Repeated attacks on teams recovering stolen lands in Colombia highlight the risks involved in restitution, a little-known process that is nevertheless critical to the country's peace agreement.
On May 27, two sisters, a member of Colombia's Land Restitution Unit (Unidad de Restitución de Tierras - URT) and a driver were declared missing in the municipality of Mesetas, in the central department of Meta.
The sisters were meeting with URT official Karen Sulay Garay to survey a property taken from their family in 1999 by guerillas with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC).
The meeting at the site had been scheduled back in 2019, but the sisters had postponed it out of fear.
Their disappearance has not yet been attributed to any armed group. However, FARC dissidents – criminal cells of former fighters who have rejected the FARC's 2016 peace deal with Colombia's government – are in the region.
According to an alert issued by Colombia's Ombudsman’s Office in 2020, three ex-FARC cells – the Seventh, First and 40th fronts – remain in the area where the team disappeared. The ex-FARC in Mesetas exploit land for illegal activities, ranching, and the irregular sale of properties, the alert stated.
Authorities, officials and claimants all face risks related to their roles in land restitution efforts.
In February, a police officer was killed in the northeastern department of Córdoba while accompanying a land restitution team in a rural area near the city of Montería.
In October 2020, one officer died and five others injured during an ambush by a FARC dissident cell known as the Adán Izquierdo Company. The police unit had been providing security for land restitution work in Bugalagrande, a town in the western Valle del Cauca department.
In 2018, eight police officers providing support for a land restitution team died after being attacked by armed men in a northern region of Colombia's Antioquia department.
InSight Crime Analysis
The land restitution process in Colombia has been threatened and systematically weakened by both criminal and legal actors.
In June 2011, then-President Juan Manuel Santos signed the Victims and Land Restitution Law, which laid the groundwork for lands to be returned to rural owners who had been stripped of them by rightwing paramilitaries and leftist rebels.
Five years later, the peace accords between the Colombian government and the FARC provided further opportunity to step up the restitution process in regions controlled by the guerrillas.
But intimidation and violence have made claimants wary of proceeding. Forty-eight claimants have been killed between 2011 to 2020, as have police officers escorting land restitution teams. The mere appearance of government personnel in territories where armed actors carry out illicit activities automatically puts lives at risk.
Besides ex-FARC dissidents, the Urabeños, which emerged from Colombia's paramilitaries, are one of the main crime groups attacking and threatening people involved in land restitution efforts, particularly in the departments of Córdoba, Antioquia, Chocó and Sucre, where killings have been highest.
For armed groups, access to land is key to territorial control and the development of drug trafficking and illegal mining activities.
Economic and political interests associated with large-scale development, farming and mining projects have also benefited from stolen lands. Indeed, in recent decades, land dispossessed by paramilitaries made way for banana and palm plantations, as well as cattle ranches, that exist to this day.
According to a 2020 report published by the Forjando Futuros Foundation, a non-governmental organization that has been counseling claimants in Colombia's restitution processes, 66 businesses – including agribusinesses, mining companies and banks – have been ordered by courts to return lands, suspend mining titles and undo mortgages.