Alicia Ramos began receiving death threats immediately after returning to the farmland she inherited from her father — 120 acres in Necocli, in Colombia’s northwest, near the Panama border. Left-wing guerrillas seized the plot in the 1980s and forced Ramos’ family out. Now she is back, thanks to a government land restitution program that provides her with armed guards, security cameras and a bulletproof vest.
“They killed my neighbor recently — I don’t feel very secure,” said Ramos, a mother of three, referring to Urabeños, a neo-paramilitary group with a strong presence in the region. “They follow my car and ransacked my house when I stepped out recently, so now I don’t leave very often.”
Like Ramos, thousands of Colombian farmers are attempting to recover land usurped by paramilitary groups and leftist rebels during decades of armed conflict with the central government. Their struggle is the subject of a “Fault Lines” investigation, “Colombia: The Fight for Land,” premiering Friday at 9:30 p.m. ET.
Backed by the 2011 Victims and Land Restitution Law, Colombians have filed roughly 40,000 claims for 11,000 square miles of land. But unless it is modified, the law is doomed to fail, say analysts and civil rights groups. Up to 50 claimants have been killed since 2011, according to the Colombian attorney general’s office. And at least 500 have received death threats in the past year. But no arrests have been made.
“The main problem with the law is the lack of security for those claiming land,” said Carmen Palencia, director of Tierra y Vida, which helps Colombians defend land rights. “They are being killed because government institutions don’t investigate or detain people linked to armed groups who are killing claimants,” added Palencia, who lost her husband to the armed conflict and regularly receives death threats owing to her work.
The spate of murders — and the impunity that armed thugs enjoy — has hampered the law’s application. So much so that only a handful of families have benefited from the “victims” law, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch. The study caused a stir in Colombia among government officials and civil rights groups. They say the report is laden with errors and underestimates the number of people who have benefited from the law.
“We can confirm that there are dozens of cases in which families have successfully returned to their land,” Iris Marin, director of the government’s land restitution agency, recently told local media. Media outlets say about 300 families have returned to cultivate their land, even if only a small number actually reside on the territory.
Land rights are a central dispute in Colombia’s five-decade-old armed conflict. Warfare has created the world’s largest internally displaced population, forcing 4.8 million people to abandon roughly 14 million acres of land in the past 30 years, according to Human Rights Watch. Today, 52 percent of the country’s farmland rests in the hands of 1 percent of landowners — one of the most disparate land distribution rates in the world, according to the United Nations.
Land reform is also at the heart of peace talks between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. After nearly a year of talks in Havana, the two sides have agreed on a tentative deal that would redistribute farmland. The government would facilitate loans and technical assistance to farmers, who would also benefit from legal and police protection.
But these guarantees are precisely where the current restitution law has failed, say analysts. Paramilitary-style groups like the Urabeños and Rastrojos spread fear throughout the Colombian countryside, threatening not only land claimants but also their attorneys and judges specializing in restitution cases. The groups also use profits from drug trafficking to corrupt local government officials into obstructing police investigations of various crimes.
“The problem is in the countryside, where local officials receive a lot of money and where there are high levels of corruption,” said Palencia of Tierra y Vida. Her organization and other Colombian rights groups recently called on the U.N. and the Organization of American States for help. They have asked the international institutions to send monitors to accompany claimants in their quest to recover land.
Land rights groups also condemn the Santos government for the slow pace of reform. They say it typically takes the government a year to resolve one claim. And they decry the lack of economic support for farmers. Unless the law is modified to extend bank credit and technical support to land claimants, it is destined to fail, they say.
“This government says the law is the greatest thing to ever happen in Colombia, but horrible things are occurring,” said Alfonso Castillo, president of the human rights group Asociacion Nacional de Ayuda Solidaria. “They are selling us the idea of the promised land in the middle of hell.”