Colombian ambassador to US resigns over land-theft scandal

Colombia's ambassador in Washington has resigned after being implicated in an alleged case of land theft, President Juan Manuel Santos said July 23. The ambassador, Carlos Urrutia, was involved in an ongoing scandal in which he repeatedly faced questions regarding his involvement in the appropriation of some 100,000 acres of land throughout central Colombia. In his resignation letter, Urrutia defended the legality of his actions: "I trust the legality of the legal argument that support the acquisitions. Unfortunately the political discussion has focused more on the background and there is resistance to hearing legal reasons that conclude the acquisitions were executed under the rule of law." Prior to his role as ambassador Urrutia was a major shareholder of the law firm Brigard & Urrutia, which is accused of facilitating the illegal lands transfers.

According to Sen. Jorge Robledo (Polo Democrático Alternativo), a vocal opponent of the ambassador, Brigard & Urrutia fraudulently helped multinationals acquire ownership of approximately 100,000 acres of land throughout Colombia. The firm is especially accused of helping US ag-biz giant Cargill  illegally secure control over 52,574 hectares (129,913 acres) in a Campesino Reserve Zone of Vichada department—a special area where land-holdings are restricted by law to single-family homesteads. 

Robledo sought clarification over Urrutia’s role in these acquisitions in a letter dated June 21, in which he claims violations of the law began in August 2009, when Urrutia was in control of the firm. Robledo continued to pressure Urrutia and, in a subsequent letter dated July 22, questioned the ambassador's role in the financing of incumbent Juan Manuel Santos' presidential campaign.

Colombia’s agricultural lands have long been center of criminal activity and armed conflict. For decades, paramilitary and guerrilla groups displaced peasants from their plots to subsequently sell these lands legally with the help of middlemen and corrupt officials. After taking office in 2010, President Santos vowed to return these lands to their rightful owners. (Colombia Reports, July 23; CorpWatch, July 13; Radio Caracol, June 24)

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