son. He says they fled their home in the nearby town of Cravo Norte nine years after guerrillas accused them of spying for the government.
"I won't even consider filing a land claim because the guerrillas are still active in Cravo Norte," he says.
Colombian officials say that security for returning peasants would improve dramatically if peace talks, now going on between the government and the FARC rebels in Cuba, bring the war to an end.
"The land law is still so new that it's too early to pass judgment," says Gloria Cuitiva, a human rights official in Arauca.
But Schoening, of Human Rights Watch, says the early results are troubling.
"Unless the government takes more serious efforts to curb and reduce the power and dismantle paramilitary groups and dismantle the criminal networks, it's going to be nearly impossible to insure that displaced people can go home safely," he says.
That's no exaggeration. Of the 43,000 claims filed so far under the land restitution law, Schoening says that just one family has managed to return home.
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