SANTA MARTA, -- The government wants to help hundreds of thousands of people reclaim land, but Human Rights Watch says many are targeted for reprisals.
Colombia Almost two years ago, at a high-profile event with media and Cabinet members, the government announced that it was helping Maritza Salabarría and her family reclaim part of the land they lost in 1991 when paramilitary thugs burned their farm, seized the property, and “disappeared” her father and husband.
“They are symbols of hope, symbols of possibility, and symbols of this new Colombia that will rise out of the pain and injustice,” Juan Manuel Ospina, the head of the Colombian Institute of Rural Development, said during the November 2011 ceremony.
But Salabarría’s homecoming didn’t last. Within months of moving back to the farm in Mundo Nuevo, in northwestern Cordoba department, the family was on the run again — this time after men tied up two of Maritza’s brothers and warned them that she would die if she kept pressing their land claim.
“I had so much faith that we could finally get out of this problem after more than 20 years,” Maritza, 46, said from a cramped government safe house where she and 18 family members have been living since May. “I’ve lost my faith.”
In this country where more than 4.2 million people have been displaced by the armed conflict, President Juan Manuel Santos has made victims’ rights and land restitution pillars of his administration. The government estimates almost 15 million acres have been abandoned and 4.9 million acres — an area slightly larger than Connecticut — might have been illegally seized in the turmoil, often by landowners working in conjunction with armed groups.
But cases like Salabarría’s underscore the challenges of trying to forge the “new Colombia.” In a report released Tuesday, Human Rights Watch documented the murder of 21 land claimants and their leaders since 2008.
The report, “The Risk of Returning Home: Violence and Threats Against Displaced People Reclaiming Land in Colombia,” also found that death threats against land claimants are widespread and that impunity runs deep.
Of the 17,000 investigations into cases of forced displacement handled by one government agency, just five convictions were obtained, the report found.
“President Santos is making a serious and unprecedented effort to return land, but violence and intimidation against displaced families attempting to return home threaten to sabotage his banner human rights initiative,” José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Unless Colombia starts to ensure justice for abuses against land claimants, they will continue to be killed, threatened, and displaced for seeking to reclaim what’s theirs.”
The Attorney General’s Office has acknowledged the problem. It’s investigating the murder of at least 56 people related to land-restitution claims. In addition, more than 500 displaced land claimants have reported being threatened since 2012.
Unlike other nations that have pushed land restitution in the wake of a conflict, Colombia’s violence is ongoing. The government is in peace talks in Havana with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrillas, but fighting rages. And powerful new gangs have risen from the ashes of demobilized paramilitary groups — often incorporating their soldiers and leaders and controlling their traditional stomping grounds.