This is an article from the AP, I'll comment at the end:
SAN ONOFRE, Colombia - Much of the world has seen Colombia's heartbreaking civil conflict as a clash between illegal armies of the left and right, or a battle for control of the global cocaine industry. Tens of thousands have died.
But the real prize is land. Since the early 1990s, right-wing paramilitary militias have seized from peasant farmers an estimated 26,000 square miles — an area larger than West Virginia that comprises about a quarter of the country's arable land, much of it sitting atop oil or valuable minerals.
The government of President Alvaro Uribe is now dismantling the paramilitaries and says it will force former militia bosses to surrender ill-gotten holdings. But promises aside, it is backing policies that mean most farmers will never get their property back.
The winners are Colombia's elite — landowners, politicians and corporations who bankrolled the militias and used them to expand their holdings. The losers are people of humble means killed or forced at gunpoint to give up their land and join the hundreds of thousands displaced by the conflict.
"So what hope can one have?" said Luis Francisco Garcia, evicted from his farm at gunpoint 3 1/2 years ago with his family. "I who had a farm ... have to beg for a plate of food?"
The right-wing paramilitaries first emerged in the 1980s, financed by ranchers to counter extortion and kidnappings by leftist rebel groups, such as the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
As the left was driven back, the paramilitaries quickly evolved into mafias in military fatigues, enriching themselves through cocaine trafficking, theft and extortion in regions, particularly the Caribbean coast, which they came to dominate. Police and military officers turned a blind eye, and often extended an open palm.
Then, in 2002, Uribe was elected, and became a firm U.S. ally on a continent where several countries have turned left in recent years. Uribe cracked down hard on the left-wing guerrillas, while negotiating a peace pact with the paramilitaries in 2003.
More than 31,000 paramilitary fighters have demobilized under that pact, which provides the former fighters with $200 monthly stipends and job-search help, as well as reduced sentences for the leaders in exchange for full confessions.
But much of the country's political elite remains indebted to the paramilitary bosses, according to Sen. Gustavo Petro, a key critic of the terms of the demobilization. He says the private armies remain tools of the same power brokers who benefited from the land grab.
"At the heart of this crisis is the relation between political power and land ownership," says U.N. agronomist Dario Fajardo.
Based in part on information originally released by Petro, Colombia's Supreme Court launched an inquiry last fall. Senators and congressmen have been questioned about allegations that warlords helped elect the politicians by intimidating people into voting for them, in exchange for illegal public funding of the paramilitaries.
The first senior paramilitary boss to testify under the demobilization pact, Salvatore Mancuso, said this month that the militias even pressured people into voting for Uribe in 2002.
Uribe denied any knowledge of an intimidation campaign on his behalf, and has not been tainted by the scandal.
Others, however, have come forward. One congressman publicly acknowledged that he and 29 other politicians, including two state governors, signed a cooperation pact with paramilitaries in 2001. Thousands of ranchers, meanwhile, signed a defiant open letter in which they admitted paying the paramilitaries.
That happened before Uribe was elected, but even as the scandal plays out, his government's policies appear to be enshrining the land grab into law.
A bill that Uribe's agriculture minister is championing in Congress would allow someone to gain title to land by proving it has been in his possession for five years. The Colombian Commission of Jurists, a human rights group, says the proposal "maintains, expands and legalizes the control the paramilitaries established in blood and fire over millions of hectares of land."
Even if the government were committed to helping peasants get their land back, the challenge is monumental. Paramilitary leaders have hidden plundered parcels of land behind front men. Land registrars have been murdered and records have disappeared in suspicious fires. The demobilization process has failed to bring the land forfeitures by paramilitaries that victims had hoped for.
Take the case of Ismael Rodriguez, who has records of his farm's sale — but is unlikely to win it back easily.
The soft-spoken, 51-year-old peasant sold his 200-acre farm in Coloso, Sucre state, in 1994 after a visit from gun-toting men in fatigues. The price was 8 million Colombian pesos — less than $10,000 — about a sixth of what the farm's avocado trees produced annually.
A copy of the contract lists the purchaser as Miguel Nule, a former Sucre governor, who has been in exile in Brazil since 2000. In November, the Supreme Court urged that he be investigated for alleged paramilitary ties.
Rodriguez, whose illiterate mother signed the document with an inked fingerprint, says Nule approached the family days after the gunmen's visit "and told us to sell it, but for cheap."
Nule's son Manuel, among Colombia's richest men, signed the contract on his father's behalf. He told the AP he didn't recall buying a farm there in 1994, adding that he was then a 22-year-old student in the capital Bogota.
"I can tell you that my father didn't take part in any of this type of activity," he said. The AP asked to be put in touch with Miguel Nule, but he never called.
Rodriguez is afraid even to visit the farm.
"I've heard that people who have recovered their farms in the area have been killed," he said.
Human rights groups say paramilitaries have killed about 3,000 people in Sucre, one of the states where Colombia's political class is most openly tied to the paramilitaries.
Sucre produced the first big arrests in the "para-politico" scandal. Three current and one former federal lawmaker from Sucre were jailed in November on charges of creating and bankrolling the private armies. One also faces murder charges.
A Senate human rights commission hearing in late November drew nearly 1,000 people — but just two members of Congress — to a dusty stadium in San Onofre, the town where most of Sucre's mass graves have been uncovered. Witnesses testified that paramilitaries ran the seaside cattle town like a concentration camp as recently as 2005.
Paramilitary gunmen killed on a whim and took San Onofre's women as sex slaves, according to the witnesses, while a nighttime curfew let the "paras" transfer tons of cocaine to speedboats in the Gulf of Morrosquillo.
But the victims said the main motivation was land.
The crowd applauded the valor of Juvenal Escudero, 55, who was forced by paramilitaries to sell his family's 220-acre ranch for less than a quarter of its worth six years ago.
In November, Escudero filed a formal complaint, then gave a TV interview, his back to the camera to protect his identity. Days before the hearing, a helmeted gunman on a motorcycle took five shots at Escudero, hitting him once in the lower back.
"Everyone around here knows the sound of my voice," groaned Escudero, who now lives in a humble home in San Onofre, confined to a wheelchair.
The government insists reparations from the demobilized paramilitaries will ultimately address refugees' needs, after it ensures that the truth surrounding the violence comes out.
"This is going to begin and it's going to grow," Vice President Francisco Santos told the AP. "He who asks for success from the start is mistaken."
But other Colombian officials and international refugee workers say the problem has barely been addressed, and speed is critical.
"The problem of land is at the heart of the process of demobilization" of the militias, Attorney General Edgardo Maya said in August. "If it isn't addressed promptly, with speed, efficiency and realism, it will become the process' main Achilles' heel."
A government pilot project that aims to prevent land in areas of widespread displacement from being sold by people other than their true owners has proven ineffective.
It "froze" nearly 3,500 square miles, but some of that land continues to be sold off, as local officials can grant exceptions in a process tainted by corruption. In the municipality of Tibu, in Colombia's most violent region, 129 "protected" plots were sold in 2006, according to the regional land protection office.
Not a single property has been surrendered in Sucre, a senior judicial investigator said on condition of anonymity; nor in Antioquia, President Uribe's home state and the worst afflicted by forced displacement, according to a lawyer in the state's Human Rights Ombudsman's Office who also didn't want his name published.
Great, huh? The defenders of "property rights" seizing land. But they redistribute it, or allow it to be used collectively, for the common good. No, they keep it for themselves.
And as for the "peace process," Uribe
comes from the whole tradition of the rightist death squads, and is making deal after deal with them.
And these death squads themselves didn't magically turn corrupt! They were a part of the narco-capitalist tradition. Members of the Medellin, and other Cartels.
Some liberals, and even some "leftists," claim there are no "good guys" in Colombia's long civil war; but they're wrong. The people of Colombia, and their army, the FARC-EP, are fighting for a free and just Colombia.
I recommend the following links for more on the situation in Colombia:Colombian gov’t arrests reporter on sham "terrorism" chargesColombian military sets deadly car bomb, blames FARC revolutionariesColombia Won't Extradite Paramilitary WarlordForensic investigation shows Colombian soldiers massacred an entire familyFree Ricardo Palmera! U.S. hands off Colombia!
Labels: colombia, FARC, guerrillas, revolution