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Story Publication logo February 6, 2019

‘Land Was a War Booty’: Colombia Confronts a Legacy of Mass Displacement

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Image by Ivan Valencia. Colombia, 2018.
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Just months after a new president moved into the Colombian presidential palace in August 2018...

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A view of La Gorgonita and El Porvenir, where wild plants have taken over much of the land that was once made arable by peasant farmers who were later displaced by the state. Image by Mariana Palau. Colombia, 2018.
A view of La Gorgonita and El Porvenir, where wild plants have taken over much of the land that was once made arable by peasant farmers who were later displaced by the state. Image by Mariana Palau. Colombia, 2018.

APARTADO, Colombia—The sun was sitting low in the sky when Luis Izquierdo noticed the group of armed men walking onto his family's farm in this town in Uraba, a region of northwestern Colombia that abuts the Caribbean Sea. In the fading daylight, he couldn't see them clearly at first; he and his parents and siblings thought they might be soldiers looking for something to eat or drink. 

Their guts started to clench, however, when the men came closer with their rifles shouldered. They realized it was more likely that the men belonged to a paramilitary group that had recently started to terrorize the area.

Though the encounter happened more than 25 years ago, in February 1993, Luis, who was 18 years old at the time, has a clear memory of what happened next. The men forced the family to lie face down on the floor inside their house. Three times they asked for his father to identify himself. Three times his father gave his name. "That's him," one of the gunmen said. "No, it's not," another one replied. 

The debate didn't last long. Another gunman, who seemed to be the leader of the group, walked toward Luis' father and shot him in the back of the head. Luis' father appeared to die instantly, but that didn't stop the other men from taking turns shooting at his body. As they did so, they called him "guerrillero"—meaning a member of one of the left-wing guerrilla groups that had been present in Uraba since the 1970s. 

Luis remembers that his body froze with fear, even as he cried tears of grief. From his position on the floor, he could see the men's boots approach his father's body. And he could see his father's body jerk with the sound of every shot. 

Eventually the men grew tired of shooting and decided to burn the house down. But they spared Luis, his five siblings and his mother, taking them outside and leaving them to watch as their home turned to ashes. It took the family hours to gather the strength to seek help at the farm of one of Luis' uncles, several kilometers away. 

The men who killed Luis' father belonged to one of the constellation of armed factions that took part in Colombia's 52-year conflict. Named Los Tangueros, it formed in the late 1980s to confront the country's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, and other left-wing guerrilla insurgencies that kicked off the fighting in the 1960s, rebelling against a succession of both conservative and liberal governments. 

At first, Los Tangueros and its sister groups collaborated with the Colombian armed forces. The government even passed laws allowing the army to arm and train some of the groups' members. These right-wing armed groups became known as the paramilitaries, and in the late 1990s they united under a nationwide organization: the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC. But the paramilitaries eventually became so brutal that the government could not openly partner with them. The AUC was officially outlawed, though it was never a direct threat to the state. 

The death of Luis' father was just the beginning of his family's troubles. A month later, Luis' uncle was also killed by members of Los Tangueros who had determined that he, too, was a guerrillero. By that point, Luis and his immediate family had sought refuge in the city of Monteria, 40 miles east of their farm, just outside Uraba. They abandoned their land in Apartado and everything that was on it: their cattle, as well as their cassava and plantain crops.

In Monteria, a bustling city traversed by the Sinu River, Luis struggled to find his place. The city had one of the highest unemployment levels in the country, and there were no formal jobs at all for an uneducated man like him; he had stopped going to school when he was just 10 years old. He worked several informal jobs, including as a bricklayer and as a restaurant dishwasher, until he had saved enough money to buy a small motorcycle to use as a moto-taxi.

Many other people his age were in similar situations. Over time, Luis found solace in a group of young men who, just like him, had been displaced by paramilitaries from their land in Uraba and had little hope for the future. 

About a decade after his arrival, though, the Colombian government took steps toward restoring peace in Uraba. In 2003, the AUC signed a demobilization agreement with the administration of then-President Alvaro Uribe. For the first time, Luis and his friends had reason to believe they might be able to return to their land one day, though they also knew they'd face plenty of hurdles. Many of their families had, like Luis' family, abandoned their land entirely or sold it off for next to nothing as they fled the violence. 

In 2011, they became even more optimistic. That year, Colombia's Congress approved the Victims and Land Restitution Law, which aimed to return stolen and abandoned land to displaced Colombians and compensate victims of human rights violations committed during the conflict. In total, the fighting would leave more than 200,000 dead and displace around 6 million people.

At the time the land law came into effect, the government was already preparing for the post-conflict era, as officials were engaged in secret talks with the FARC that would culminate in a landmark peace deal signed in 2016. The land law established the Land Restitution Unit, or URT, to create a registry of stolen and abandoned land throughout Colombia, and to examine land restitution applications. Because Uraba was identified as one of the regions with the most stolen land, the URT set up one of its first and largest offices there. 

After the AUC signed the demobilization agreement in 2003, Luis and his friends had reported the theft of their land to the attorney general's office in Monteria. In 2013, a few years after the land law was passed, their cases were transferred to the URT. 

On paper, Colombia's land restitution law is sound. But its implementation was always going to be a problem.

But more than five years later, they have yet to see results. That's because the URT has encountered a number of hurdles in evaluating cases that have proven more complex than anticipated. First, few displaced families have official titles to their land, making their claims difficult to verify. Second, in many areas of the country, illegal armed groups still run rampant, impeding the work of URT staff members. Third, after the URT examines a claim and decides on its validity, a court must issue a ruling, but many of these rulings have been stalled because of case backlogs.

On top of all this, there is an even thornier issue to grapple with: what to do about the people who settled on land after the displaced families left. Colombian officials originally expected these settlers would be members of armed groups or otherwise affiliated with them—and therefore not necessarily entitled to compensation. But it turns out that, in many cases, they are poor farmers too, and they would be displaced themselves if people like Luis and his relatives and friends were permitted to return home. 

The story of Luis, then, touches on the myriad challenges bedeviling efforts to ensure that land rights are restored in Colombia, one of the promised dividends of peace. On paper, lawyers and analysts say, the land law is sound. But according to Alejandro Reyes, a researcher and one of the law's chief architects, its implementation was always going to be a problem given the complicated nature of Colombia's conflict and the lack of state presence in areas where land theft occurred. "It's like flying a small aircraft with no radar system and with covered windows," he says. 

The land law was conceived as a transitional measure intended to help Colombia through the initial postwar years. For this reason, it is set to expire in 2021. Analysts say that, given the pace of progress so far, it would take a miracle for most of the dispossessed to get their land back. After years of trying to stay hopeful, claimants are growing increasingly desperate. 

Nowhere is this truer than in Uraba. "This sluggish process is killing us," Luis says. "The people behind this have no idea how much we suffer." 

A Fiercely Contested Region

The highway that connects Monteria with Apartado, Uraba's biggest municipality, is flanked by banana plantations that seem to extend to the horizon. Only occasionally is the view interrupted by fields of grass where cattle graze.

Bananas started to take over Uraba, one of the country's most fertile regions, in the 1920s with the arrival of the United Fruit Company, an American multinational. Since then, Uraba's economy has become dependent on the fruit. The region's bananas are a profitable business and account for 78 percent of the country's overall banana exports.

In addition to being fertile, Uraba is strategically important. It offers easy access to both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and is close to the Panama Canal. The calm waters of the Gulf of Uraba make it an ideal location for loading ships. And wide rivers connect it to the interior of the country, most notably the region known as Bajo Cauca, where coca plantations abound. As a result, Uraba is central to one of Colombia's oldest drug routes, and it attracted a plethora of illegal armed groups during Colombia's decades of guerrilla warfare.

The Popular Liberation Army, or EPL, a small leftist guerrilla group, was the first to arrive in Uraba. In the 1970s, it was involved in waves of invasions by campesinos, or peasant farmers, on privately owned land. The FARC followed suit a few years later. Both groups found support among campesinos and banana laborers who felt the rebels would defend their rights against the interests of big landowners and businesses. The guerrillas were cruel to the region's wealthiest inhabitants, extorting them and driving them out with kidnapping threats. 

At first, the two armed groups, the EPL and the FARC, got along. But tensions flared when a FARC leader in the region, Bernardo Gutierrez, deserted to the EPL in 1978. Throughout the 1980s, the two groups engaged in intense fighting for control of the region. 

Toward the end of the 1980s, the EPL's leaders grew tired of combat and, after signing a peace deal with the government, gave up their weapons to pursue politics. That gave the FARC an even bigger reason to hate them. The FARC's leaders saw the EPL's leaders as traitors for negotiating with the government—the one true enemy—and started systematically targeting ex-EPL guerrilla fighters and their supporters.

To defend themselves, demobilized EPL members took up arms once again. The EPL's rebirth helped facilitate the arrival in the region of Los Tangueros. While the EPL's ideological roots were closer to those of the FARC, its feud with the FARC led many of its members to support Los Tangueros, and they became the paramilitaries' guides in Uraba. 

Luis ultimately blames this alliance between the EPL and Los Tangueros—who would, later in the 1990s, change their name to the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Cordoba and Uraba, or ACCU—for his father's death. The paramilitaries made a habit of killing any suspected guerrilla sympathizers they found. In Uraba, they asked the EPL, who knew the region's inhabitants, to identify campesinos who had supported the FARC. The EPL included Luis' father on this list, even though, according to Luis, he had no link to the guerrilla group. For the ACCU, his inclusion on the list, even without evidence, was reason enough to execute him. 

The ACCU was the first paramilitary group to enter Uraba and take on the guerrillas, but it wasn't the only one. It was followed by other infamous paramilitaries, including the Bloque Bananero, or Banana Block. Together, these groups successfully drove the FARC from the area. Within a few years, the FARC had retreated south, its presence limited to a few municipalities in Uraba. 

But unfortunately for the citizens of Uraba, the right-wing paramilitaries proved to be more brutal than the FARC. They massacred and disappeared hundreds of people, and tortured guerrilla sympathizers. Today, they are considered to be the principal culprits behind the massive land theft and displacement that the government is now trying to remedy. 

"Land Was a War Booty"

While this increasingly complicated cycle of violence—involving guerrillas like the FARC and the EPL, the Colombian armed forces and the right-wing paramilitaries—ruined the lives of countless people, it also created some winners. Among the latter group were men like Raul Hasbun, who figured out how to seize the opportunities that are an inevitable byproduct of war. 

Raul's father, Emilio, had bet big on bananas in the early 1970s, and was rewarded handsomely for it. After buying land in Uraba for his banana plantations, he became one of the wealthiest businessmen in the region. But he died in a tragic airplane accident that also claimed the life of one of his sons, and his business languished. Eventually, the land was lost to the waves of invasions triggered by the rise of the FARC and the EPL. 

By restoring the land rights of displaced Colombians, the government risks victimizing poor farmers who settled on abandoned land and made it arable.

Years went by, and Raul never visited Uraba. He enrolled at a university in Medellin, some 200 miles inland. But in the 1990s, Raul decided he wanted to retake control of his father's land. He dropped out of school and sought the help of paramilitary groups to recover it. In a matter of years, he became a paramilitary leader himself, with his own nom de guerre: Pedro Bonito. 

Raul's trajectory is an example of how Colombians who lost faith in the state's ability to bring about stability and security of land tenure took matters into their own hands. Once the land was back under his control, he set up a scheme in which banana businesses in the region, including Chiquita, the huge Swiss company, were forced to contribute money to pay a kind of protection racket. In Chiquita's case, the firm allegedly paid three cents for every box it could export. 

The paramilitaries used this money to finance their violent campaign to rid Uraba of guerrilla groups. Their strategy involved seizing as much land as possible. "Land was a war booty," Raul said in a deposition in 2008, four years after he was finally captured by the Colombian authorities. 

After forcing people to abandon or sell their land, the paramilitaries falsified documents to formalize their ownership. They set up shadow state offices, like a fake notary public, that gave out land titles. They also bribed and threatened state officers into recognizing their control of stolen land. 

On some of this land, paramilitaries set up training camps. In northern Uraba, they pieced together several small patches of land to create a camp known as La 35, where, in addition to standard military combat techniques, fighters were schooled in torture techniques and dismemberment. For practice, they would capture farmers from nearby towns, and instructors would tell them how to cut off an arm or a leg, or how to behead someone. Then the trainees would try it out on their victims. 

This violence, however, was not enough to solidify control over the territory they conquered. So the paramilitaries sought to build popular support by re-populating some of the land they stole with farmers who had been displaced from other parts of the country. These farmers had nothing to do with the paramilitaries' grisly violence. They accepted the offers from the paramilitaries because they were desperately poor. 

Luis' land, which is adjacent to La 35, is now inhabited by some of these farmers and their families. In the jargon of Colombian land politics, these new arrivals are called "second occupants" or "possessors of good faith." Such farmers are found all over the country and, just like the land's original occupants, are vulnerable to extreme poverty. Their presence in places like Uraba presents a serious quandary for the government: If it compensates Luis and his friends by restoring them to their land, it will inevitably displace and victimize the second occupants. 

The country's land law didn't take second occupants into account. Only in 2016 did a court modify the law, forcing the government to compensate second occupants with money or with other land. While experts agree that this ruling makes good sense, it also makes the government's task of dealing with Colombia's land problem all the more daunting. 

Displaced By the State

Tears ran down Marcos Melendez's face one day last November as he sat on a chopped tree trunk near the property he once owned. In a melancholy voice, he sang to the land as if it were an estranged lover: "You remember me, much, in your nights, because I am something that in your life is impossible to erase." Surveying the land, he criticized the changes the new owner had made. Wild bushes had taken over the papaya trees he planted 15 years ago. The wooden house where he lived was torn down. A new, more modern one, with white walls and a pink roof, stood in its place.

In 2015, Melendez and 12 of his neighbors, all of them second occupants, were forced to cede their land to the people they'd bought it from. They were caught up in the first case of land restitution in Uraba—a process that, to hear them tell it, has gone completely off the rails. 

The case involved two adjacent properties called La Gorgonita and El Porvenir. In 1996, the government, which owned the land, awarded it to a collective of 16 farmers. The move was part of a new initiative, replicated across the country, to improve the livelihoods of farmers by giving them access to land that was unsettled. But several years later, the original recipients of La Gorgonita and El Porvenir opted to give it up. It's unclear, and hotly disputed, whether they were fleeing violence or whether they just decided to move on. In any case, the government approved its reallocation in 2000 to a new set of farmers, including Melendez, who paid a modest sum for it. 

A few years after Melendez took over the land, the Colombian Red Cross came to offer technical assistance in setting up projects like a vegetable garden. By 2013, Melendez had worked the land to produce exotic goods like teak. But that was the same year he learned that the land's original owners had filed a restitution claim. A judge ultimately ruled in the original owners' favor. 

Today, those owners, including Enrique Jimenez, are benefiting from Melendez's hard work. But Jimenez told me he didn't even want the land. When he submitted his restitution claim, he was hoping to get money instead. He said he's sorry Melendez was displaced to make room for him. "I really hope the government gives them their own piece of land," Jimenez said of Melendez and the others who were displaced by the state. "They are also victims."

The land law is clearly ill-suited for these situations. It was conceived with only black-and-white scenarios in mind—like those involving poor farmers, who are obvious victims, fighting to reclaim land from the gunmen who displaced them or the business interests these gunmen partnered with. 

Eventually, the authorities determined that Melendez and his fellow displaced farmers were entitled to a one-time payment of about $14,000 as compensation. But there are strict conditions on that payment. It is to be managed by the Ministry of Agriculture, and it can only be used to buy another piece of land. Melendez says the land must have a stream or a river so they can water their crops. But the government insists that such water sources be protected by a buffer, which limits the area that can be farmed. 

Persistent insecurity makes the government's next steps on the land issue highly uncertain.

Finding a new piece of land that meets these requirements has been a challenge, in part because a large portion of land in Uraba can't be sold since it falls under unresolved restitution claims. The land that is available is either too expensive or too far from a paved road, meaning it would be next to impossible for Melendez to market his crops. 

The Law Is an Empty Promise

Colombians often describe their country as ungovernable—a place rife with well-intentioned pieces of legislation that are never respected or properly implemented. For example, the country's constitution calls for universal health care, but programs are underfunded and coverage is exceedingly poor. A separate law, passed in 1993, was intended to compensate black communities affected by the country's legacy of slavery and racism by granting them collective land ownership on the Pacific coast, but this has also amounted to little.

The land law seems to be in the same mold, as its results have been unimpressive so far. Of the estimated 2 million hectares that were stolen or abandoned during Colombia's half century of armed conflict, only 316,000 have been returned to their owners.

In places like Uraba, persistent insecurity makes the government's next steps highly uncertain. Since the mid-2000s, new criminal gangs, labeled by the government as BACRIM, for bandas criminales, have formed in the north and elsewhere in the country. They are composed of demobilized paramilitary fighters who couldn't find employment as civilians and who were lured back to the criminal world by the profits of the drug and arms trades. 

The BACRIM are a formidable hurdle. Last April, they killed a police squad facilitating a land restitution mission. Since then, the Land Restitution Unit has put on hold applications in areas it considers dangerous. These are often the same areas where the need for the adjudication of land claims is most acute. 

Reyes, the land law's architect, says that, given Colombia's fraught history of trying to address the dynamics driving guerrilla and paramilitary groups, these struggles are no real surprise. "You can't ask an elm tree to give you pears," he says. 

But Juan Francisco Soto, a lawyer who represents land claimants, warns that if the land law fails completely, it would be a blow not just to direct victims of displacement. It would also represent a missed opportunity to come to terms with one of the main factors—land inequality—that gave rise to the conflict in the first place. "One of the most essential peacebuilding matters would be left unresolved." 

Mariana Palau is a Colombian-American freelance journalist based in Bogota. Her work has been published by outlets including The Economist, Foreign Policy and Al Jazeera.

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