“Somewhere Between War and Peace: Forced Displacements and the Restitution of Land in Colombia”

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“Somewhere Between War and Peace: Forced Displacements and the Restitution of Land in Colombia”

Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, guerrillas shoot towards Colombian soldiers in the mountains of Meta, Colombia, April 4, 2011. Photo by Carlos Villalon/Redux/eyevine

Written by Daniel Edgar exclusively for SouthFront

Over the last couple of weeks the debate over the restitution of land to farmers and rural communities forced to abandon their land and their homes by the armed conflict has been one of the dominant themes in national politics in Colombia. More than five million Colombians have been violently displaced from their homes (amounting to over 10% of the total population, the second highest number in the world exceeded only by Syria), and while many have gone into exile (to Venezuela and Ecuador in particular) the overwhelming majority remain in Colombia, surviving as best they can while they wait for the violence to subside and for the restitution processes to take effect. Although the national government and Congress established a procedure to process and adjudicate claims for the restitution of land and property in 2011 its implementation is, not surprisingly, extremely problematic.

The complexity of the situation is greatly exacerbated by the fact that there are still an enormous number of forced displacements occurring (as many as 200,000 to 300,000 annually), despite the substantial reduction in levels of violence associated with the armed conflict more generally, particularly since the main guerrilla group (the FARC) announced a unilateral ceasefire almost a year ago to facilitate the negotiations with the government.

For more information on the background of the social and armed conflicts in Colombia and the peace processes with the guerrilla groups refer to the earlier articles:

The most recent debate over the topic of the restitution of land ignited when the Inspector General of the Nation (responsible for maintaining and enforcing the disciplinary laws and standards applying to public officials as well as for supervising and upholding the protection and free exercise of fundamental civil rights and freedoms, among other functions) attended two meetings with ranchers and the president of the national Cattlemen´s Federation in two of the provinces most affected by such violence and forced displacements (Cesar and Magdalena, both in the far north of Colombia) to denounce the land restitution process.

The Inspector General´s flamboyant public criticism of the land restitution process and the personal campaign the prominent public official has launched against the Law for the Restitution of Land in close cooperation with the president of the Cattlemen´s Federation is the subject of an editorial in the Colombian periodical Las2orillas (“The Inspector General and the campaign against the Law for the Restitution of Land”), the text of which is as follows:

“Inspector General Ordoñez was transported in a helicopter of the Armed Forces to the municipality of San Angel in the province of Magdalena to lead a meeting with about two thousand framers who are opposed to the implementation of the Law for the Restitution of Land. The event took place with all of the official protocols: it started with the playing of the national anthem. Although the Law for the Restitution of Land is the engine for the reparation of the victims of forced displacements and a fundamental component of the peace process between the national government and the FARC taking place in Havana, its implementation has not been easy and so far the government has not managed to fulfil the goals it has set for the implementation of the law. Ordoñez´ meeting with the group of farmers that are opposed to the decisions of the judges appointed to implement the law of restitution announced the creation of a new impediment to further obstruct the slow progress of the restitution process.

The farmers that attended the event patronised by the Inspector General say that they are the legitimate owners of their properties and allege that the law in question wants to evict them from properties that they acquired in a legitimate manner. In symphony with this argument, Ordoñez told them: “In many cases the occupants of the land are not those responsible for the violent displacements of the original owners but are secondary or third occupants that acquired their properties in good faith, so that the restitution process is committing another injustice because there are now two sets of victims namely those that were violently displaced and the current occupants of good faith… The law was enacted to evict the perpetrators of the forced displacements, not the farmers that have worked the land… We are talking about protecting the rights of the victims, the rights of those that have been evicted.”

The head of the Public Ministry [the Inspector General] was applauded on several occasions and shared the stage with the president of Fedegan, Jose Felix Lafaurie. Both Ordoñez and Lafaurie have been staunch critics of the national government, particularly the peace process. The same process that was the central argument of the recent protests led by Alvaro Uribe [former president of Colombia and currently senator and leader of the far right Democratic Centre political party] against the government of Juan Manuel Santos. It was particularly notable that during the protest marches some of the participants wore shirts with the slogan, “No to the restitution of land.” These people were members of the Colombian Association of Victims of the Restitution of Land (Asocolvirt), an organization that claims to have 1,600 members that acquired their land in good faith and are now facing claims over their properties by people that have been violently displaced and other victims of the armed conflict. The association, with representatives in the provinces of Antioquia, Cesar, Bolivar and Magdalena, says that it has documented around 100 cases in which the judgements pursuant to the restitution process “have stolen the land from the farmers” according to Julio Gonzalez, a representative of Asocolvirt. Although he wasn´t wearing a shirt proclaiming “No to the restitution of land”, in San Angel Inspector General Ordoñez gave broad support to the farmers that are organizing around this cause.”

Two articles from the Colombian news agency Prensa Rural (Rural Press) discuss the outbreak of the most recent national debate over the restitution process. The first (by William Cano Moreno) is as follows:

The Recuperation of Land: A long and high-risk path

The attempts of the people in Colombia that have been violently forced to leave their land to return to their homes has on many occasions placed their lives at extreme risk for a second time. The Caribbean region has not been spared from this experience, incontrovertible proof of this are the 75 people that have received death threats and other threats of attacks against them and the 21 others that have been assassinated between 2011 and March 2015 registered by the Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular (Cinep – Centre for Investigation and Popular Education).

Since the passage of Law 1448 (Law of Victims and the Restitution of Land), provinces near the Caribbean coast such as Bolivar, Cesar, Cordoba and Magdalena registered some of the highest rates of threats and violence against forcibly displaced farmers and communities attempting to reclaim their land.

But last week the disputes over competing claims to land in areas heavily affected by the armed conflict, and the regions where violent attacks have been deliberately directed against farmers and rural communities in particular, transcended the countryside to become a prominent topic in national politics and the media. There have been strong clashes over the topic between, on one side, the national Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez and the president of the Colombian Cattlemen´s Federation (Federación Colombiana de Ganaderos, Fedegan) Jose Felix Lafaurie, and on the other side the Minister of Agriculture Aurelio Iragorri and Senator Ivan Cepeda. The latter went as far as to suggest that some powerful factions and groups in the regions and at the national level are developing a presumed “anti-restitution strategy”, and the strategy was in effect being promoted by last week´s statements by Ordoñez and Lafaurie.

The plan of the National Unit for Land Restitution to return affected properties to those that lost them due to the armed conflict still has a daunting task ahead of it, including in the Caribbean region in the north of Colombia. According to the national administrative unit established to address the problem, just in these northern provinces there are 25,721 applications for the return of 20,258 properties lodged by 19,769 people. Of these, 14,431 of the claims for the restitution of land in the Caribbean region have already completed the administrative procedures.

The notion raised by Senator Cepeda that an “anti-restitution strategy” has been developed by some organisations and groups to confront and contest the restitution of land is supported by some of the victims and their leaders and representatives in the processes for the recuperation of land, though others dismiss the possibility that such a movement or alliance exists in the sense of a coordinated strategy being planned and implemented by some specific organization or alliance of groups.

A survivor

Andres Narvaez is a claimant of land in the province of Sucre who survived the violence and now tells his story, one which began in 2002 when the violence forced him to flee from his farm “Europa” and brought him to the brink of death in 2014 after he returned to his land. Narvaez tells how when he was leaving his farm, located next to the main Caribbean highway in the province of Sucre, a foreman of the company that is disputing his ownership of the property (Arepas Don Juancho) arrived and confronted him.

Andres recalls that he had installed a gate at the main entrance to the farm, arguing that it was necessary for his security, but that this infuriated his aggressor. The last thing he heard was the company´s foreman saying: “I´m going to kill you”. He immediately pulled out a firearm and shot Andres Narvaez four times, twice in the chest and twice in the hands.

Narvaez claims that this is not the only aggression that he and the other 82 families that have presented a claim for the restitution of the property “Europa” have suffered. According to his recount, supported by the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes (Movimiento Nacional de Victimas de Crímenes de Estado, Movice), during the process of their voluntary return they have had to confront several violent attacks, including one assassination, the burning of their houses, destruction of crops, death threats and constant harassment and intimidation.

Narvaez warns that: “I have a great problem with the attack I was subjected to. The guy that attacked me has been released from custody because the investigation and judicial process were so slow, and now I am constantly harassed. I will have to leave the country.” He is convinced that a deliberate and coordinated “anti-restitution strategy” exists to prevent forcibly displaced people from returning to their land.

Ingrid Vergara, Movice´s spokesperson in the Sucre region, considers that the existence of such a strategy “is certain”. “Hearing the statements of the Inspector General, of Lafaurie (president of the Cattlemen´s Federation), and watching the march instigated by the political party Democratic Centre [led by former president and now senator Álvaro Uribe] in which people were wearing shirts with slogans like “No to the restitution” the day after the armed shutdown imposed by the armed group the Urabeños, all of this tells us that certain groups and sectors in Colombia are interested in preventing the restitution of affected land because it would affect their interests.”

Of the 75 people that have been threatened and the 21 that have been assassinated in the Caribbean region because they have lodged claims for the restitution of land, 30 cases of intimidation and four homicides occurred in Sucre between 2011 and March of 2015 according to the archives and CINEP and the Observatory of the Restitution of Land.

Another province in the Caribbean region that has registered a large number of violent attacks is Magdalena, where people affected have warned of another modus operandi that has been developed. The Juridical Foundation Yira Castro, dedicated to the defence and fulfilment of human rights, has denounced that late in 2006 and in January of 2007 a community of farmers returned “voluntary and without any support from public institutions or officials” to the rural area of La Pola in the municipality of Chibolo.

According to the account we were told they found that their land had been occupied by third parties who had been brought there by paramilitaries, in effect under the same paramilitary commanders that forced them to leave their land, as in the case of La Palizua, located in a zone dominated by the paramilitaries commanded by Augusto Pacheco, alias Tuto Castro.

Senator Ivan Cepeda, of the political party Democratic Pole, critically commented that since Law 1448 entered into effect there has been a process of “criminalization and persecution” against claimants of land, mentioning as an example the ranch “Europa”, one of the largest properties in Sucre covering 1,321 hectares.

“Farmers from the Montes de Maria region have received threats. The residents of Carmen de Bolivar, including all of the members of the committee established by the victims, have had to go into exile due to the threats. Also in the adjacent province of Cesar we have witnessed the appearance of a structure that is calling itself the “Anti-Restitution Army”, referring to an armed group that since 2012 has registered intimidating activities relating to disputes over land in territories such as Nariño, Cesar, Sucre, Antioquia and Bolivar.”

“It is not an organization”: the Minister of the Interior

Despite these denunciations, the Interior Minister (Juan Fernando Cristo) declared to the newspaper El Heraldo that the crimes and threats being committed against affected farming communities and claimants “doesn´t obey a single national organization that is dedicated to preventing the restitution of land by illegal means.” In his opinion, these cases are related to autonomous “local and regional interests” contesting the ownership of specific properties.

The minister assures us that the implementation of the policy to return properties to people forced to leave their land due to the armed conflict is “advancing well”, although – he acknowledges – there are still “some zones” in the country where the armed conflict continues to “make implementation of the process difficult”. “For this reason we have a program for the protection of many representatives of the victims, arranged by the National Protection Unit (Unidad Nacional de Protección, UNP). Regrettably there have been not just threats but assassinations of some people associated with the topic of the restitution of land, but we have to take the measures necessary to ensure that they aren´t repeated”, Cristo emphasized.

The Interior Minister also admitted that the restitution of land has “enemies that use illegal methods and other detractors that restrict themselves to legal activities.” He noted that there are people that “don´t like” the policy of land restitution, and others that “don´t think it should advance so rapidly.” “We respect their opinion, but to go from there to saying that there is a national organization dedicated to attacking claimants, no”, he stated.

There are currently around 21,000 people in the country that have returned to their land with the support of productive projects, accounting for more than 200,000 hectares of land that have been returned, according to the reports of the minister. Nonetheless, he warned that there are a large number of cases pending in the claim process, complicating the resolution of outstanding cases. “In the next few months we will have to resolve claims to more than 500,000 hectares of land in Colombia”, he said.

The deputy director of the Land Restitution Unit (Unidad de Restitución de Tierras, URT), Alcelis Coneo, lamented the episodes of violence mentioned above, but emphasized that of the people that have returned to their land after their claims have been completed “none of them have been affected by threats or acts against their lives and physical integrity.” She reported that in more than 80% of the cases that have been officially resolved the people that have returned to their land are “enjoying their properties”.

The official of the URT doesn´t recognize the existence of an “anti-restitution” group. “We can have the inconformity of some people, but the restitution of land has been resolute in the face of these scenarios.” Coneo indicated that the types of processes established for the restitution of land can generate “a variety of loopholes and irregularities” by people that abuse the process and engage in illegal conduct. However, she stated that plans have been articulated by the National Protection Unit, the Police, the Prosecutor General and the Ombudsman to address such cases so that alerts and protective measures can be activated “immediately” and investigations carried out, including the implementation of specific plans to protect the lives of those that have been threatened.

The developments that activated the polemical accusations and debate

Early in April the Inspector General of the Nation, Alejandro Ordoñez, met with more than 2,000 agricultural producers from different parts of the Caribbean coast in Sabanas de San Ángel located in the province of Magdalena. Ordoñez assured those attending that he was there “to warn them and to identify risks” in the policy of restitution. During his discourse, he assured the participants that: “One mustn´t confuse opponents to the policy acting in good faith with the perpetrators of the forced displacements. The intention of the law was sound, but it didn´t anticipate the complexity of the situation and many injustices have been committed due to the implementation of the law and peace must be the fruit of justice. If there is no justice there will be violent confrontations.”

Another detonator of the subsequent polemics was that Ordoñez and the president of Fedegan, Jose F. Lafaurie, met with officials of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Land Restitution Unit to transmit the message that the ranchers were not disposed to cede one inch of their farms due to a legal regime that, according to them, was established at the instigation of the FARC [the largest insurgent guerrilla group in Colombia]. President Juan Manuel Santos also intervened in the discussion, demanding that the topic of land restitution not be used for political purposes and condemned the “stigmatization of the victims claiming they are guerrillas.”

The analysis by CINEP of the processes and their duration

A report by the Colombian Land Observatory of CINEP revealed that during the first three years of the implementation of Law 1448, the sentences expedited in the Caribbean Region have been concentrated in four areas: in the area of Montes de Maria, with determinations in the provinces of Bolivar and Sucre; in zones adjacent to the Magdalena River in the provinces of Cesar and Magdalena; in zones centred around the south of Cordoba; and the lower reaches of the Cauca River in Antioquia. Despite having focused on 28 municipalities within these zones, as of December 2014 determinations had only been made in 17 of them.

The total number of determinations in those 17 municipalities was 159, 96 of which were pronounced in 12 Civil Circuit Judgments and 63 by two Superior Tribunals of the district. In all of the provinces studied the average duration of the judicial proceedings exceeded the four months established by Article 91 of Law 1448.

Despite the fact that in Magdalena only two oppositions to the claims were presented, it was the province where the procedures took longest to complete with an average of eight months. In contrast, the procedures in Cordoba, where twelve claims were opposed, were completed most rapidly with an average of five months.

The Tribunal of Antioquia, which only had 12 of the 63 claims that were opposed in the Caribbean Region, took less time to resolve the claims than the Tribunal of Cartagena, where 80% of the opposed claims were sent during the period analysed involving properties located in Bolivar, Cesar, Magdalena and Sucre.

Harassment of the Commission

Among the recent instances of violence against the process of devolution of properties in the Caribbean Region is one that occurred in Cesar in September of 2015. While officials of the Land Restitution Unit were conducting geo-referencing work in the municipality of Pelaya in the south of Cordoba they were shot at by unknown assailants from hills around the property. This occurred despite the presence of an escort provided by a mobile squadron of the National Police. The attack prevented the officials from completing their task and resulted in the procedure being suspended until the security of the officials processing the claims for the recuperation of properties that were abandoned or taken over due to the impacts of the armed conflict can be guaranteed.

First published in El Heraldo.

The second article from Prensa Rural (by Hernan Camacho) is as follows:

The Anti-Restitution Strategy: National Debate

In a tour of the provinces most affected by forced displacements caused by the threats and violence of paramilitary groups, the Inspector General of the Nation Alejandro Ordoñez gave a lofty speech in which he warned the national government that the Public Ministry that he heads will support the current owners of properties that are the subject of claims for restitution as they are considered to have acquired their land titles in good faith.

Ordoñez made the affirmation during a meeting convened by land owners and cattle ranchers of the province of Cesar and patronized by the president of Fedegan, the association created by the ranchers, Jose Felix Lafaurie. Lafaurie declared that the ranchers aren´t going to return one millimetre of land as he assured the participants that the process of land restitution is a ploy imposed by the FARC guerrilla group by way of the peace dialogues with the national government taking place in Havana.

The rightists in the tribunals

According to the head of the ranchers´ association the claimants of land have formed farmers´ organizations whose names commemorate prominent leftist leaders from Colombia´s history, and this is a sure sign that the processes established to restore land to farmers and communities violently displaced by paramilitaries are a devious ploy elaborated to confiscate the properties from their current owners.

In the opinion of the Inspector General the front men of the paramilitary groups that assassinated, displaced and destroyed the farmers and communities that lived in the region prior to the violence, acting in collaboration with politicians, landowners and ranchers, are “communities from the region that want to state their concerns over the implementation of Law 1448.”

Public Letter

In the opinion of the leader of the Patriotic Union [a leftist political party], Aida Avella, the attitude of the Inspector General is not just reproachable, it also suggests the deployment of a strategy to defend the beneficiaries of the forced displacements carried out by the paramilitaries in the region and the plunder of the victims´ lands and properties, a strategy that in this instance has converted the Public Ministry of the Inspector General into an accomplice of the pain caused by para-militarism in the country. An open letter sent to Ordoñez by the Patriotic Union states that: “The victims of the Patriotic Union [which suffered a campaign of physical extermination during the 1980s and 1990s, only being re-founded as a political party last year by the survivors of the ruthless political genocide] are indignant that you are in agreement with those that have, in large part, further concentrated the ownership of land in Colombia employing violence to appropriate large expanses of land.”

In Avella´s opinion the matter pertains to one of the fundamental origins and causes of the social and armed conflicts in Colombia: the massive inequality in land ownership. The letter further states: “Utilizing the public entity that you – Alejandro Ordoñez – direct for the purpose of defending the concentration of land. According to the most recent agricultural census 0.4% of landowners have 46% of the land. Colombia has the most unequal land ownership system in the world. The illicit enrichment procured at the expense of rural communities and small-scale farmers is protected and maintained by the institutions that you should be investigating but which you are not doing because those same institutions are controlled by the ruling classes, the extremely rich people that call themselves the owners of the land.”

Other voices

Ordoñez´ declarations and activities only constitute one part of the elaborate strategy that has been devised by the beneficiaries and front men of the plunder carried out by paramilitaries in Colombia to defend and legitimize their ill-gotten gains. The political party Democratic Centre (a right wing political party) has initiated a crusade to defend the current owners of affected properties who are considered by them to be owners who have acquired their properties in good faith in provinces such as Cesar, Bolivar and Magdalena. On the 29th of July 2015 one of Democratic Centre´s members of the national House of Representatives, Maria Fernanda Cabal, instigated a debate of political control in which she asserted that land claimants are people that are motivated by and associated with the armed insurgency [of the guerrilla groups the FARC and ELN].

But the gravest allegation was made by Ivan Cepeda (a member of the national Congress for the leftist Democratic Pole) during one of the sessions of the Second Congressional Committee. According to Senator Cepeda anti-restitution armies have been established and are planning military operations, while other groups and organizations formed by some sectors of the ruling classes are resorting to judicial procedures to detain the progress of the land restitution processes.

Denunciation

Cepeda´s statement [presented in the national Senate] comments: “The Juridical Corporation Yira Castro condemns the ongoing creation and implementation of an anti-restitution strategy in Chibolo in the province of Magdalena, orchestrated by Augusto Castro Pacheco (alias Tuto Castro) and Saul Severini, ex-paramilitaries of the Northern Block of the AUC, the family Cortina Calanche, a person known as “Mono Bedoya”, Gerardo Orozco (a signatory of the pact of Chibolo), as well as numerous cattle ranchers from the sectors around the ranches El Dificil and San Angel. This group is being promoted in several rural areas, soliciting economic support from the ranchers, and it appears that it is being supported by “recently arrived people” in the region. The latter refers to people that are known as the “Paisas”, who have a direct link to the family Castaño Gil (one of the most prominent families among the leaders of the paramilitary groups during the 1990s in particular).”

The premises and manoeuvres of the alliance of rightist groups and sectors to prevent the restitution of land doesn´t just consist of military elements. The denunciation published by the Corporation Yira Castro states that an organization has been created claiming to be an “association of victims of forced displacement by the State, Asovide” which “realized its first meeting in February 2016, to which ranchers and secondary occupants of farms and ranches in Parapeto, Oceania and other rural localities were invited. Among those that attended the meeting were: “Mono Bedoya”, members of the Cortina Calanche and Castro families, other well-known opponents of the land restitution process, and a woman who was identified by participants as being a close associate of Tuto Castro, who allegedly offered sinecures, financial grants, productive projects and other benefits to those willing to support the group. The organizers then convened a second meeting on the 5th of April 2016, at which they solicited money from the ranchers with the objective of attending to the functionaries that would participate.”

Pamphlets

In the municipality of San Angel, the location of the most recent meeting of ranchers convened by the president of Fedegan and attended by the Inspector General, pamphlets signed by the National Association of Victims of the Restitution of Land (Asocolvirt) were circulated claiming that properties in the municipality of Sabana de Torres in the province of Santander “are at imminent risk of expropriation by the national government through implementation of Law 1448 of 2011 for the restitution of land; for this reason we invite you to a meeting to oppose this scourge.”

Ivan Cepeda cautions that: “It is clear that there are some cases of secondary occupants who acquired their properties in good faith and are exempt of any guilt. In every one of these cases the judges appointed to implement the law and adjudicate claims for the restitution of land are obliged to take measures to protect the rights of these secondary occupants. But such cases are relatively scarce, the rest are accomplices of the paramilitaries that are trying to portray themselves as regular farmers unjustly affected by the restitution process.”

Statistics of the restitution process

To all of this one can add that the Executive has given inadequate administrative support to implement the Restitution Law. Nora Saldarriaga, of the Foundation Forjando Futuro of the University of Antioquia, states that the implementation of the laws for victims of the armed conflict and for land restitution has stalled. She states that up to now 87,118 claims have been lodged of which only 2,943 have been resolved by the judges of the Land Unit created to implement the law, representing the return of 197,927 hectares of land. The Foundation studied 1,500 sentences of the judges of the restitution process of which 94% have been favourable to claimants. One outstanding fact is that five people appear as opponents to claims for restitution in almost half of the contested claims. Moreover, these people have not been able to prove that they acquired the properties that were violently cleared of their previous owners and occupants in good faith and entirely free of involvement in the forced displacements or complicity with the perpetrators.

Thus the strategy being elaborated against the restitution of land has a military dimension (with anti-restitution armies evoking the traditional forms of para-militarism), a political dimension supported by the congressional members of the Democratic Centre, a dimension delegated to the agricultural associations headed by Fedegan, and a dimension within public institutions of which the Inspector General of the Nation is the most prominent element. All of the groups and individuals participating in the strategy are sworn enemies of the peace process and apologists and legitimizers of para-militarism. They constitute a dangerous current that the government must defeat if it is to effectuate the construction of peace.

Officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Rural Development and the Land Restitution Unit (the entity with primary responsibility for implementing the restitution law) had been invited to attend both meetings in order to discuss problems that have arisen in the implementation of the restitution law, however after the elaborate rhetorical and theatrical ambush that they were subjected to at the first encounter they declined to attend the second meeting. The inflammatory language used by the Inspector General at the ranchers´ meetings raised an outcry amongst many sectors of Colombian society. One of the comments that caused most indignation was an assertion by the president of the Cattlemen´s Federation alluding to the ongoing peace process with the FARC to claim that the restitution law is a devious ploy by the armed group to reconquer lost territory: “The restitution process is nothing less than the initial quota of territorial control of certain armed groups that believe they can return to claim land in the countryside and we are not going to permit that.”

An editorial in El Espectador (“The fight between Ordoñez and Santos over the restitution of land”) cites additional assertions by Maria Fernanda Cabal, a representative of “Democratic Centre” in the national House of Representatives (and the wife of the president of the Cattlemen´s Federation), commenting that: “from her twitter account the member of Congress has lambasted the Law of Victims [of the armed conflict], land restitution claimants and officials responsible for implementing the laws. Her words have merited a denunciation for defamation before the Supreme Court of Justice after accusing claimants for the restitution of land of being “auxiliaries of the guerrillas” that are “creating movements for the recuperation of land and carrying out hundreds of land invasions throughout the country, under a policy of the usurpation of land and the creation of artificial rural communities”.”

In an article in El Espectador (“The undesirables”) Ramiro Bejarano Guzman notes that the campaign against the restitution of land has a long history: “For many years the large land owners and other regional chieftains and tyrants seated in the national Congress have impeded the passage of a law for the restitution of land to victims of forced displacements, particularly during the government of democratic security. It was necessary to wait for Álvaro Uribe and his fearsome entourage to exit from the presidential palace before the Congress would finally approve Law 1448 of 2011, against which a vehement campaign has been launched headed by the sinister Ordoñez-Lafaurie alliance.”

According to an article in Semana (“Grave denunciations by Ivan Cepeda against Ordoñez and Lafaurie”):

“In his intervention in the Senate, Ivan Cepeda stated: “A strategy is being elaborated led by the Inspector General, some members of Democratic Centre and various powerful cattle ranchers and landlords in the provinces of Magdalena and Cesar. We have seen that before the meetings patronized by the Inspector General, other more furtive meetings had been held under the auspices of ex-paramilitaries in which those attending were incited to instigate public protests and demonstrations against the restitution of land…”

In the meeting in San Angel …, according to evidence presented in a report by Noticias Uno, the brother and the son of Saúl Severini [a notorious paramilitary leader] were present. Senator Ivan Cepeda further states: “Chibolo and San Angel were epicentres of the consolidation of the paramilitary project in the north of the country and served as the nucleus of the violent eviction of thousands of farmers in the region under the strategy of Jorge 40, his front men and Incora [at the time the agency responsible for maintaining the register of land titles]. Of course there are cases of innocent secondary occupants who purchased their properties in good faith. In each instance the restitution judges are required to take steps to protect the rights of such secondary occupants. But these only account for some cases, the rest are accomplices of the paramilitaries who are trying to present themselves as farmers affected by the restitution law.”

Although they appear to be unrelated events, the senator of Democratic Pole (Ivan Cepeda) warns that there is a strategy against the restitution process which, in the congressman´s opinion, doesn´t just count with the participation of ex-paramilitaries, cattle ranchers and landlords, but to which Inspector General Ordoñez is also committed. In this regard Cepeda declared: “The role of the Inspector General isn´t to be in meetings with ex-paramilitaries, much less to sympathize with them…”

In their replies to the comments made by the Inspector General and the president of the Cattlemen´s Federation, President Juan Manuel Santos and the Interior Minister (Juan Fernando Cristo) have tried to de-escalate the tone of the public debate over the matter. Santos argued that the restitution of land is an essential step towards national reconciliation and justice for the victims of the armed conflict, rejecting Lafaurie´s allegations that the land restitution process is being used by the FARC to gain control over additional territories, and Cristo called on the president of the Cattlemen´s Federation to correct his statements and stop trying to inflame public opinion by making false and provocative statements. In a statement before the national Congress Cristo stated: “The words of Lafaurie can put the lives of the victims of the armed conflict at risk. Law 1448 is not a concession to the FARC, I ask Lafaurie to rectify what he is saying because it affects the victims trying to reclaim their land.” Santos was quoted in the Colombian press as saying: “The restitution of land is a theme that is elemental to achieving justice and mustn´t be used to divide the country or to instil fear.”

Following the initial rhetorical flourishes the leading protagonists of the campaign against the restitution process appear to have tried to adopt a more measured and reasonable tone. In more recent statements Ordoñez declared that: “The office of the Inspector General is a friend of a law for the restitution of land that displaces those that displaced the original occupants, not a law that displaces farmers that have acquired and are working the land in good faith… The law was enacted in order to evict the perpetrators of the violent displacements which are the FARC, the criminal gangs, and the paramilitaries, but in many instances the law has not encountered the perpetrators but third parties, people who have acquired their properties legitimately and in good faith 15 or 20 years ago, and they are the people that are now being evicted…” Similarly, Lafaurie subsequently limited himself to statements to the effect that “for some time now we have been insisting that the implementation of the Law for the Restitution of Land has generated new victims” without the threats that existing land occupiers will never cede one inch of their properties to the victims of violent displacements or claiming that land claimants are acting on behalf of the FARC.

In an open letter to the president of the Cattlemen´s Federation the head of the administrative/ judicial entity established to implement the law also sought to calm the tone of public debate. In a detailed response to Lafaurie´s allegations the Director of the Land Restitution Unit, Jesús Ricardo Sabogal, invited him to meet face to face to discuss his concerns and defended the measures that have been adopted, conceding that there are many factors and individual circumstances complicating the claims process and identifying the steps and procedures that have been put in place to address them. The open letter states in part:

“In five years, the restitution of land has done more for the victims of the conflict than any other measure in the last 60 years. We have restored more than 200,000 hectares of land benefiting at least 23,000 Colombians. We have delivered to the restitution judges 12,000 cases involving 500,000 hectares. In 95% of the cases that have been decided the sentences were in favour of the claimants, which demonstrates that the work of the Unit has been well conducted in terms of the needs of those that have been forced by violence to abandon their land. The Land Restitution Unit has received 88,640 claims, of which 44,847 are located in zones under the jurisdiction of the Minister of Defence [that is, they are still heavily affected by the armed conflict]. The Unit is resolving 31,604 cases and has completed 22% of the claims lodged.

I must reiterate, as a Colombian, a farmer, and as the Director General of the Land Restitution Unit, that I am proud, because it is no longer the groups at the margin of the law that are defining and deciding the ownership of land but now it is judges of the Republic that are making the decisions…

As to the “false victims” that you have referred to, I must clarify that the rigour of the process has detected two typologies that have resulted in claims being rejected: the first is cases that do not fall within the provisions and terms of the law, the second is unscrupulous claims lodged by people that understand the law very well but are attempting to defraud the process. With respect to the latter cases, the State is applying stiff penalties via the judicial system. The Land Restitution Unit has transferred 170 cases to the Prosecutor General and the judicial authorities have effected 60 captures for false claims…

I must also clarify that the administrative and judicial processes are conducted with absolute transparency, with full respect for and compliance with due process and constitutional guarantees including, as you well know, the possibility of appealing final determinations before the Supreme Court. It is also important to emphasize the active participation in all of the procedures of delegates of the office of the Inspector General for the Restitution of Land, the Ombudsman and all of the entities that are articulated in considering justice to be a supreme constitutional value and peace to be an essential national objective in all of the scenarios that have been afflicted by violence…”

In an interview with Arcadio Gonzalez (“Presidente de Fedegán vulnera a las víctimas”) Sabogal stated: “The irritation that we feel in the Restitution Unit [about the assertions and activities of the Inspector General] aren´t related to his criticism of the law, we are open to criticism. What the Unit doesn´t consider appropriate is the mechanism that has been used to make these types of criticisms: [making dubious if not deceptive claims] in large meetings before uninformed people. We have said that we are prepared to discuss the technical details of the law, but not in a scenario convened by ill-informed people… [The] office of the Inspector General has two ways to warn about problems: one, in the course of proceedings evaluating each application for restitution; the other is the power to make observations as to structural matters to do with the law and associated procedures as a whole. They could easily prepare a document and send it to us; we will analyse it and make the necessary adjustments. Another forum is in the Congress of the Republic, because the relevant law isn´t a presidential decree, it is a Law of the Republic and if he has comments about it, the proper destination for them is the Congress.” Other communiques of the Land Restitution Unit note that additional measures have been taken including meetings to try to assuage the concerns and satisfy the legitimate needs and interests of innocent secondary occupants of properties subject to restitution claims, the appointment of additional judges to cope with the backlog of claims, and the provision of protective measures and ancillary financial and technical support for claimants returning to their land.

Despite the importance of the office of the Inspector General to the integrity of the institutions of the State and the obligation to exercise his functions and powers impartially and in a politically neutral manner, Ordoñez has constantly and ostentatiously intervened in public political debates to criticize and obstruct the peace process in general and the attempt of the national government to negotiate an end to the armed conflict with the guerrilla groups in particular. Apart from his inflammatory participation in national debates to condemn the peace process and most recently the law for the restitution of land, since he assumed office he has also gone to extreme lengths to investigate and expel from public office prominent leftist politicians including the national senator Piedad Cordoba, who was dismissed and prohibited from public office for 16 years by Ordoñez who alleged that she had collaborated with the FARC, and Gustavo Petro, the former leftist mayor of Bogota who Ordoñez also attempted to dismiss from public office – although in the latter case the orders of the Inspector General were subsequently overturned by the courts, Ordoñez managed to suspend the mayor and prevent him from exercising the functions and powers that the people of Bogota elected him to exercise for a significant part of his term in office. The enthusiastic deployment of disciplinary actions and the imposition of extremely heavy penalties against some allies of the current government and leftist political leaders contrasts starkly with the impunity enjoyed by the enemies of the peace process and politicians of the far right, not one of which has been subjected to an investigation much less a penalty by the Inspector General.

In this respect, the article in El Espectador cited above Ramiro Bejarano Guzman further comments: “It is clear that Law 1148 has defects and gaps, but what is incomprehensible is that Inspector General Ordoñez, who could have promoted the presentation of a project to reform the law, has opted for a short cut committing his extensive public powers to an institutional conspiracy in favour of the powerful looters of farming land, from whom he hopes to gain economic support for his presidential campaign.

But the Laureanist alliance between Ordoñez and Lafaurie [Laureano was president of Colombia during “the Violence” of the late 1940s and early 1950s that also resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and the violent eviction of millions of farmers and rural communities from their land] has also put the office of the Inspector General at the service of the hatreds of the “owner” of Fedegan [the Cattlemen´s Federation]. It is very curious that when the ex-minister Juan Camilo Restrepo noted that he had taken measures while he was in charge of the agriculture portfolio to control the abuses of the “petty king” of Fedegan, coincidentally Ordoñez occupied himself with opening a disciplinary investigation pertaining precisely to the decisions that had been taken to control Lafaurie…”

Among the many questions raised by the debate could be added: but who can investigate and dismiss the Inspector General?

Sources

  1. Las2orillas, editorial, “The Inspector General and the campaign against the Law for the Restitution of Land” – “El Procurador y la campaña contra la Ley de Restitución de Tierras”
  2. Semana, “Grave denuncia de Iván Cepeda contra Ordoñez y Lafaurie” – “Grave denunciations by Ivan Cepeda against Ordoñez and Lafuarie”, 13 April 2016
  3. El Espectador, editorial, “The fight between Ordoñez and Santos over the restitution of land” – “La pelea entre Ordoñez y Santos por la restitución de tierras”, 10 April 2016
  4. El Espectador, Ramiro Bejarano Guzman, “Los indeseables” – “The undesirables”, 15 April 2016
  5. El País, Arcadio Gonzalez, “Presidente de Fedegán vulnera a las víctimas: Director de la Unidad de Restitución de Tierras” – “The President of Fedegán is aggravating the risks faced by victims: Director of the Land Restitution Unit”, by Arcadio Gonzalez, 18 April 2016
  6. Prensa Rural, William Cano Moreno, “The Recuperation of Land: A long and high-risk path” – “Recuperar tierras, un camino tortuoso y de alto riesgo”, Sunday 24 Abril 2016
  7. Prensa Rural, Hernan Camacho, “The anti-restitution strategy, national debate” – “La estrategia antirrestitución, debate nacional”, Saturday 23 Abril 2016

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