Colombia: land restitution advances

International human rights advocates have commended Colombia on the return of usurped lands to 32 displaced families in northwest Córdoba department. Human Rights Watch (HRW) which had previously been critical of the Victims' Law which includes the Land Restitution Law, hailed the occasion as "a major step." The ruling on Feb. 13 by a specialized land restitution tribunal, orders the return of approximately 164 hectares (405 acres) on the Santa Paula finca (plantation), outside the city of Montería. Persons linked to the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) forced out the 32 families and fraudulently titled their land between 1999 and 2002, according to the ruling—especially naming AUC founders Carlos and Vicente Castaño.

The land restitution office created by the 2011 Victims and Land Restitution Law filed the 32 claims with a restitution judge last September. "This ruling restores victims’ ownership over land seized by one of Colombia’s most powerful paramilitary mafias, in a region where it continues to exercise influence," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "It is a milestone achievement for Colombia’s land restitution office and the victims who have courageously stepped forward to reclaim their land."

But HRW also warned that uthorities should take "vigorous measures" to protect those whose land has been returned. Although many land claimants have been provided with "protection measures such as cell phones, bullet proof vests and bodyguards," there has been "very little progress in ensuring accountability for abuses against restitution leaders, which is the most effective form of protection," HRW researcher Max Schoening told Colombia Reports.

Reports of threats and violence against those who are seeking the return of usurped lands remain widespread. Mario Cuitiva, leader of the claimants in this case, has reported several threats against him, even forcing him to flee Córdoba last November, according to HRW. The previous leader of the group, Yolanda Izquierdo, was shot dead in 2007. Sor Teresa Gómez, convicted of her murder in absentia in 2011, has reportedly been identified as a former AUC member and part of the notorious Los Urabeños crime gang.

There are similar issues with land restitution measures elsewhere in the country.

Five days after the ruling, President Juan Manuel Santos announced an initiative to return lands usurped by the FARC guerillas, specifically naming San Vicente del Caguán municipality in southern Caquetá department (which was under FARC control as a "demilitarized zone" between 1998 and 2002). "We are stripping the FARC of their ill-gotten land, and we are giving the land to the campesinos to whom it belongs," Santos said. He said some 500,000 hectares in Caquetá and Meta departments were stolen by FARC commander "Mono Jojoy." (El Meridiano de Córdoba, Feb. 21; Colombia Reports, HRW, El Tiempo, Feb. 20)