- The Washington Times - Monday, January 29, 2007

SAN ONOFRE, Colombia

Much of the world has seen Colombia’s civil conflict as a clash between illegal armies of the left and right, or a battle for control of the global cocaine industry. Tens of thousands have died.

But the real prize is land. Since the early 1990s, right-wing paramilitary militias have seized from peasant farmers an estimated 26,000 square miles — an area larger than West Virginia that comprises about a quarter of the country’s arable land, much of it containing oil or valuable minerals.

The government of President Alvaro Uribe is now dismantling the paramilitaries and says it will force former militia bosses to surrender ill-gotten holdings. But in fact, it is backing policies that mean most farmers will never have their property returned.

The winners are Colombia’s elite: landowners, politicians and corporations that bankrolled the militias and used them to expand their holdings. The losers are people of humble means killed or forced at gunpoint to give up their land and join the hundreds of thousands displaced by the conflict.

“So what hope can one have?” asked Luis Francisco Garcia, evicted from his farm with his family at gunpoint 3 years ago. “I who had a farm … have to beg for a plate of food?”

The right-wing paramilitaries first emerged in the 1980s, financed by ranchers to counter extortion and kidnappings by leftist rebels, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — FARC by its initials in Spanish.

As the left was driven back, the paramilitaries quickly evolved into mafias in military fatigues, enriching themselves through cocaine trafficking, theft and extortion in regions, particularly the Caribbean coast, which they came to dominate. Police and military officers turned a blind eye, and often extended an open palm.

Then, in 2002, Mr. Uribe was elected president and became a firm U.S. ally on a continent where several countries have turned left in recent years. Mr. Uribe cracked down hard on the leftist guerrillas while negotiating peace with the paramilitaries in 2003.

More than 31,000 paramilitary fighters have demobilized under that accord, which provides the former fighters $200 monthly stipends and job-search help, as well as reduced sentences for the leaders in exchange for full confessions.

But much of the country’s political elite remains indebted to the paramilitary bosses, said Sen. Gustavo Petro, a main critic of the terms of the demobilization. He says the private armies remain tools of the same power brokers who benefited from the land grab.

Politics and property

“At the heart of this crisis is the relation between political power and landownership,” said Dario Fajardo, a U.N. agronomist.

Based in part on information originally provided by Mr. Petro, Colombia’s Supreme Court opened an inquiry last fall. Senators and congressmen have been questioned about reports that warlords helped elect the politicians by intimidating people into voting for them, in exchange for illegal public funding of the paramilitaries.

Salvatore Mancuso, the first senior paramilitary boss to testify under the demobilization accord, said this month that the militias even pressured people into voting for Mr. Uribe in 2002.

Mr. Uribe denied any knowledge of an intimidation campaign on his behalf, and has not been tainted by the scandal.

Others, however, have come forward. One congressman publicly acknowledged that he and 29 other politicians, including two state governors, signed a cooperation agreement with paramilitaries in 2001. Thousands of ranchers, meanwhile, signed a defiant open letter in which they admitted paying the paramilitaries.

That happened before Mr. Uribe was elected, but as the scandal plays out, his government’s policies appear to be enshrining the land grab into law.

A bill that Mr. Uribe’s agriculture minister is championing in Congress would allow someone to gain title to land by proving it has been in his possession for five years. The Colombian Commission of Jurists, a human rights group, said the proposal “maintains, expands and legalizes the control the paramilitaries established in blood and fire over millions of hectares of land.” A hectare is equivalent to nearly 2.5 acres.

Even if the government committed itself to helping peasants regain their land, the challenge is monumental. Paramilitary leaders have hidden plundered parcels of land behind frontmen. Land registrars have been killed and records have disappeared in suspicious fires. The demobilization process has failed to bring the land forfeitures by paramilitaries for which victims had hoped.

Price is a steal

Take the case of Ismael Rodriguez, 51, who has records of his farm’s sale but is unlikely to win it back easily.

The soft-spoken peasant sold his 200-acre farm in Coloso, Sucre state, in 1994 after a visit from gun-toting men in fatigues. The price was 8 million Colombian pesos — worth less than $10,000, about a sixth the value of what the farm’s avocado trees produced annually.

A copy of the contract lists the purchaser as Miguel Nule, a former Sucre governor, who has been in exile in Brazil since 2000. In November, the Supreme Court urged that he be investigated for ties to paramilitary figures.

Mr. Rodriguez, whose illiterate mother signed the document with an inked fingerprint, said Mr. Nule approached the family days after the gunmen’s visit “and told us to sell it, but for cheap.”

Mr. Nule’s son Manuel, among Colombia’s richest men, signed the contract on his father’s behalf. He told the Associated Press that he didn’t recall buying a farm there in 1994, adding that he was then a 22-year-old student in Colombia’s capital, Bogota.

“I can tell you that my father didn’t take part in any of this type of activity,” said the younger Mr. Nule. The AP asked to be put in touch with Miguel Nule, but he never called.

Mr. Rodriguez is afraid even to visit his stolen farm. “I’ve heard that people who have recovered their farms in the area have been killed,” he said.

Mass killings

Human-rights groups say paramilitaries have killed about 3,000 people in Sucre, one of the states where Colombia’s political class is most openly tied to the paramilitaries.

Sucre produced the first big arrests in the “para-politico” scandal. Three current and one former federal lawmaker from Sucre were jailed in November on charges of creating and bankrolling the private armies. One also faces murder charges.

A human rights commission hearing of the Colombian Senate in late November drew nearly 1,000 people — but only two members of Congress — to a dusty stadium in San Onofre, the town where most of Sucre’s mass graves have been uncovered. Witnesses testified that paramilitaries ran the seaside cattle town like a concentration camp as recently as 2005.

Paramilitary gunmen killed on a whim and took San Onofre women as sex slaves, said the witnesses, while a nighttime curfew let the “paras” transfer tons of cocaine to speedboats in the Gulf of Morrosquillo.

But the victims said the main motivation was land.

Awaiting reparations

The crowd applauded the valor of Juvenal Escudero, 55, who was forced by paramilitaries to sell his family’s 220-acre ranch for less than a quarter of its worth six years ago.

In November, Mr. Escudero filed a formal complaint, then gave a TV interview, his back to the camera to protect his identity. Days before the hearing, a helmeted gunman on a motorcycle took five shots at him, hitting Mr. Escudero once in the lower back.

“Everyone around here knows the sound of my voice,” groaned Mr. Escudero, who now lives in a humble home in San Onofre, confined to a wheelchair.

The government insists that reparations from the demobilized paramilitaries ultimately will address refugees’ needs, after it ensures that the truth surrounding the violence emerges.

“This is going to begin and it’s going to grow,” Vice President Francisco Santos told AP. “He who asks for success from the start is mistaken.”

Other Colombian officials and international refugee workers say the problem has barely been addressed, and speed is critical.

“The problem of land is at the heart of the process of demobilization” [of the militias], Attorney General Edgardo Maya said in August. “If it isn’t addressed promptly, with speed, efficiency and realism, it will become the process’s main Achilles’ heel.”

A government pilot project that aims to prevent land from being sold by people other than its true owners in areas of widespread displacement has proved ineffective.

It “froze” nearly 3,500 square miles, but some of that land continues to be sold off, because local officials can grant exceptions in a process tainted by corruption. In the municipality of Tibu, in Colombia’s most violent region, 129 “protected” plots were sold last year, according to the regional land-protection office.

Not a single property has been surrendered in Sucre, a senior judicial investigator said on condition of anonymity; nor in Antioquia, Mr. Uribe’s home state and the most afflicted by forced displacements, said a lawyer in the state’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, who also didn’t want his name revealed.

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