Colombians displaced by conflict are moving home, but still living in fear

Colombians show their support for the Victims’ Law. EPA/Eduardo Munoz

Colombia is finally close to signing a peace accord to formally end to its decades-long armed conflict, which has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of its citizens, led to the disappearance and kidnapping of tens of thousands more, and displaced an estimated 6m. The government looks set to strike a deal with the country’s main guerrilla group, the FARC, and it has also started formal peace negotiations with a smaller guerrilla group, the ELN.

All the while, another major human rights violator, the national-level AUC, which began as an array of private armies set up to protect large landowners from guerrilla crimes, has been steadily demobilised over the last decade through the controversial Justice and Peace process, which offers reduced prison sentences for demobilised paramilitary members in return for their contribution to truth-telling and reparations.

Even though peace has not yet been formally established, since 2011 the Santos government has been running an ambitious programme to compensate those affected by the conflict. The adoption of this “Ley de Víctimas” (Victims’ Law) is an unusual move, since this type of transitional justice measure is usually only implemented once conflict has ended; as the name suggests, it’s usually intended to facilitate a transition to full democracy.

But even if it was set up prematurely, the process has helped some victims of the conflict obtain symbolic and material compensation, including physical and psychological healthcare. And crucially, the programme enables “land restitution” – the return of land to those who were displaced after 1991, at least in those places where the security situation allows it.

I have been undertaking fieldwork in two communities where this long and complicated process is playing out. Both are in the municipality of Chibolo in the Magdalena department, once the stronghold of a paramilitary leader known as Jorge 40, who displaced numerous communities to take control of their land, using it as a strategic base for his operations while stealing the people’s cattle.

The people I’ve been working with are small-scale cattle farmers who were displaced in 1997 and returned after paramilitary demobilisation ten years later. They returned without any state accompaniment or protection, but are now part of the land restitution and reparation process. Some of them have been awarded their old land titles back; others are still waiting since opponents are claiming their land too. These cases involving opponents need to be judged by special magistrates, and the process is very long-winded.

In the meantime, many of those who were responsible for these people’s displacement have now been released from custody, their sentences reduced under the Justice and Peace process. Others have received “casa por cárcel” (house arrest) thanks to good behaviour.

Rumours have spread that those responsible for the displacement are now forming new groups, including associations that will use legal means to obtain land once again. There are also rumblings that large-scale cattle farmers have been asked for “generous donations” to create an initiative against the government’s land restitution efforts.

Slipping backwards

The people in the villages where I’ve worked live in fear of renewed violence. They know that there are people forming groups ostensibly to protect their cattle, but they stress that this is how everything started here in the 1990s, when rich landowners hired paramilitary groups to guard their livestock. They feel unprotected by the police and other security forces, who have repeatedly refused to come to the villages when there are problems, sometimes claiming they’re out of gasoline or that no vehicles are available.

Given the area’s history, the fears and rumours they conveyed to me are not implausible – and that much has been demonstrated in recent weeks.

The long way home: Chibolo, in the department of Magdelena. Sanne Weber, Author provided

Colombia’s inspector general, whose function it is to investigate and punish public officials for legal violations, recently attended a meeting in the centre of the notorious Magdalena department. This area used to be one of the centres of paramilitary control, where massive displacement received support by large cattle farmers and local politicians.

The goal of the meeting was to hear the complaints of allegedly “well-intentioned” occupants of land now subject to restitution, who argued that the process is victimising them by seeking to make amends with others. This meeting was allegedly financed by a group of people, including ex-paramilitaries, who are organising actions against the restitution process.

The inspector general was accompanied by the president of the cattle farmers’ federation (FEDEGAN) who said that they wouldn’t hand over a single inch of their fincas, since they considered that the Victims’ Law was designed to benefit the FARC.

In response, President Santos publicly asked the inspector general to stop demonising the land restitution law and revictimising those who suffered the conflict. In spite of this, the inspector general attended another meeting with a group of cattle farmers opposed to land restitution, this time in the department of Cesar, equally characterised by massive displacement and land grabbing.

Fragile trust

The land restitution and reparation process has done little to allay people’s fears of new crimes against them. The situation has not been helped by public figures, such as the inspector general and politicians from ex-president Álvaro Uribe’s party, who have openly questioned the process’s legitimacy. This is compounded by a paucity of government and security services at the local level.

This situation is replete with lessons for the upcoming peace process with the FARC and the ELN. If the root problems of structural inequality are not addressed and the criminal structures that facilitated massive displacement not dismantled, all these efforts at reparation could be in vain.

The people I worked with have a very clear idea of what true reparation would involve: the state would simply need to recognise the truth about who displaced them and who provided backing, ensuring those people paid for what they did.

In the meantime, despite the government’s efforts, those who were previously displaced still feel insufficiently protected. As long as they don’t feel these guarantees have been made, the fragile bonds of trust that have been rebuilt by years of painstaking work will be under terrible strain.