The uproar over reports that the FARC rebels own over 40,000 hectares of land in two of Colombia’s departments is a red herring, distracting from the monumental political and logistical task the government faces at it embarks on its land restitution program.
In an interview with the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo last week, Alvaro Balcazer, director of the government’s new Territorial Consolidation and Reconstruction Unit, said that between the central and southwest departments of Meta and Caqueta, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is estimated to have stolen 42,000 hectares spread over 5,000 ranches. In addition, the guerrilla group possess 66,595 animals, including 26,500 cattle and hundreds of horses according to emails retrieved from the computer of deceased FARC commander Víctor Julio Suarez Rojas, alias "Mono Jojoy."
[See InSight Crime's profile of the FARC]
While alarming and deserving of attention, this is a small part of the problem. Since 1985, nearly 7 million hectares -- 12.9 percent of Colombia's agricultural land -- have been seized illegally through a combination of forced displacement and extortion. What's more, the FARC is not the worst offender. Most of the theft in Colombia was perpetrated by the rebels' arch-enemy, the right wing paramilitaries from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), and their successor groups who the government term "criminal bands" (bandas criminales - BACRIM).
[See InSight Crime's profiles of the AUC and BACRIM]
President Juan Manuel Santos seems to understand this. His land restitution program -- signed into law last June as part of the Victims Law, and which came into full effect on 12 January -- is focused primarily on former AUC or current BACRIM areas (see map below).
However, it is likely that in these areas he will face his biggest challenges both politically and logistically, especially in former paramilitary-controlled areas that have large, legitimate business interests. There -- as well as displacing alleged "guerrillas" from their land, securing drug trafficking routes and extorting local industry -- the AUC introduced a form of pseudo-legitimacy to the displacement of small land owners by in some cases working in conjunction with these big businesses.
In but one example, AUC founder Vicente Castaño told Semana magazine in 2005 that he had personally convinced entrepreneurs to invest in palm oil plantations in the northern region of Uraba where his illegal armies had displaced thousands of civilians. Similarly, in a visit to Meta last year, InSight Crime found evidence that neo-paramilitary group the Popular Revolutionary Anti-terrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC) had invested in the expansion of palm plantations while securing a drug trafficking corridor through the department towards Venezuela.
A 2008 estimate by the government's rural development agency INCODER put the proportion of illegally cultivated palm plantations at 93 percent. This is not to suggest that palm oil is the only culpable industry, with evidence emerging in recent years of how the US-based fruit and food distribution company Chiquita used to pay the AUC to secure one area of operations.
Mining companies such as Alabama-based Drummond and Swiss-based Glencore have also been accused of paying paramilitaries in the north of the country, although neither has admitted to a crime and Drummond defeated a civil suit filed against it in the United States. A new civil suit has since been filed against Drummond and proceedings against the company are ongoing.
Given the myriad interests and actors involved, Santos has an incredibly complex administrative and judicial job ahead of him. Firstly, the sheer scale of the program has the potential to cause problems as up to 400,000 families who were displaced on or after January 1, 1991, are eligible to apply for the return of their land.
Secondly, and more importantly, legally establishing proof of ownership is going to be extremely problematic thanks to the methods of appropriation utilized by criminal groups. In many cases, third-party owners -- if not the names of agri-businesses -- were established in order to dissolve the documented ties between the land and the illegal owners, thus making it hard for the government to seize and redistribute the property.
All of this is compounded further by the fact that previous government agencies, particularly the soon-to-be disbanded National Drugs Directorate (DNE) who had the AUC as beneficiaries of the institution for 15 years, have been complicit in illegal land grabs that allegedly amount to 500,000 hectares. Therefore, not only will the government meet stiff resistance from wealthy private land owners and criminal groups who have been able to expand their holdings through nefarious means, but will also have to battle with corrupt state officials who have a stake in the matter, or what Santos termed the "Black Hand."
As Adam Isacson from the Washington Office on Latin America noted, the results of October local elections effectively drew the battle lines on the issue. In rural areas with histories of mass displacement and illegal land grabbing, and in the areas that the government has deemed very high priority for restitution programs (see map), politicians were elected who have ties to the large landowners and narco money, thus maintaining the status quo. Due to the size of the program, mayors and governors will be heavily relied upon for its implementation thus introducing the prospect that they will try to exploit their position to slow the restitution process.
Pilot programs that saw the handing over of land to displaced families have already taken place over the past two years as a prelude to 2012, when it it expected that a further 500,000 hectares will be given back. Results so far, however, have been mixed. Some have been able to return to their land but others not for fear that they will experience reprisals from the groups who initially displaced them. Furthermore, prominent leaders of the displaced have become more exposed due to their public promotion of the cause, with three leaders being assassinated within a 24 hour period in March last year alone.
In contrast, restituting FARC victims will most likely be much less politically challenging. In large part this is because the rebels target local and multinational businesses and extort local farmers through a tax of COP10,000 ($5) per year per head of cattle they own. Simply put, receiving "victim" status under these circumstances is easier than when challenging a multimillion dollar agro-industrial project that helps bolster the country's GDP.