For many victims of Colombian strife, the path home is proving treacherous

Maritza Salabarría (right) and her brother - along with 17 other family members - have been living in a government safe house on the Colombian coast since May, after armed men forced them off the farm they had recently recovered as part of a sweeping land restitution law.
Maritza Salabarría (right) and her brother - along with 17 other family members - have been living in a government safe house on the Colombian coast since May, after armed men forced them off the farm they had recently recovered as part of a sweeping land restitution law.
By Jim Wyss / The Miami Herald

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.

Salabarría blames her most recent trouble on the Urabeños, the country’s largest bacrim (short for “criminal band”), which human-rights groups say is comprised of former members of the AUC paramilitary group. The armed men were working on behalf of the rancher who now occupies her land, Salabarría said.

Trying to help victims amid the violence is challenging and slows the process, said Jesús Ricardo Sabogal, director general of the Land Restitution Unit, which is spearheading the government’s effort. But he defended the administration’s track record.

Since the victims law passed in June 2011, teams of specially trained judges and magistrates have returned more than 36,000 acres in 651 cases, he said. Almost 10,000 cases are pending and more come in daily. When land claimants are threatened, they’re provided with security details, flak jackets, and other protective measures, he said.

The Salabarrías have benefited from government oversight. When they were threatened in April 2012, authorities moved them to a community in Magdalena department about 250 miles away. But the troubles followed, Salabarría said. Two armed men on a motorcycle arrived at her house one evening and threatened to kill her. The government hustled them to a safe house in May.

Their experience underscores the challenge the government is facing to provide security at the sites of the restitutions.

The report found that at least 90 land claimants have been relocated due to threats. As of July, only one family — among 651 cases — had returned to live on its land, the study found. While some have chosen not to return and others are farming the property, many cite security concerns, said Max Schoening, a Colombia researcher at Human Rights Watch and the report’s author.

“In order to make [restitution] work, the government needs to ensure justice for abuses against land claimants,” he said. “As long as there’s no accountability, displaced people are going to face very serious risks to their security when attempting to reclaim their land.”

The government did not dispute the Human Rights Watch figure but did say that 66 percent of those benefited by restitution were either living or working on the land. Twenty-four percent were still waiting for their property and only 10 percent had not returned.

The restitution law cannot “force people to return to their land, that’s voluntary,” the Restitution Unit said in a statement.

Paula Gaviria, director general of the Victims Unit, which answers to the presidency, admits that impunity has been an issue in all human-rights cases, but she said the courts are beginning to pick up the pace.

“All of the government institutions are starting to wake up, but we’re doing this in the middle of war and that’s not easy,” she said. Her office is receiving about 30,000 new victim reports per month.

“The door to the conflict is still open and new victims are coming in every day.”

Sitting in a crowded living room, Salabarría said she’s not sure she wants her property back.

The land has cost the lives of four family members, she says. Her father and her husband were seized and “disappeared” by paramilitaries in the 1990s. Her mother died of “heartache.” And in 2006, when the family tried to return to the land in a prior government-sponsored program, another brother vanished.

“When I hear government officials talk about the victims law it makes my blood boil,” Salabarría said. “I’m just too tired to keep fighting for this property. I think that restitution has been a trick.”

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