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.”