Despite reports of the rise of a paramilitary-style “army” dedicated to fighting land restitution in northern Colombia, little is known of the group and it is likely the government will face greater challenges from already established criminal actors.

The so-called “Anti-Land Restitution Army” is a newcomer to Colombia’s criminal landscape. Described by some as a new paramilitary organization in its own right, it was allegedly spawned from resistance to the government’s landmark restitution program, which began January 12 as part of the Victims Law. Reports of the group’s existence first emerged in February when analyst Ariel Avila of think-tank Nuevo Arco Iris announced that a December 2011 meeting between land owners and politicians in the northeastern province of Cesar had resulted in the creation of the group.

According to Avila, the meeting was convened due to growing concern about a recent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) incursion into the area, and culminated with the agreement to create “an army that would protect them. Then, in a second meeting on January 13 … it was determined that [the army] would be an instrument against the land restitution act.” Avila added that former paramilitaries from the Northern Bloc of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) were being sought to join the army, with a view to beginning operations in March.

Avila’s warning appears to be playing out. On July 4, a threat began circulating online, directed towards 13 Colombian human rights leaders and promoters of the country’s landmark land restitution program, among them sitting congressman Ivan Cepeda. One excerpt read:

Our army has clear instructions to take down those bastards who want to take the land away from good citizens and give it to guerrillas like themselves … you are warned … we have fully identified your schemes … [signed] Anti-Restitution Army.

Following the threat, President Juan Manuel Santos surprised many by recognizing the existence of the army, and named two former Northern Bloc members believed to be its leaders; Augusto Francisco Castro Pacheco, alias “El Tuto,” and Omar Montero Martinez, alias “Codazzi.” A reward of over $80,000 has since been offered for information leading to their arrest, and the police announced that they would investigate whether large landowners were behind the group.

The emergence of such an army is a worrying sign for the Santos government, pointing to the enormous challenge it will face in trying to restore some 7 million hectares — 12.9 percent of the country’s agricultural land — back to those displaced by violence, or who have simply had their land stolen, since January 1, 1991. In Cesar province alone, where the army is said to have its roots, 200,000 hectares are due to be restored. However, the army represents only a small fraction of the resistance movement, one that is made up of numerous actors with varying motivations.

Though the government deems Cesar to be a priority area (see El Espectador map here), many of its main focus points are along the Pacific cost, stretching from Uraba in northern Antioquia down to the southwest province of Nariño. According to statistics quoted by Nuevo Arco Iris, Cesar saw only one land restitution leader assassinated between 2005 and June 2012, compared to nine and six in Valle del Cauca and Choco respectively in the same period. Antioquia was the most deadly province, with 16 assassinations.

Many of these high priority areas are former AUC territory or current strongholds of the BACRIM (criminal gangs). The AUC often worked on behalf of big agri-business, forcing people from their land under the guise that they were clearing the area of guerrillas. One example is offered by the communities of Jiguamiando and Curvarado in Choco, where large palm oil companies and cattle ranchers moved in once the population had been displaced in the late 1990s, introducing a form of pseudo-legitimacy to the process of appropriation. AUC founder Vicente Castaño admitted in a 2005 interview that he had actively recruited palm oil businesses to move onto stolen land in Uraba. This history creates an enormous administrative challenge for the government since many of the land entitlements will either be in the name of legitimate businesses or in those of third parties. Furthermore, taking on agri-business, despite its possible illegitimate foundations, may present a conflict of interest for Santos at a time when the country’s economy is growing and the government is pushing to attract more investment.

In addition, some companies, notably coal-mining firms Drummond and Glencore, have been accused of employing small groups of paramilitaries to keep control of their land. The US-based fruit and food distribution company Chiquita was also found to have paid the AUC to secure its area of operations. While the practice may not be widespread, it is a sign of the lengths some companies will go to in order to maintain operations in the company.

With regards to BACRIM controlled regions, the Rastrojos‘ primary areas of operation are along the Pacific coast while the Urabeños control much of Uraba. Both of these areas serve as vital drug trafficking corridors for the gangs, making them another problem area for the government’s attempts at restitution.

It is worrying that the anti-restitution army appears to be operating like the old paramilitaries, lacing death threats to pro-restitution activists with politically charged rhetoric about “ridding the land of guerrillas.” However, although Santos officially recognized them as a threat, it remains to be seen how big a phenomenon groups operating under this moniker will become. Furthermore, though they are the only ones to have labelled themselves “anti-restitution,” it does not mean they are the only ones with this motive. A number of Colombia’s criminal actors have a stake in stolen land, and some large companies will create a considerable administrative headache for the government by fighting for their entitlement to the land.

What are your thoughts?

Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.