Colombian President Returns Land Where Violence Persists

By Dialogo
April 12, 2013

On April 10, a day after a peasant leader was killed, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos participated in a ceremony to formally return land to peasants displaced by paramilitaries, and promised them that violence would end.

“Those that are threatening others, who are killing the land they are claiming will be considered high-value targets,” Santos said after a minute of silence to commemorate rural leader Ever Cordero, who was killed on April 9, in Montería (Córdoba department, 500 km north of Bogotá).

Cordero’s assassination is the second to occur in the area in the last 15 days. On April 9, this action was condemned by three United Nations agencies in Colombia, which expressed concern for the lack of efficient protection to the leaders of land claimants.

“We need the support of communities; we need them to report criminals, to help us find them. It will be decisive for this historical move of returning land to peasants will not be stopped,” the president added from Hacienda Santa Paula, the scene where Carlos and Fidel Castaño, paramilitary founders and leaders, expelled the peasants in 1999.

During the fight against leftist guerrillas, Colombian paramilitary militias perpetrated thousands of atrocious crimes against the civil population.

Wearing white shirts and caps, the peasants were bused to the farm, accessible by dirt roads. Santos made the formal land restitution to 60 families, each of which received five hectares of land. Inhabitants of neighboring villages also attended the ceremony.

The restitution was achieved thanks to a resolution by the High Court of Antioquia, where the trial was moved because of threats that occurred in the area of Montería.

During the ceremony, Santos also honored the memory of peasant leader Yolanda Izquierdo, who had organized the community to submit the legal claim, and who was murdered in 2007 at the age of 43.

According to the annual report issued by the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, between January and September 2002, 37 human rights advocates and rural leaders were murdered.

The paramilitary groups were demobilized between 2003 and 2006 through an agreement with former president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), who granted them procedural privileges in exchange for confessions and victim reparations.

However, human rights advocate organizations report that many of them did not abide by the process and founded new gangs with drug traffickers, known as ‘Bacrims’ that continue to operate with extortion and threats.

Last year, Santos started a peace process with the communist guerrilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and in 2011 he passed a law for the restitution of land and reparation to victims of the armed conflict, which aims to return about 4 million hectares to those displaced by violence.

So far, 12,000 hectares have been returned by court resolutions, according to Colombian Minister of Agriculture Juan Camilo Restrepo.

Colombia is one of the countries with highest number of displaced people in the world: 3.7 million people, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees.