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Monday, January 30, 2012

"Consolidation," land restitution, and rising tensions in Montes de María, Colombia

(If you follow this blog regularly, you may recall a period in November when it was nearly dormant, as "Just the Facts" program staff paid a research visit to a region of Colombia that has been a significant destination of recent U.S. assistance. Here is a report of what we learned on that trip.)

Map of Montes de María municipalitiesFor nearly 5 years, with U.S. support, Colombia’s Montes de María has been a priority region for the government’s National Territorial Consolidation Plan (PNCT, or “Consolidation”). The PNCT, as we have explained elsewhere, is the successor program to “Plan Colombia.” It is a combined military and civilian “state-building” strategy operating in a few zones that have seen little prior government presence. Montes de María is a historically conflictive region of 15 municipalities (counties) located inland from the Caribbean Sea, about 2 hours’ drive south of Cartagena.

In November 2011, researchers from two Washington-based organizations (Washington Office on Latin America [WOLA] and Center for International Policy [CIP]) and two Bogotá-based organizations (Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz [INDEPAZ] and Asociación MINGA) visited several municipalities of the Montes de María region, including all four in which the Consolidation program is operating. These are San Onofre and Ovejas in the department of Sucre, and El Carmen de Bolívar and San Jacinto in the department of Bolívar. (WOLA staff also visited the region in August 2011, accompanying U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern [D-Massachusetts].)

We found a zone where, following several years of relative peace, tensions are rising. The national government is gearing up to launch an ambitious land-restitution program. Consolidation, meanwhile, gives a big role to the military while assisting small farmers, including returning displaced populations, and improving local government. This is happening amid a backdrop of rapid concentration of land in fewer hands, a notable increase in violence against small-farmer leaders, doubts about local leadership, and the presence of “new” paramilitary groups.

The land restitution program, an initiative coming from Bogotá, and the “Consolidation” program, designed in Bogotá and Washington, confront an environment that is complex at best and outright hostile at worst. To succeed, both will require extensive political will, resources, attention from top leaders, and a well-defined plan. These elements are not yet in place, we conclude from our interviews of military and civilian officials, local government leaders, development practitioners, civil-society leaders, analysts and others.

Montes de María

In a country that never implemented a true land reform, the Montes de María region is notable for being home to some of Colombia’s most cohesive and active small-farmer (campesino) activism. It is also notable for the ferocity of the landowner-supported paramilitary backlash against this activism in the late 1990s and early 2000s. A remarkable 2010 report from Colombia’s Historical Memory Group, detailing this fertile area’s struggle for land, puts it well.

This zone combines two essential conditions. First, it was the epicenter of the most important campesino movement of the 20th century’s second half, not just in Colombia but perhaps in Latin America: the National Association of Campesinos (ANUC), a contemporary of the also notable Campesino Federation in Peru. And the second reason was that in that zone — not coincidentally — was incubated a political-military program of regional state capture and configuration of a submissive society, which included the dismantling of campesino organizations and the reversal of the grants of small landholdings carried out since the 1960s.

The paramilitary terror campaign in Montes de María, which reached its height in 2000-2002 and encountered no military opposition, included dozens of massacres so brutal that the names of the towns where they occurred (El Salado, Chengue, Macayepo, Mampuján) are infamous throughout Colombia. In the four municipalities where the PNCT is focused, according to a confidential report from a PNCT-funded consultant, violence since 1995 forcibly displaced more than 110,000 people, or over half the population.

Home abandoned by displaced people in Chinulito, SucreOver the course of the 2000s, Montes de María grew steadily more peaceful. The paramilitaries who came to dominate the zone underwent a negotiated demobilization process with the government, and (perhaps more importantly) began to encounter significant opposition from Colombia’s Marines — the principal military force in the zone — during the second half of the decade. The FARC guerrillas, for their part, were dispersed from the area following a 2007 bombing raid that killed their longtime commander. At present, Colombia’s security forces — the Marines, supported by other armed services within the Joint Caribbean Command, police in the towns, and three 150-man police carabinero units in the countryside — face little violent opposition in Montes de María.

Still, illegal activity remains common. Coca (the plant used to make cocaine) is not cultivated, but large quantities of cocaine continue to pass through on their way to the Caribbean. “New” paramilitary groups, especially the Rastrojos and Urabeños, are present especially in the northern and western part of the region.

Montes de María, meanwhile, gained notoriety throughout Colombia for the linkages between its political machines and the AUC paramilitary group. Colombia’s “para-politics” scandal hit the local political class very hard, sending governors and senators to jail. Their patronage and influence networks remain intact, however, as the same political groups remain in control in most municipalities following October 2011 mayoral and gubernatorial elections. The newly elected governor of Sucre department, reported Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper El Tiempo, comes from a “caste that has governed for years in spite of ‘paramilitarism.’”

Though they won a majority of votes, local politicians were the targets of most of the anger we heard from citizens in the region. Corruption remains at epic levels. The largest municipality in the region, El Carmen de Bolívar, went through about three dozen acting mayors in 2009. Residents of San Onofre said that it costs about US$2 million to run a successful campaign, using funds of unclear provenance, to win the impoverished municipality’s mayorship.

With lower violence, and some displaced people seeking to return, Montes de María is hosting some flagship government projects supported by the international community. These include the land restitution program initiated by a law passed in June 2011; a European Union-backed “Peace Laboratory” of social and economic development programs; a proposal to declare much of the region a “Campesino Reservation Zone” in which sales of small landholdings would be restricted; and, of course, the National Territorial Consolidation Plan.

The Consolidation Program in Montes de María

The Colombian government launched the PNCT in Montes de María in mid-2007, making it the second zone (after the La Macarena region of south central Colombia) to receive significant investment coordinated by a national Center for Coordination of Integrated Action (CCAI). At first, the program was headed by an active-duty military officer, a Marine general who was known in the region for breaking with precedent and confronting the paramilitaries.

The Montes de María effort counted with advice and support from U.S. Southern Command, and starting in early 2008, with resources from the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), a unit designed to carry out smaller “quick-impact” development projects in a more agile, shorter-term and less bureaucratic manner. Southcom and OTI supported the creation of a “Fusion Center,” later renamed a “Coordination Center”: an office in Cartagena at which military, police and civilian development representatives would work together in the same space to coordinate the PNCT’s management. The Coordination Center, managed by the Colombian Presidency’s “Social Action” office, opened its doors in early 2009. (For a thorough look at the Montes de María Consolidation program as of mid-2009, see CIP’s “After Plan Colombia” report published that year.)

View of San Juan Nepomuceno, BolívarThe OTI program (whose missions are designed to be short-term) ended in mid-2010, with USAID’s role shifting to management of a five-year, $32 million project to support the Consolidation effort in Montes de María. The contract for this project was awarded to CHF International, a Washington, DC-area corporation. CHF worked with the Coordination Center on a set of assistance and capacity-building programs for the four municipalities chosen for “Consolidation.”

The CHF-supported programs, which bear the highly visible name “Colombia Responde,” started work during the second half of 2010. Colombia Responde seeks “to work collectively with multiple actors and in coordination with local and regional governments to establish a sustainable state of peace and security” in Montes de María.

In 2009 the Consolidation program’s main goal in Montes de María was to help a small number of returning communities of displaced people recover land and improve their economic conditions. While that is still a component, the Colombia Responde mission is broader. The program now has two objectives: to strengthen local government and civil society capacities, and to increase economic opportunities.

Colombia Responde staff, along with consultants working as public policy advisors, put a heavy emphasis on capacity-building, offering frequent training and workshops on subjects like management, planning, participation and transparency. Under a project called Participatory Action for Community Engagement, the program works with communities on short-term plans for development, and community leaders are trained to develop realistic plans and budgets. Twenty such community plans had been presented to mayors’ offices, where co-financing is expected, as of late 2011. Further training aims to equip local governments and community leaders to guarantee transparency over how money is spent.

Colombia Responde’s income-generation activities have included some “quick-impact” infrastructure projects, especially improvements to sections of tertiary roads linking farmers to markets. However, the bulk of primary road-building has been carried out by the Colombian Marines. Instead, the Colombia Responde program sponsors “productive projects” — agricultural development programs — with recipient communities, most of whom include formerly displaced people who have returned. Participants in productive projects, we were told, are consulted about what they wish to produce, and receive technical support, food security assistance and credit. If the crop in question takes a few years before the first harvest (like cacao, a frequent choice of communities), growers receive a subsidy equivalent to minimum wage from a fund that will be replenished from the eventual profits of their production.

View from the roadColombia Responde manages a project for formerly displaced farmers called “Return to My Land,” which accompanies their return to their communities of origin by providing for basic needs. As part of that project, some farmers are to receive assistance in obtaining clear title to their landholdings. This land formalization process — which is parallel to the land-restitution program just getting underway throughout the country — is excruciatingly slow and complicated. In Ovejas municipality, for example, Colombia Responde expects to title over 300 landholdings, but as of November 2011 had only managed 25.

For its part, the Colombian military and police forces’ participation in the Consolidation program, with a modest but unknown level of U.S. support, has been large and at least as visible as Colombia Responde. The Marines and police have focused on providing security, building roads and other infrastructure, and meeting regularly with communities.

Evaluations of the PNCT in Montes de María

At a Bogotá gathering of campesino leaders to discuss the Campesino Reserve Zones proposal, we had an opportunity to talk separately with representatives of communities from San Onofre, El Carmen and Ovejas participating in Colombia Responde programs. Even without Consolidation officials present, the group was effusive in its praise of the program. In particular, they noted the rapidity with which assistance arrived, the way the process was taking their input into account, the armed forces’ improved relations with the population, and the fact that this was the first time Colombian government institutions had treated them with respect.

On the minus side, they admitted that land titles had been slow to arrive and that trust in the local governments (mayors’ offices) remained low. They also felt estranged from nearby communities that were not receiving assistance from the program.

Most concerns and critiques about the program came either from communities not participating in the program (including some from outside the PNCT’s four municipalities in Montes de María) and from campesino activists, analysts and development workers not affiliated with the program. The principal critiques we heard were the following.

  • The program’s limited geographic scope, which excludes much of the Montes de María region: “How can you only work in four out of 15 municipalities?” the head of another development program asked. “It’s like a mother of 15 favoring four of her children.”

  • Planning, either not enough of it or too much: During the PNCT’s initial phases in Montes de María (2007-2010), an official with program responsibilities told us, the Cartagena-based Coordination Center came under some criticism for a lack of a detailed workplan. The office’s small staff (a military representative, a police representative, and two representatives of the Colombian Presidency’s Social Action office) had a set of programmatic objectives and the outlines of actions to take. But its project plan did not go much further. “They had a proposal. But a proposal is not a workplan,” this official said. CHF — which reports directly to USAID, not the Colombian government — endeavored to make more thorough and professional planning a priority once it began work in 2010.

    On the other hand, we heard sentiment from some communities that planning was getting so much emphasis that it appeared to be a substitute for action. “We see a lot of workshops and meetings, but not enough results,” said a community leader from Ovejas participating in a training workshop. While this may simply be impatience with non-immediate payoffs, these sentiments are a concern because a perception of inactivity could hurt the program’s credibility among the population.

  • The military’s outsized role: Military and police representatives of the Coordination Center assured us that, in the field, the PNCT presence is “fundamentally civilian.” As elsewhere in Colombia, however, the PNCT involves military personnel playing roles that have little or nothing to do with combat or protecting the population, and that could, under adequate security conditions, be played by civilians. These include building infrastructure, especially what will be the only paved east-west road crossing Montes de María. Some interviewees criticized the quality and slowness of this road’s construction — it was being built when we visited in 2009, and is not finished yet — alleging that the Transportation Ministry could have done a better job than the Defense Ministry. Others, however, acknowledged that damage elsewhere from severe flooding since 2010 caused both civilian and military road builders to be called to fix highways elsewhere.

    Other unusual military roles we heard about were soldiers providing health services, training schoolchildren in avoiding domestic abuse, and forming Campesino Leaders’ Associations to work with the PNCT. In a related concern — a charge we have been unable to corroborate — leaders from Ovejas told us that active-duty military officers have been buying up land from campesinos in their municipality.

  • An alleged unwillingness to work with existing organizations and processes: “We didn’t come here to divide people,” the Coordination Center’s staff told us. But elsewhere, we heard repeated concerns about the arrival of a large, well-funded program in a zone that — unlike the remote agricultural frontier of the La Macarena region — already has a number of social organizations and development programs. “Colombia Responde has an ‘Adam complex,’” a campesino leader in El Carmen said, accusing the program of acting as though nothing had come before it. A leader from Ovejas complained that the program is “creating unnecessary alternative networks.” Others charged that Colombia Responde was not hiring existing businesses and organizations to carry out projects, that contracts were instead being given to outside groups, or to newly formed groups.

    Some whom we interviewed clearly see the PNCT as competition, while others, somewhat conspiratorially, see a conscious divide-and-conquer strategy. “For the viejos of the ANUC, it really pains them to see how the group is being divided,” an activist in El Carmen told us. An official from an existing development program that follows a slower, more process-oriented methodology worried that the PNCT’s quick-impact projects were changing the local culture: “people want to see the money first before they work with you.”

  • A lack of focus on the justice system: The Consolidation program intends to strengthen the presence of civilian government institutions in zones that have historically seen very little such presence. In Montes de María, where the security situation does not prevent civilian government agencies from operating, that civilian presence has increased at least slightly. The justice system, however, lags badly behind. Residents of El Carmen de Bolívar told us that their town, the largest in the region, has only three judges. San Onofre has only one judge and one prosecutor. This is simply not enough to adjudicate cases of violent crime, corruption, human rights, land fraud, and other issues of central importance to the success of “Consolidation.”

  • Concern about local political leaders’ ethics and interests. The PNCT places a strong emphasis on working with local governments, which channel significant resources from the central government, command police, and share responsibilities for managing issues like land tenure and assistance to displaced people. Some mayors and governors of Montes de María ran into serious trouble in the “parapolitics” scandal. While current officials do not face accusations of the same gravity, we repeatedly heard strong opinions about disorganization, influence-peddling (“politiquería”), clientelism, and corruption among departmental and municipal officials who are meant to be the PNCT’s principal partners. We also heard concerns that elected officials, even when not accused of corruption, are likely to protect the interests of their largest campaign contributors: the large landholders and agribusinesspeople who have been accelerating their acquisitions of farmland in Montes de María region in the past few years.

A troubled context: land tenure and victims

It is this issue — the land, who controls it, who is buying it, who is selling it, and who is being forced off of it — that hangs over Montes de María like a storm cloud. Land tenure is the central concern in this unusually fertile and strategically located region. The Consolidation and land-restitution programs, under the leadership of apparently well-intentioned officials, are seeking to address this concern. But they are coming online within a complicated context of competing agendas and growing tensions over land ownership.

By 2007, the FARC’s eviction from the area and the military’s policy of confronting paramilitary violence brought a period of calm — and with it, a very sharp rise in agricultural property values. Wealthy investors and shadowy corporations — their partners’ identities a closely held secret — have since been scouring Montes de María for land to buy, and increasing the region’s already unequal landholding.

Colombian journalist Alfredo Molano names some of the mysterious companies, whose names we also heard during our visits: “Tierras de Promisión, Arepas Don Pancho [or “Don Juancho”], Agropecuaria El Carmen, and Agropecuaria El Génesis.” Some encourage land sales while cloaked in the guise of development aid associations. Names frequently cited include the “Federation of Leaders of Montes de María” and the “Friends of Montes de María Corporation.” The latter group identifies itself, down to its logo, in a way that makes it closely and confusingly resemble the Montes de María Peace and Development Foundation, the non-profit organization that manages the European Union’s “Peace Laboratory” projects.

Comparing the logos of the Foundation and the land-buyers

They have many potential buyers among the region’s remaining smallholding campesinos, many of whom received their parcels from the government after the land movement activism of the 1960s and 1970s. Some are selling to the newcomers because the offers appear generous. Some are selling because, years after being displaced to cities like Cartagena and Sincelejo, they no longer wish to live in the countryside.

Many more, however, are selling because they see no other choice. Of these, some owe unsustainably large amounts on the government loans they used to purchase their properties — loans they could not pay after being violently displaced a decade ago. Others are selling because the recently arrived land purchasers are buying up all of their neighbors’ parcels, leaving them surrounded by private holdings, at times even cut off from access to roads and water. Many of those forcibly displaced have seen their land titles stolen out from under them by criminals colluding with corrupt land-registry officials. And still others, discussed below, are selling in the face of threats and intimidation. Data gathered by the Colombian NGO ILSA (Latin American Institute for Alternative Society and Law) have shown a strong correlation between areas of massive land purchases and areas of greatest displacement in Montes de María.

The buyers are not all shady speculators. Some of Colombia’s largest companies — Argos, Monterrey, Colanta — have launched agribusiness projects in Montes de María within the past few years. Crops that have been massively planted include teak trees, sugar cane (mainly for biofuels) and African oil palm (for food and biofuels). These vast areas of monoculture are profitable, but employ few people: palm oil, for instance, requires about one employee per hectare.

Palm processing plant in María La Baja, BolívarOne of the pioneers of African oil palm monoculture in Colombia is Carlos Murgas, a former agriculture minister. Murgas has invested heavily in oil-palm cultivation around the site of a processing plant in María La Baja municipality, which borders two of the municipalities chosen for the Consolidation program. (We requested a meeting with directors of the processing plant, but were turned down.) Local leaders told us that unlike other investors in big monoculture projects, Murgas is not massively buying up property: his company is instead encouraging — some said pressuring — nearby communities to grow palm for the oil-processing plant. “Murgas is a great expert in agricultural economy,” writes Alfredo Molano, “which allowed him to see clearly that the true business is not in owning land, but in controlling its use.” Or as one development expert more succinctly put it, “Why have more property if you’re Murgas?”

The region’s remaining smallholding campesinos are organizing to respond to the concentration of land. In 2010, the government of Juan Manuel Santos surprised many by agreeing in principle to a longstanding request of the region’s campesino groups: the establishment of a “Campesino Reservation Zone” in which sizes of parcels and sales of land would be limited. The idea of creating such a zone — a figure established by a 1994 law — had gone nowhere during the 2002-2010 government of Álvaro Uribe, who favored an unfettered free market in the countryside and publicly associated the Reservation Zones with the guerrillas’ agenda. The process of creating such a zone is advancing, with one nearing approval and demarcation in Montes de María.

Campesino groups want a larger zone than what the government has proposed. On the other side, some in the government — including officials with responsibility for the Consolidation program — are concerned that the Reservation Zone will go too far in restricting the market for land, depressing values and thus making it impossible to obtain credit. Supporters of the Reservation Zone proposal, in turn, voiced suspicions that the Consolidation program “goes in the other direction,” as communities that benefit from the PNCT may be less willing to participate in the Zone. Needless to say, the investors who are busily buying up land in the region are staunchly opposed to the creation of a Campesino Reservation Zone, and by some accounts are scrambling to accumulate as much territory as possible before the Zone is officially declared.

Tensions and Threats

With this array of forces, and the big land-restitution program on the way, tensions and threats increased in Montes de María in 2011. We were alarmed by the frequency of violent acts against campesinos in the region. We are concerned that these may be the first signs of a violent landowner backlash.

Large landholding south of San Onofre, SucreWhen discussing threats against them, communities generally did not refer to the “new” paramilitary groups active throughout much of northern Colombia, especially the department of Córdoba immediately to the west. While groups like the “Rastrojos” and “Urabeños” are present in the area, they said, they have mainly confined their activities to narcotrafficking. “They make their shipment and then leave,” a San Onofre resident told us.

Instead, local leaders referred most often to armed men — “hombres armados” — as those responsible for acts of violence and intimidation. Some intimated that they may be linked to large landowners and land purchasers.

At least four leaders of groups that have received land, or are petitioning for land, were killed in the Montes de María region between May 2010 and June 2011. Most were killed in San Onofre, the municipality where paramilitary leader “Cadena” located his headquarters at the height of the 2000-2002 violence.

  • On May 18, 2010, Rogelio Martínez was killed near the La Alemania farm in San Onofre. La Alemania is a well-known case: a 550-hectare farm that the government granted to 52 organized families in 1997, only to have it stolen by AUC paramilitaries.
  • Óscar Mausa, a displaced leader trying to recover his original lands in Antioquia department, was killed on November 24th, 2010 in San Juan Nepomuceno.
  • Éder Verbel was killed on March 23, 2011 in San Onofre. (For its activism on behalf of victims, the Verbel family was featured in a 2005 New York Times article about San Onofre.)
  • Antonio Mendoza, a displaced-community leader and town councilman from the left-of-center Polo Democrático party, was killed on June 20, 2011 in San Onofre.

San Onofre victims’ movement leaders said that the second half of 2011 was a bit calmer, though threats continue to arrive frequently. In Ovejas, meanwhile, tensions continue around the efforts of 113 families to recover La Europa, a farm granted to them in 1969 from which they were displaced by paramilitaries. Upon returning to the area, the families discovered that much of their farmland had been purchased by a shadowy company called “Arepas Don Juancho.” Campesino houses on the La Europa farm were torn down, or burned down, by “unknown men” on at least two occasions in 2011. In San Jacinto, residents’ commemoration of the 1999 Las Palmas massacre hosted an uninvited guest: men taking pictures from an SUV parked nearby. When they investigated the vehicle’s license plate, they found that it belonged to “señores de la compra de tierras” (men involved in land purchases).

Some of the most troubling recent incidents are occurring in María La Baja, the municipality with the region’s most extensive oil-palm cultivation. We heard recent accounts of groups of armed men entering hamlets in areas where land values are high, especially because of access to irrigation. With lists in hand, they threaten and interrogate community members, demanding information about their economic activity and resources they receive from the municipal government.

Most alarming of all, María La Baja leaders said they had counted 11 cases of rape by armed groups in September and October. The sexual violence appears to follow a pattern in which the armed men invade a house, threaten the male owner, and attack the owner’s wife, not his daughters or any other women present. The armed men then leave, and in most cases the family abandons the land.

Fear is increasing, especially in areas where land purchases are greatest. These threats are a huge limit on campesino organizations’ work. Memories of the bloodshed of 10 years ago are still very fresh, and it does not take much to dissuade people from organizing and pressing for land claims. “You have to be careful,” Ovejas community leaders told us. “You can’t use words like ‘social mobilization’ or talk about human rights.”

A reorganization at the top

It is within this context that the U.S.-backed Consolidation program, and the Colombia Responde program, must operate. On one side are small farmers claiming their land, fearing dispossession, and promoting measures like Campesino Reservation Zones. On the other are large landholders and their backers in the local political system.

View of Zambrano, BolívarThe PNCT is in an uncomfortable position: its mandate requires it to work with the small farmers on land titling (and land restitution) and productive projects. But its mandate also requires it to work with local governments, increasing the capacities of institutions that have shown little interest in protecting small farmers and that have even collaborated with the dispossessors.

In order to confront local resistance and protect their beneficiaries, the PNCT and Colombia Responde — as well as the agencies that will carry out land restitution — will need clear, strong, visible backing from the central government in Bogotá. But the messages from the capital are mixed.

For most of 2011, the Santos administration appeared to have placed the PNCT on the back burner. The program was undergoing a “rethinking” and reorganization process, with 15 thematic working groups involving 60 government agencies. Results of this review were to be announced with a formal launch expected last June, then postponed until after the October local elections. But no formal announcement of a new strategy has come.

Instead, the Colombian Presidency has reorganized its well-resourced social development agency, previously known as “Social Action,” in a way that appears to place the Consolidation program on a more prominent, autonomous and perhaps less military-heavy footing.

In November, “Social Action” was replaced by an even larger agency in the Colombian presidency, known as “Social Prosperity.” This agency has four programs, of which one — Territorial Recovery and Development — includes the Consolidation program. The head of this program, Álvaro Balcázar, previously ran the Consolidation effort in the La Macarena region. Balcázar told us that the Colombian government is committing US$1.5 billion to the PNCT nationwide between 2011 and 2014.

Now that Bogotá has finished rearranging things, the central government will have to do more to make its presence felt in Montes de María. Helping the campesinos of Montes de María win the right to remain on their land and enjoy greater economic prosperity may prove to be difficult, especially as the restitution program gets underway. If this is truly the mission of the Coordination Center and the Colombia Responde program, then these entities will need more resources and more direct political backing from “Social Prosperity.” Their recipient communities will also need more protection from the national security forces.


Based on our observations of Montes de María, we recommend that the Consolidation program adopt the following adjustments on an urgent basis.

  1. Do more to protect campesino communities in the four municipalities, whether or not they are direct recipients of PNCT assistance. This means improving response times and the quality of investigations after threats are issued. In rural zones, it also means having procedures in place to determine whether the response should fall to the armed forces or to the police, which (other than specialized units) normally do not operate outside of town centers. The absence of guerrillas alone does not mean that Montes de María is now a zone of social peace. The security forces must work to eliminate the presence of “new” paramilitaries and other criminal groups. The justice system must do more to confront the tackle elements of the state on which these criminal groups, and the region’s illegal land purchasers, depend.

  2. In order to do so, the justice system must be present in Montes de María in the first place. Numbers of judges, prosecutors and investigators must increase, and their offices will need modern equipment, particularly databases and technology necessary to adjudicate land claims. Cases of murdered land-rights leaders need to result in rapid, visible verdicts against those responsible. Curtailing impunity is the best way to prevent future murders.

  3. Actions must assure campesinos that “Consolidation” will not dispossess them. We repeatedly heard fear that a greater presence of the state will mean pressures to get small farmers off of their land. In the minds of many, the state is equivalent to large landholders, including those currently making massive purchases. The PNCT needs to break with that, demonstrating through actions that the program intends to help farmers remain on their land — and to do so without pushing them into a monoculture economy. Titling of land is the action that offers the clearest assurance that “despojo” is not forthcoming. The security forces must ensure that protecting campesino lands and communities is a priority, which would be a historic change. And leaders in Bogotá need to be present in the zone frequently, both to accompany campesinos receiving land, and to stare down opposition from those accumulating and concentrating land.

  4. Work with local officials will remain challenging, given ongoing complaints about clientelism, corruption, and favoring of large landholders. This is crucial because in the population’s eyes, local officials’ behavior can either uphold or destroy the credibility of the entire Colombia state. The main recommendation here is that the Consolidation program continue to do what its officials say it is doing: building management capacities and focusing resources especially on local-government officials who, in the program’s judgment, appear to be most capable and honest. If PNCT officials encounter evidence of local authorities’ corruption, then they must ensure that the justice system investigates and punishes that corruption. Another area worth exploring is the encouragement and protection of whistleblowers within local government.

  5. A frequent request we heard from communities is that the PNCT place more emphasis on building roads, which are necessary to the economic success of the “productive projects” the PNCT is supporting. We second this recommendation, despite the reality that roads are very expensive, and that the damage from flooding since 2010 has been significant.

  6. We also heard requests that PNCT development planning work with campesino and displaced organizations that already exist, rather than create new structures. While we were unable to determine the extent to which the PNCT is actually doing this, we relay this recommendation because we heard it several times.

  7. Finally, as elsewhere, the Consolidation program needs to ensure that its military component relinquishes non-security duties to civilians as quickly as possible. A greatly increased military role in civilian life, with soldiers as road-builders and community organizers, must not be a permanent legacy of the Consolidation program in Montes de María.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Land restitution and the "Black Hand": Sunday's local elections in Colombia

The image on the left, from the UN Development Program, shows areas of most unequal landholding in Colombia. The image on the right, from the Electoral Obervation Mission, shows areas where candidates in the October 30 local elections have suffered acts of violence.(Click to enlarge.)

Colombians go to the polls on October 30. In a single nationwide election, which happens once every four years, they will select mayors and city councils for all 1,121 municipalities, and governors and provincial legislatures for all 32 of the country’s departments. 130,000 candidates are reportedly participating.

Most of the balloting will be about local issues. It deserves our attention, though, because the outcome is crucial for President Juan Manuel Santos’s promise to return land to hundreds of thousands of dispossessed Colombians. Sunday’s elections could be a fulcrum for the success or failure of Santos’s land restitution effort.

And that’s why we should worry. Opponents of restitution may take advantage of the vote to hijack this effort. If they succeed, prospects for restitution – and indeed, for peace in Colombia – will dim considerably.


Though blessed with much productive agricultural land, Colombia almost certainly has the most unequal land tenure in Latin America, if not the world. A UN Development Program report published last month found an incredible 52.2 percent of Colombia’s cultivable land in the hands of 1.15 percent of landowners.

Unlike most of Latin America, Colombia never had a land reform in the twentieth century. The concentration of land in few hands has been constant since the Spanish colonial era. In the 1960s and 1970s, a rural movement formed – with government encouragement – to push for land redistribution. The National Association of Small Farmers (ANUC) managed to get a new government land reform agency (INCORA, now called INCODER) to hand out several thousand titles. But over the ensuing decades most of the movement’s leadership was murdered, and the land reform agency was rendered toothless.

In fact, analysts refer to the past 30 years in Colombia as a period of “reverse land reform.” Leftist guerrillas and pro-government paramilitaries – the latter frequently paid by large landholders – displaced 4 million people from the countryside. About 6.6 million hectares (16.3 million acres) – 12.9% of Colombia’s agricultural land – were stolen.

Often, the paramilitaries kept the land for themselves, becoming some of the country’s largest landholders. At the same time, an economic opening that began in the early 1990s reduced prices for imported food, knocking small family farms out of business and boosting capital-intensive agribusinesses like cattle, sugarcane, timber, oil palm and biofuels. Meanwhile, drug traffickers needing a place to park their profits bought up massive amounts of land. The displaced filled the cities, though some moved deeper into the jungle, growing the only crop that is economically viable in the stateless wilderness: coca.

From their mid-1960s founding, Colombia’s leftist FARC and ELN guerrilla groups have put land reform at the center of what they claim to be fighting for. After killing or kidnapping thousands and trafficking hundreds of tons of cocaine, the guerrillas’ claim to raise the banner of land reform (or any other political demand) is of questionable legitimacy. But though the guerrillas no longer represent it, anger and frustration about land are very real in Colombia’s countryside.

Rural justice – not letting the displacers and the dispossessors get away with it – sits at the center of resolving Colombia’s conflict. This will remain a priority even if the FARC and ELN are eventually defeated on the battlefield (which is unlikely to happen soon).

The new law

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos surprised most everyone last year when, shortly after taking office, he made land restitution – something he barely mentioned on the campaign trail – a central priority. Santos named as his agriculture minister Juan Camilo Restrepo, a former treasury minister, senator and ambassador who frequently denounced the concentration of land in illegal actors’ hands and had vocally criticized the land policies of Santos’s predecessor, Álvaro Uribe.

Shortly after taking office in August 2010, Santos and Restrepo introduced, and moved through Colombia’s Congress, a bill that would provide reparations to victims of the conflict and restore land to the displaced. The law that emerged in June 2011 mandates the return of land to people who were forced off of their property on or after January 1, 1991 (as many as 400,000 families). The Santos administration expects this law to make possible the return of 2 million hectares of stolen land and the distribution of 4 million hectares of unoccupied, government-owned land.

The law creates a national land-restitution agency and a registry of dispossessed lands. It places the burden of proof on current landowners who, if challenged, must demonstrate that they obtained their land in good faith. If they cannot do so, their land reverts to the displaced claimant. If they can, then the government must find a solution such as payment, lease-backs, or eviction.

President Santos has staked a huge amount of political capital on this law. Its passage required much arm-twisting within the pro-government coalition that dominates Colombia’s Congress, many of whose members are political heavyweights in rural zones that saw much land theft. The bill had to overcome vocal opposition on Colombia’s far right, most prominently from ex-President Uribe, who opposed language recognizing the existence of an armed conflict in Colombia and who objected to its potential cost. But the law ultimately passed, and Santos signed it into law on June 10.

Why did President Santos choose to take on the thorny land issue? Clearly, as a pro-market, self-professed “Third Way” politician, he does not believe in redistributing wealth – government officials are quick to correct anyone who refers to land restitution as land “reform.” But he does speak of improving the way the free market works in Colombia’s countryside which, as Agriculture Minister Restrepo has said, “has many elements of feudalism.” That begins with clear property rights for landholders, and Santos, even in his inauguration speech, stated that small landholders should become “businessmen … each one a prosperous Juan Valdez.” (Where Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities’ collective landholdings fit in all this remains unclear: the law lacks a previous consultation mechanism, and thus leaves these communities out.)

Making It Work Beyond Bogotá

These good intentions, however, don’t necessarily filter down beyond Bogotá, to “las regiones” where land theft and forced displacement were worst. It is there where the “pushback” against land restitution will originate – and it will be carried out by people accustomed to using violence to achieve their objectives.

From Uribe, his popular predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos inherited a governing coalition that knits together two strands of Colombia’s elite. While this is admittedly an oversimplification, we can say that on one hand is the urban, modernizing, globalized, manufacturing-and-services elite that includes much of the country’s socially prominent families. On the other hand is the rural, large-landholding and extractive-industry elite, often tied to narco money and paramilitarism, which has seen its political influence rise sharply over the past 20-30 years. This latter faction has accumulated much land, often illegally and through violence, throughout Colombia’s countryside.

Juan Manuel Santos, and most of his government, comes from the first group. A scion of a prominent Bogotá publishing family, he has surrounded himself with well-trained technocrats. Representatives of the second group – which arguably ran key institutions during Uribe’s tenure, such as the DAS intelligence service and the INCODER land agency – are left out of high-level positions in the Santos administration. Allies of the “reverse land reformers” have lost influence in the national government.

But Colombia’s state looks very different at the local level than it does at the national level. The same institutions – the police, the judiciary, cabinet ministries, to say nothing of mayors’ and governors’ offices – can be led by committed public servants in Bogotá, but can be part of the problem in places like Sucre, Magdalena, Guaviare or Nariño.

The Pushback

It is beyond the main cities, in “las regiones,” where narcos bought up land, where landowners organized paramilitary militias that massacred peasants, where “new” paramilitary groups are now springing up, and where the dominant development model is large-scale, capital-intensive agriculture, plus barely regulated mining and other resource extraction. It is here where the institutions of the state – through corruption, penetration by mafias, intimidation or even officials’ ideological conviction – are decidedly on the side of the land usurpers.

Look at the Montes de María, a small, fertile region in north-central Colombia that saw dozens of paramilitary massacres and the displacement of as much as a third of some municipalities’ populations between 1999 and 2001. Here, a preliminary analysis by the Agriculture Ministry has so far identified 40,000 hectares of land stolen from displaced people, the theft legalized by outright fraud in land-registry agencies. Many of the politicians elected in this region during the period of mass displacements have been sentenced to prison for supporting the paramilitaries. But the wave of land-buyers who followed the violence continues unabated; it has proved impossible even to maintain a temporary legal freeze on agribusinesses’ land purchases. Meanwhile, members of the same political group as the jailed politicians appear poised to do well in Sunday’s local elections.

Then there is the vast department of Meta, south of Bogotá, which the paramilitaries first entered with the horrific, military-supported 1997 Mapiripán massacre. A wave of displacements followed. Here, the government has already exposed the theft of over 200,000 hectares of land from displaced people, duly legalized by corrupt authorities. Meta’s plains are now blanketed with vast cattle ranches, oil-palm plantations and – with recent discoveries making it the country’s number-one petroleum-producing department – oil exploration sites.

Or consider the emblematic case of the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó communities, in the Pacific coast department of Chocó. Here, even though communities have collective land titles, the paramilitary-tied landowners who displaced the population continue to block their use of the territory, and the local government has failed to act, or even been aligned with the other side.

At the local level, Colombia’s state has been unable to slow or to punish an alarming increase in murders of displaced people who have organized for land restitution. Nearly twenty such leaders have been killed since Juan Manuel Santos took office in August 2010. The killings are likely to get worse as the restitution effort gets truly underway, and as the occupiers of displaced people’s land face the possibility of losing “their” property.

The “Black Hand”

President Santos caused a minor stir in June when, in two speeches and an interview, he referred to a shadowy “Black Hand” in Colombian politics.

On the side of the extreme, what I call the extreme right, are the killings of leaders who are asking that small farmers’ land be restituted, people who don’t want the state to come in and recover land that was wrongly taken, as was done through violence to millions of hectares, there is a mafia, an extreme right that has to do with the former paramilitaries.

With these comments Santos made clear that his government is aware that land restitution will face severe local resistance. But he has not made clear what his government plans to do about the “Black Hand.”

Defense officials have announced plans to protect beneficiaries of land-restitution programs, but these plans tend to involve physical protection for a short period, after which those who get their land back may again be vulnerable.

Ultimately, it will be impossible to deploy police or soldiers to protect every vulnerable beneficiary of land restitution. Instead, there are two steps Colombia’s government can take to prevent Santos’s “Black Hand” from bringing restitution to a screeching halt.

The first is to investigate and punish, swiftly and transparently, all killings of land and victims’ rights leaders. A high probability of being charged, tried, and convicted is the best way to dissuade those who would murder a land-restitution advocate or beneficiary. The justice system, with full cooperation from the executive, must work assiduously to ensure that this probability is as high as possible. Currently, though, it is very low: our questioning of several Colombian analysts and officials indicates that of the nearly 20 land-restitution leaders killed since August 2010, no case has reached the indictment or trial stage.

The second step is to prevent local officials from using their positions to slow or block land restitution. This, too, will be difficult, because implementing the new land-restitution law will depend heavily on mayors and governors. As the International Crisis Group has pointed out, these positions are critical for carrying out the policies that emanate from Bogotá. Largely as a result of decentralization reforms in the 1980s and 1990s, mayors and governors control significant budgets, issue often lucrative contracts, and play a large role in the demarcation of land and registration of sales. If a municipality’s mayor or a department’s governor is tied to large landholders or even violent groups who have benefited from land theft, he or she can pose a significant obstacle to Bogotá officials’ well-intentioned efforts.

In an excellent piece posted today, La Silla Vacía, an investigative journalism website, explains further:

The Victims’ [and Land Restitution] Law does not delegate specific land-restitution functions to the mayors (this was done on purpose because many local authorities have been involved in dispossession or are manipulated by the victimizers). But for those who have worked on pilot projects, it is evident that when a mayor’s office – a municipality’s maximum police authority – uses its institution to favor restitution, it makes the process faster and safer for land-rights leaders.

The upcoming vote

That is why the October 30 elections are so important. It is positive that the Santos administration has weakened the “Black Hand” at the national level. But the October 30 vote is all about the regional level, where it remains strong.

The 2011 campaign has been more violent than the last local elections, in 2007. Colombia’s non-governmental Electoral Observation Mission (MOE) found that 41 candidates had been killed as of October 18, 14 more than in the 2007 campaign. While most killings’ motives haven’t been established, many of them took place in municipalities that have suffered displacement and illegal appropriation of land. The departments of Antioquia and Córdoba, flashpoints of displacement and dispossession, lead the MOE’s list of violent acts against candidates.

This week, WOLA hosted Manuel Garces, a candidate for mayor in Lopez de Micay, Cauca. Mr. Garces has been the victim of four assassination attempts, several death threats, and a defamation campaign since his campaign began earlier this year. Two members of his team were also murdered. The “Black Hand” behind these attacks is a murky alliance of regional political elites, paramilitaries, narcotics traffickers, and local military and police authorities. By returning to the region for the election, Mr. Garces risks his life by confronting the powerful networks that seek to consolidate corruption rings and impunity in the region. No matter what the outcome of the election, Mr. Garces, along with several other candidates in similar positions, will continue to run a high risk for publicly confronting local powers tied to dispossession of small landholders.

Despite a political reform passed in July, which intends to combat criminal and armed-group influence on campaigns, many old practices are still occurring. The Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, a think-tank hired by the Interior Ministry to identify risks of such influence, published a report in October naming 100 candidates with likely links to organized crime and armed groups. La Silla Vacía identifies three political parties, which together are fielding 17,000 candidates, fostered by Juan Carlos Martínez, a politician currently in prison for ties to paramilitary groups.

The amount of money being spent on campaigns, despite widely ignored legal limits, also raises suspicions. Any visit to Colombia’s regiones right now makes evident – through the profusion of billboards, t-shirts, and broadcast advertisements – that some candidates have remarkable amounts of campaign funds to spend. During an August 2011 visit to Sincelejo, the capital of Sucre department (population 625,000), several individuals interviewed told us that a successful campaign for mayor of Sincelejo would cost about US$5 million, while a governor’s race would cost US$10 million. (Campaign backers, we were told, would then be first in line for lucrative local government contracts.) Even if these estimates were exaggerated by a factor of two or three, the cost of political victory in the local elections is still beyond the reach of most displaced or victims’ advocates. It is, however, attainable for the wealthy – including those whose wealth is drawn in part from illegal activity and usurpation of land.

What will happen?

We won’t know immediately after the October 30 voting whether the illegal land-concentrators’ allies “won” or not. This will require scrutiny of the victors in hundreds of municipalities. If it turns out that they did capture local power in many regions, though, the prospects for President Santos’s land-restitution plan will dim considerably.

In many regions of the country where land concentration and displacement are most extreme, the combination of local officials’ foot-dragging and continued intimidation of victims can prevent restitution from moving forward. The “reverse-land reform” of the past 30 years can resist the central government’s ambitions.

If that happens – if the dispossessors win again – the message once again will be that crime pays in Colombia. And one of the guerrillas’ main pretexts for remaining at war – that looting of small landholders cannot be stopped non-violently – will be strengthened. If the restitution program falters, the conflict will continue to grind on.

Watch these elections. Pay close attention to who wins. In a few years, when we look back on whether Santos’s land restitution plan succeeded, failed or barely muddled through, October 30, 2011 will be a key date in the timeline.