BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Some Colombians trying to reclaim their stolen land receive death threats in person from armed men, at other times the threats come by phone or text message or a flyer slipped under the door.
However the death threats are issued, the message is clear: Either stop trying to reclaim your land or leave, otherwise you and your family could be killed.
Human Rights Watch has collected dozens of such testimonies from Colombians trying to get back their stolen land.
It is quite clear that death threats are carried out, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released in Bogota on Monday, noting that Colombia’s Ombudsman’s Office has said at least 77 land campaigners were killed between 2006 and 2011.
“Death threats are terrifying and are quite credible,’ said Max Schoening, an HRW researcher who wrote the report. “There’s a very real sense of insecurity and fear that displaced people trying to reclaim their lands live in,” he told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview in Bogota.
Nearly five decades of conflict - between government troops, drug-running rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and right-wing paramilitaries initially created to fight leftist rebels but later heavily involved in the cocaine trade - have uprooted more than five million Colombians and left over 200,000 civilians dead.
Families forced to flee violence have abandoned some six million hectares of land, much of which has since been seized by armed groups or lies uncultivated, the HRW report said.
As a result of the historic 2011 Victims’ Law, which aims to return millions of hectares of stolen land to their rightful owners, tens of thousands of displaced families are trying to reclaim their land and return home.
“There is a serious effort by the government to return land and the Victims’ Law is not a theoretical pipedream. It has the potential to work but unless the issue of threats and attacks against land claimants is stopped, the law could ultimately fail,” Schoening said.
The main obstacle displaced families face in getting their land back is the continued presence of armed groups, closely linked to paramilitary groups, who still hold sway in some parts of Colombia, the rights group said in its report.
More than 30,000 paramilitary fighters have been demobilised since 2003 under a controversial peace deal with the previous government.
But new criminal groups have formed, made up of paramilitary fighters who never laid down their arms in the first place, others who had disarmed but then returned to violence, and drug traffickers.
Many of these groups – with a total of around 4,000 members according to police figures - are bent on maintaining territorial control in their fiefdoms and along cocaine-smuggling routes.
“The government’s demobilisation process with the paramilitaries was deeply flawed. The government never dismantled the criminal networks that are the lifeblood of these groups, which allows these groups to carry out ongoing abuses against land claimants,” Schoening said. “Our research strongly indicates that paramilitary successor groups are behind a large share of attacks and killings of land claimants.”
Third parties, including FARC rebels, landowners and business leaders who acquired or occupied the land after the original occupants were forced out, have also been responsible for many of the abuses, Schoening said.
Over the last year, the authorities have received more than 500 reports from land claimants and campaigners saying they had received some kind of threat, and Schoening said the threats and attacks continue because those responsible are not being prosecuted.
“The ongoing threats and attacks are predictable given Colombia’s chronic failure to deliver justice for both those who were originally forced off their lands and current abuses against displaced land claimants,” Schoening said.
The HRW report, based on more than 250 interviews with land restitution claimants and public officials conducted over one-and-a-half years, also highlights the shady ties between paramilitary successor groups and local officials in some parts of the country.
“The continued corrupt ties between some local officials and paramilitary successor groups is one of the main reasons they can maintain power and influence in a region and it allows them to evade justice. And it makes communities afraid to denounce,” Schoening said.
The government says it is investigating killings of land claimants and is addressing the dangers they face.
But few of those who commit crimes against land claimants have been convicted, HRW said in its report.
So far, state prosecutors have obtained convictions in eight of the 49 cases of killings of land claimants they have investigated.
The government runs a protection programme for over 400 land campaigners who receive constant death threats, providing them with bodyguards, bulletproof vests and mobile phones. Since 2012, the programme has temporarily relocated more than 90 land claimants and leaders to new areas because of the gravity of the threats against them.
“The government’s main response to the problem has been to publicly condemn threats and attacks and provide protection measures like bulletproof vests. But bulletproof vests and bodyguards won’t solve the problem. It’s not enough providing someone with a bodyguard because it’s not addressing the root of the problem,” Schoening said.