Leaders of Colombia's landless in new peril

AP News
Posted: Aug 14, 2011 12:00 AM
Leaders of Colombia's landless in new peril

The cornerstone of President Juan Manuel Santos' year-old government is a bold plan to compensate an estimated 4 million victims of Colombia's long-running civil conflict.

The so-called Victims Law, enacted in June, is an ambitious proposition: Nothing similar has ever been attempted on any continent.

Colombia remains at war, and determining who qualifies for reparations will often be tricky enough. The cost is also high, an estimated $20 billion over a decade.

The biggest challenge: Leaders of dispossessed peasants, emboldened by the law to try to win back stolen land, keep getting killed, and the state appears hard-pressed to halt the slayings.

"I don't want to be a pessimist but I think in two years the violence is going to grow," said Yamile Salinas, a land expert with the National Commission for Restitution and Reparation.

Colombia's is a dirty war in which most victims are civilians, and land tenancy has been at the heart of the nation's bloodletting since independence two centuries ago.

Shadowy far-right militias known as paramilitaries have done most of the killing. First formed in the 1980s to defend ranchers and drug traffickers against rebel extortion, they evolved into criminal bands that often operated in concert with the military. Shakedown artists and drug runners, many now work as hired guns for holders of stolen land.

The Victims Law, in addition to providing cash to survivors of more than 50,000 slain, aims to return at least 7,700 square miles (2 million hectares) to 430,000 families from whom it was wrested over the past two decades. Some experts estimate that four times that amount was stolen _ an area slightly bigger than West Virginia and nearly the size of Austria.

The dispossessed are mostly poor peasants, and their lingering dislocation is why Colombia ranks second after Sudan in internally displaced people, with more than 3 million.

Since Santos took office, more than a dozen leaders of landless peasants have been slain, says the CODHES human rights group. At least 50 such activists have been killed since 2002, the same year Alvaro Uribe was elected president. Uribe waged all-out war on leftist rebels with U.S. aid and made a deal with paramilitary leaders, promising reduced jail sentences in return for their laying down arms.

Dozens of lawmakers and regional politicians who backed Uribe were later convicted of criminal conspiracy, or worse, for allying themselves with the militias.

As defense minister from 2006-2009, Santos was tough on rebels and thus popular in provincial Colombia. But with the Victims Law, he's squaring off against shadowy provincial powerbrokers.

He blames the killings of activists on "a few who want to keep their ill-gotten land."

"We're not going to let this law fail," the president told The Associated Press in an interview Saturday.

Santos told the AP he couldn't estimate how much money his government will be able to dedicate to implementing it. He is seeking help from the U.S. and European Union but, given tough fiscal times, knows he can't expect much.

Asked how he plans to protect activists, Santos said the government is "creating elite groups that will be dedicated to this process."

From its start, the reparation campaign has been bloodstained.

After the first ceremonial land handover on Sept. 21, one recipient was bludgeoned to death as he walked home in the turbulent Uraba banana-growing region on the Caribbean coast. The killers left four bullets beside Hernando Perez's body as a warning to his comrades.

The latest killing occurred in San Onofre, a northern town that straddles the Caribbean and the Montes de Maria mountains. On June 30, a gunman shot and killed a town councilman who had worked closely with peasants fighting to regain usurped land.

Other activists are worried they could be next.

"I hardly slept last night," said Julia Torres, a 41-year-old mother of four who represents 52 families fighting to hold on to La Alemania farm in rural San Onofre. "I'm afraid to even go bathe at the well alone."

Torres' husband, Rogelio Martinez, was shot to death by a half-dozen hooded men as he walked home to the 1,360-acre (550-hectare) property on a May afternoon last year.

"He had it in his head that they could murder him at any moment but he said, 'I'm not leaving.' He'd say, 'If they kill me, you go on and fight for this, because it's yours.' And that's why we've stuck around," Torres said at the farm, where a tropical rainstorm spooked the few burros that are now its lone livestock.

Activists consider La Alemania an important test case.

Three years after the families bought La Alemania, a paramilitary boss, Rodrigo Mercado, decided to make it his base. He drove nearly everyone off the farm, killing three residents the first day, witnesses said.

Five years later, he was gone, driven from the area by a local Marine commander. Men under his command had by then killed hundreds, raped dozens and plundered far and wide, selling off La Alemania's more than 600 head of cattle, a herd the owners had financed with loans.

When residents finally returned in 2007, the farm was mostly fallow and in foreclosure. They'd defaulted on $164,000 in loans, one-third of its value. A Medellin-based company, Covinoc, had purchased the debt and intended to auction off the property.

The AP contacted Covinoc officials by telephone and email multiple times to ask their plans for La Alemania. They said their lawyer would respond, but he did not.

The farm was not included in a Santos government pilot program that returned 55 square miles (14,300 hectares) of ill-gotten lands, though La Alemania's owners registered it four years ago with a government program designed to prevent the sale of such parcels.

That leaves its fate uncertain until the Agricultural Ministry begins, in January at the earliest, to catalog and attempt to resolve such prickly cases. The ministry will compile a registry of allegedly stolen lands and include data on any violence employed to obtain them, said Alejandro Reyes, a top land expert working in the Agricultural Ministry.

Special courts will decide the cases, grappling with a labyrinthine land-tenure system in which 90 percent of contested properties are untitled and land registry offices have been burned down and looted.

Reyes says about two-thirds of the stolen land is in the hands of paramilitaries, most of the rest controlled by rebels. Many major usurpers, among them drug traffickers, have hidden holdings behind straw men, "testaferros" in Spanish, police and prosecutors say.

A total of 14,000 landowners hold 60 percent of Colombia's arable land, while 2.5 million peasant farming families together have less than 20 percent, said Reyes.

"The peasants are on poor marginalized land," Reyes said, while most of the best land is dedicated to cattle ranching.

The Victims Law will not return all the land stolen from peasants because some has been planted with monoculture crops such as African palm and hardwoods including teak.

Some will get cash payments if it is determined that heavy investment was made in cultivating the land taken from them. That means that many who were forced at gunpoint to sell at larcenous discounts will likely end up as tenant farmers on land that once was theirs.

Critics complain that the law doesn't mandate criminal charges for usurpers.

"No one has been pursued criminally over land," Salinas said. "We haven't even seen the first case."

That pains the Verbels, who have paid dearly for resisting land-grabbers.

Two of eight siblings in the closely-knit San Onofre family have been killed for denouncing the paramilitaries who they say have been trying to force them to sell their 220-acre (90-hectare) farm, strategically located on a road gangs use to smuggle cocaine to the adjacent Gulf of Morosquillo to dispatch abroad.

First Guillermo Verbel was killed in 2005, run over by a car that went into reverse to finish the job. He had publicly challenged corrupt local officials, the family says. The second sibling, Eder, was shot and killed on the farm on March 23, while with his brother Orlando. Orlando saved himself by running, and later identified the killers.

One of the suspects is a demobilized paramilitary who until September received a $225 monthly stipend from the government, police say.

The Verbels are now too terrified to work a farm that was once rich in corn and cassava; instead they live in a threadbare cluster of homes in San Onofre's dirt streets.

"I had to pawn the TV, the blender. I pawned my soldering kit, my drill, my polisher. I've got everything hocked in order to be able to eat," said Elmer de Jesus Verbel, a sibling of the slain men.

He says his auto mechanic's business has been boycotted because the family stood up to the paramilitaries.

San Onofre is run by a "paramilitary regime" controlled by powerful landholders, says Rep.Ivan Cepeda, an opposition lawmaker and chief spokesman for Colombia's Movement of Victims of State Crimes.

Rights activists say the city's mayor, as well as local police and prosecutors, are complicit.

Mayor Edgar Benitorevollo denies the accusations and the regional police chief, Col. Orlando Polo, refused to discuss the issue. The mayor's sister, Muriel Benitorevollo, is a former regional lawmaker who was released from prison in October 2008 after serving half of a four-year prison sentence for colluding with paramilitaries.

Other regional politicians convicted in the paramilitary scandal remain imprisoned for crimes including the murder of a local mayor, Tito Diaz.

Diaz was slain in 2003, two months after telling then-President Uribe in a nationally telecast forum that his murder was being plotted. The state governor at the time, a man Uribe would later name ambassador to Chile, is now serving a 40-year prison sentence for ordering the murder.

Reyes and other government leaders in Bogota are achingly aware of the challenges of protecting leaders of the dispossessed, who are under threat all across rural Colombia.

"It is not humanly possible to guarantee" their safety, Reyes said. "To give guarantees that there won't be violence in Colombia you would need to stop history cold, disarm the entire country and solve all the social disputes behind the conflict."

If the Victims Law is to succeed, the government must quickly identify and bring to trial the people who are ordering the killings, says Carmen Palencia, president of the National Association of Victims for Restitution and Access to Land.

Palencia has twice been violently displaced but refused to stop organizing to regain usurped land. In 1995, gunmen pumped three bullets into her.

"In order to break up the criminal bands, you need to touch very important people in this country who have very close ties to drug trafficking," Palencia said.

Tito Diaz's son Juan David, a doctor forced by death threats to flee into exile last year, says his case demonstrates how Colombia has once again become very dangerous for rights workers.

"The peasants have been handed a time bomb that is now blowing up in their hands, being newly victimized because the state hasn't put in place a policy for the organized and structured return of lands," he told the AP in an email from the United States.

Palencia says she receives death threats almost weekly. She has round-the-clock protection from state-assigned bodyguards.

Julia Torres does not.

She must rely on Marines stationed a 15-minute motorcycle ride away near the entrance to San Onofre and who sometimes patrol La Alemania.

"They're the only support I've got," she says, worry lines creasing the smooth skin of an otherwise youthful face. "Sometimes when I need to go somewhere I ask them to accompany me.

"I feel at risk being alone," Torres added, "anxious that someone could also be waiting for me on the road."


Frank Bajak reported from San Onofre. Vivian Sequera reported from Bogota, Colombia.

Frank Bajak on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fbajak

(This version CORRECTS Drops reference to 'El Salado' in paragraph 19. Corrects in paragraph 57 that Diaz comment was in an email not made by telephone. AP Video.)