Friday, December 9, 2011

Colombia Sees Land Reform Undermined by Smears Against Victims


Colombia is in the midst of an ambitious program to pay compensation to those who have been victims of the country’s conflict since 1985, and to return land to farmers who lost it unfairly in the massive forced displacements of recent decades.

Unsurprisingly, this has hit a major stumbling block, with claims that groups are pretending to have been kicked off their land, or to have lost relatives in massacres, in order to gain compensation. While there are doubtless some false claims in existence, a large part of the accusations appear to be part of a drive to undermine the process of compensating genuine conflict victims. La Silla Vacia has a piece on the phenomenon, warning that in recent years “parallel civil society organizations have emerged which are opposed to victims organizing themselves to defend their rights.”

Demanding reparations for crimes committed in the conflict, particularly land theft, has always been a dangerous business in Colombia, where businesses and some individuals have reaped massive rewards from the concentration of land in few hands. Much of this was carried out in the 1980s and 1990s by paramilitary groups, who removed farming communities from their land through massacres, threats, and targeted killings. The land often ended up in the hands of big landowners, agribusinesses, and drug lords. The scale of the issue is huge, with some 3 million thought to have been forced off their land since 1985, involving the theft of at least 2 million acres.

Now, Colombia’s government is finally taking serious steps to return land to those who had it stolen, and some powerful interest groups are not happy. From the evidence presented by La Silla Vacia, these groups may be using insidious methods to undermine land reform, by creating organizations that purport to represent local people, but in fact work to discredit activists and their claims.

This could be happening in one of the most emblematic cases of displacement, which took place in Las Pavas, in Bolivar, north Colombia. Some 130 families claim to have been forced off their land by paramilitaries several times in recent decades, most recently in 2009. Now, the case has been dramatically called into question, with Colombia’s attorney general declaring that the displacement never took place, and that the claims had been a fraud carried out by these farmers to get economic benefits from the state.

La Silla Vacia reports that, according to the farmers, these accusations originated with a non-governmental organization set up by palm oil interests. When questioned by the site, some members of the group admitted links with the palm oil company, but pointed out that there were few jobs in the area. La Silla Vacia details similar accusations that have arisen in displacement cases in Choco, on the Pacific coast, where some claim that anti-land reform groups have been funded by palm oil companies. The report also details a case in Cauca, west Colombia, where an indigenous organization backed by the previous government has reportedly been opposing other indigenous bodies in the region, and accusing their members of links with the FARC guerrilla group.

The threat to land reform by these claims has been noted by the UN, which said recently;
We are greatly concerned that in recent days and weeks we see attempts to discredit and stigmatize the victims and their organizations as a result of the implementation of the Victims and Land Restitution Law. It is important for the country to realize that there are people who have suffered greatly and who have robbed millions of acres, so they have a right to reclaim their land.
President Juan Manuel Santos will need to tread very carefully to carry out the land reform project successfully amid these underhand methods used to discredit victims. He is putting his political weight behind the restitution of land and compensation of victims, and has promised to work with civil society organizations to make this work. But, as La Silla Vacia points out
Amid this variety of organizations, with opposed interests, it will not be easy for President Santos to know who to ally himself with the execute the Land Restitution Law.

News Briefs
  • Mexico’s Movement for Peace, which protests against abuses committed by both sides in Mexico’s war on drugs, has seen a third activist murdered in the last few months. Farmer Trinidad de la Cruz was kidnapped Tuesday, and the 73-year-old’s body was found the next day with bullet wounds and signs of torture. The LA Times blog reports on details that will cause deep concern for the movement; de la Cruz was abducted while traveling in a group with 18 other protesters, and the attackers took the cell phones of his companions. This could mean they are planning to gain data on the group and carry out more such killings.
  • U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has refused to resign over the “Fast and Furious” gun trafficking investigation, in which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed guns to be trafficked into Mexico in the hopes of finding more information about their recipients, but lost track of many. Republican legislators have pounced on the issue as a failure on the part of the Obama administration, and a similar scandal could now be brewing over reports that the DEA facilitated money laundering for members of Mexican cartels as part of a sting operation. In a Congress oversight hearing Thursday, Holder accused his opponents of political point-scoring. One perceptive comment, reported by the New York Times, came from Democrat Rep. Mike Quigley;
    “‘For those of you keeping score at home, one side is using this horrible screw-up to justify a policy. The other side is using this horrible screw-up to justify’ keeping A.T.F. weak and ‘extraordinarily lax’ gun-control laws.”
  • InSight Crime and Plaza Publica look at the achievements of Guatemala’s Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, who has brought about big changes during her year in the post, capturing many major drug traffickers and working to prosecute human rights abuses committed during the civil war. One of the cases her office is currently pursuing could implicate President-elect Otto Perez in the extrajudicial murder of a rebel fighter. However, the ex-military man has been put under pressure by Washington to keep the highly effective prosecutor in place when he takes office in January, and has declared that she will not resign, nor will she be fired.
  • El Faro has a piece on the sudden death of Hector Silva, a major figure on El Salvador’s political left, calling him “the president who never was.” Silva, 64, suffered an aneurysm Thursday while at a meeting at the presidential palace, and died soon after. More on his legacy (in English) on Voices from El Salvador.
  • After a journalist and a former security minster were gunned down in Tegucigalpa on consecutive days, both by gunmen on motorcycles, Honduras has passed a law banning motorbikes from carrying more than one person. Assassins in the region commonly operate by riding two on a motorbike -- one drives, and the passenger shoots, allowing them to be highly mobile and escape the scene of the crime. Both Guatemala and Colombia have passed similar measures in the past, with some success.
  • The Miami Herald reports on Haiti’s moves to attract investment and make the country more business-friendly, spearheaded by the new Martelly government.
  • The latest issue of the Economist analyzes Peruvian President Ollanta Humala’s battle with anti-mining protesters, an issue which it says could come to define his time in power. It looks at the gap between Ollanta’s leftist promises during the campaign, and his efforts now to crack down on protests by local communities who are worried about the effects of major development projects in their regions. The report has some stinging criticism for Humala, noting that:“one thing now seems clear: those pundits who predicted that an economic slowdown would prompt Mr Humala to move further to the left were wrong. The president is a man of as few principles as words.”
  • Also in the Economist is a piece on the disasters being unleashed in Colombia by the current rainy season, which has killed 114 people in the country in the last three months. Added to these are the deaths of six people, including one child, who died Wednesday when a landslide hit a bus in Santander province, some 200 miles north of Bogota. Another person died, and three disappeared, in a landslide in Caldas on the same day, highlighting the massive problems posed by the transport systems in the country.
  • In better news from Colombia, the Miami Herald looks at the success of the country’s schemes to close down certain roads in major cities on Sundays, to free them up for cyclists, roller bladers and dog walkers. The scheme has been in place in Bogota since 1974, and is now being copied by other cities across the hemisphere, popping up in Canada, the U.S., Peru and Mexico, reports the newspaper.
  • Shannon K. O'Neil ‘s blog, hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations, reports on trends in U.S. drug use. One interesting point is that, “While the conventional wisdom holds that America’s drugs come from Mexico and Latin America, the study shows this is not wholly true. Prescription drugs were almost exclusively created, bought, sold, and consumed north of the border.”
  • Good news for press freedom in the Americas from the Committee to Protect Journalists, amid warnings that the number of journalists in prison worldwide is on the rise; “For the first time since CPJ began compiling annual prison surveys in 1990, not a single journalist in the Americas was in jail for work-related reasons on December 1.”
  • Meanwhile Michelle Bachman again underlined her suitability for the U.S. presidency with the claim that some 50 percent of Mexico’s population has emigrated to the U.S. Foreign Policy’s Passport blog reports that the real figure is some 11 percent, and may be on the decline.