Colombia passes victim compensation law —as armed conflict continues

The Colombian Senate on May 25 passed the Victims and Land Restitution Law, to provide financial compensation and the return of usurped lands to victims of internal “armed conflicts.” President Juan Manuel Santos called the approval of the law “historic.” But his predecessor Alvaro Uribe bitterly fought the law’s wording, arguing that it equated the state’s actions with those of the illegal armed groups. In compromise wording, the law describes illegal armed groups as “terrorists.” Claimants who have been victimized by armed conflicts since January 1985 are eligible for financial compensation. Those who have had their land seized, or were forced to abandoned their lands, are entitled to restitution of their property. The government estimates that 4 million hectares of land were abandoned and 2 million were seized during the conflicts. Senator Juan Fernando Cristo (Liberal Party) stated that the law ushers in “part two of the history of this country.” The restitution process is expected to take 10 years to complete.

Critics charge, however, that Colombia’s armed conflicts are not over. On May 5, the Colombian congress’ Human Rights Commission held a special hearing in San Josecito, a settlement established by those forced to flee the San José de Apartadó Peace Community in the northern Urabá region by paramilitary attacks. Rep. Ivan Cepeda (Polo Democrático) said in a radio interview that San José de Apartadó—once run as a “peace community” that refused to collaborate with armed actors—has been seized by paramilitaries. “The collusion between paramilitary structures, the army and the national police in a radius of just few kilometers, is beyond our understanding,” he said.

During the first week of May, hundreds of families illegally occupied lands in several municipalities of Urabá, in what was clearly an organized effort. The 5,000 mostly landless farmworkers claimed to be reclaiming lands usurped by paramilitaries, but press reports indicate that each family was paid between $10 and $50 to take part, and local officials were apparently involved. Chigorodó city council member Alexander Londoño Machado, was arrested for encouraging illegal occupations. The squatters were evicted by anti-riot police.

Carmen Valencia of the Land and Life Corporation, a community organization working on land restitution, implied the take-overs were organized by the paramilitaries themselves in a bid to sabotage the compensation law: “A spoon cannot be moved here without being noted by or the Self-Defense Forces’ permission, so one cannot explain if it wasn’t them, and if it was another armed group, how 6,000 or 7,000 people could mobilize in three days without the Self-Defense Forces reacting.”

Paramilitary violence continues to take a deadly toll on a weekly basis. On May 9, Albeiro Valdés, became the sixth person to be killed from the victims’ association Asovirestibi in Urabá’s Necoclí municipality—just a few months after winning a legal battle for the return of lands he and several local families were forced off of by paramilitaries. Martha Gaibao, the spokesperson of a hundred families in La Apartada, Cordoba department, was gunned down April 27 after the central government relocated the families she was representing. The Latin American Working Group and Lutheran World Relief issued a report, “No Relief in Sight,” documenting the survival of paramilitary bands in northern Colombia despite the supposed “demobilization.” (Jurist, May 26; CNN, BBC News, May 25; Colombia Reports, May 8; FOR Colombia Peace Update, May 2011)

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