Colombian authorities captured the alleged leader of a paramilitary-style group dedicated to opposing a government program to return stolen land to displaced peasants, meaning more details on this shadowy organization's operations could soon come to light.
Francisco Castro, alias “El Tuto,” was captured in the northern city of Barranquilla on October 10, reported El Tiempo. He has been charged with murder and criminal conspiracy and is accused of participating in one of the “most violent and significant land displacements,” in the northern Magdalena province, amounting to some 10,000 hectares, according to a National Police press release.
El Tuto is thought to have headed the so-called "Anti-Land Restitution Army," a group spawned out of resistance to Colombia's ambitious land restitution program. The program came into effect in January as part of the broader Victims Law that offers reparations to victims of Colombia's five-decade-old conflict. A reward of more than $80,000 had been offered for information on his whereabouts.
El Tuto was a former member of the Northern Bloc of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Even after the AUC demobilized, El Tuto continued to be active in land theft in Magdalena, according to El Tiempo.
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The Anti-Land Restitution Army was reportedly borne out of a December 2011 meeting in the northeastern province of Cesar between local landowners and politicians. The impetus for the group's creation was to protect against recent guerrilla incursions into Cesar, though this quickly morphed into an opposition to the government’s program to restore land to displaced people.
Much was unclear about whether the group was indeed real in its early days. However, after the group’s threats against land restitution and human rights advocates circulated online in July 2012, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos recognized their existence.
The fall of El Tuto could serve as a blow to the group, but given that the driving force behind its creation is alleged to be politicians and landowners, they could easily seek out a replacement from the plethora of ex-AUC mid-level commanders who, like El-Tuto, failed to demobilize or re-armed themselves. What's more, another of the group's alleged leaders, Omar Montero Martinez, alias "Codazzi," is still at large.
The Anti-Land Restitution Army is just one among many potential opposition elements to the land restitution process. Guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), along with AUC successor groups known as "bandas criminales," or BACRIM, all have a stake in the some 7 million hectares of stolen land in Colombia.