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Will 2013 be Colombia's landmark year?

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 17 Jan 2013 10:53 AM
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BOGOTA (AlertNet) - It’s crunch time in Colombia – 2013 could be a groundbreaking year for the South American nation.

For Colombia’s 46 million inhabitants, especially those living in rural and remote areas, the stakes could not be higher.

Below are four key developments to look out for in Colombia this year:

* Peace talks

The third round of peace talks between the Colombian government and the leftist FARC rebel group are underway in Havana this week in a bid to end nearly 50 years of war.

The two sides are trying to reach a negotiated agreement to end a conflict that dates back to 1964, when the FARC - the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - was formed as a Marxist agrarian movement to defend the rights of landless and poor peasants.

Tens of thousands of people have died and around four million Colombians have been displaced in South America's last guerrilla insurgency.

The government has said peace talks need to start moving at a faster pace.

The two sides began official negotiations on November 19 last year, but so far have only agreed on procedural issues and a five-point agenda for peace talks, including rural development, the drug trade, victims’ rights and the FARC’s participation in politics.

It’s a race against time for Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who has said he wants the process wrapped up by November this year. But the 9,000-strong rebel group has said reaching a peace accord cannot be rushed and could take much longer.

Can Santos sign a peace deal and achieve what three other Colombian presidents have failed to do in the past?

Santos is betting that a decade-long U.S.-backed offensive has weakened the rebels enough that they will want to end the fighting on the best possible terms.

Colombians will know within 10 months whether Santos’s high-risk bet has paid off.

* Compensation for victims

In 2011, the Colombian government enacted a historic law that aims to compensate millions of victims of the country’s conflict.

The law is seen as an important step towards reconciliation, which gives all victims the right to know about what happened to relatives killed or missing during the conflict, financial compensation and justice.

Colombia’s so-called victims’ law offers financial compensation of up to $12,000 to families of those who died by violence committed by all sides of the conflict – including leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups and state security forces. The compensation covers incidents dating back to 1985.

So far, over 40,000 Colombians have received some sort of financial compensation from the government under the law.

But critics say that with hundreds of thousands of Colombians still waiting for compensation, the government needs to step up its efforts to implement the law more effectively and deliver on its promise. 

* Land restitution

The victims’ law also aims to return to rightful owners over six million hectares of land that have been seized during the last 25 years through violence, extortion and fraud by armed groups.

The FARC started out as a Marxist land reform movement but later turned to the cocaine trade, kidnapping and extortion to fuel its war coffers.

Over the decades, FARC rebels, along with right-wing paramilitary groups and drug traffickers, have snatched swathes of land to gain control of strategic corridors for smuggling cocaine and arms.

The Colombian government has said this year it aims to process around half of the 30,000 land claims it has received so far, involving over two million hectares of land. Most of this land was taken by armed groups, forcing families away from their homes, sometimes at gunpoint.

But in the 19 months since the land restitution law came into effect, there have been only three judicial rulings that have returned land back to communities.

Experts say the law faces significant challenges, including an incomplete land registry plagued with falsified deeds and a slow justice system. There is a lot of pressure on Colombia’s special land judges to speed up rulings on land claims this year.

Another major hurdle is ensuring that conflict-ridden areas where the presence of the state military is still limited are safe enough to allow displaced families to return. This is particularly the case along Colombia’s jungle borders with Ecuador and Venezuela.

* Demining

Ten thousand Colombians have been injured or killed by landmines since 1990, according to government figures.

Colombia has the second highest casualty rate of landmine victims in the world, trailing only Afghanistan, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

The FARC is responsible for planting most of the landmines and unexploded ordnance devices littered across the country, the government says.

A key obstacle in giving back stolen land is that some of it remains mined and therefore unsafe for people to return to. Can the government step up its demining operations this year?

If Colombia’s conflict stopped today, it would take a decade to clear some 100,000 landmines scattered across the nation, according to the Colombian Campaign to Ban Landmines.

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