WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
27 Oct 2011 | Commentary | News

Sunday’s Local Elections in Colombia

By Adam Isacson

Colombians go to the polls on October 30. In a single nationwide election, which happens once every four years, they will select mayors and city councils for all 1,121 municipalities, and governors and provincial legislatures for all 32 of the country’s departments. 130,000 candidates are reportedly participating.

Most of the balloting will be about local issues. It deserves our attention, though, because the outcome is crucial for President Juan Manuel Santos’s promise to return land to hundreds of thousands of dispossessed Colombians. Sunday’s elections could be a fulcrum for the success or failure of Santos’s land restitution effort.

And that’s why we should worry. Opponents of restitution may take advantage of the vote to hijack this effort. If they succeed, prospects for restitution – and indeed, for peace in Colombia – will dim considerably.


Though blessed with much productive agricultural land, Colombia almost certainly has the most unequal land tenure in Latin America, if not the world. A UN Development Program report published last month found an incredible 52.2 percent of Colombia’s cultivable land in the hands of 1.15 percent of landowners.

The image on the left, from the UN Development Program, shows areas of most unequal landholding in Colombia. The image on the right, from the Electoral Obervation Mission, shows areas where candidates in the October 30 local elections have suffered acts of violence.(Click to enlarge.)

Unlike most of Latin America, Colombia never had a land reform in the twentieth century. The concentration of land in few hands has been constant since the Spanish colonial era. In the 1960s and 1970s, a rural movement formed – with government encouragement – to push for land redistribution. The National Association of Small Farmers (ANUC) managed to get a new government land reform agency (INCORA, now called INCODER) to hand out several thousand titles. But over the ensuing decades most of the movement’s leadership was murdered, and the land reform agency was rendered toothless.

In fact, analysts refer to the past 30 years in Colombia as a period of “reverse land reform.” Leftist guerrillas and pro-government paramilitaries – the latter frequently paid by large landholders – displaced 4 million people from the countryside. About 6.6 million hectares (16.3 million acres) – 12.9% of Colombia’s agricultural land – were stolen.

Often, the paramilitaries kept the land for themselves, becoming some of the country’s largest landholders. At the same time, an economic opening that began in the early 1990s reduced prices for imported food, knocking small family farms out of business and boosting capital-intensive agribusinesses like cattle, sugarcane, timber, oil palm and biofuels. Meanwhile, drug traffickers needing a place to park their profits bought up massive amounts of land. The displaced filled the cities, though some moved deeper into the jungle, growing the only crop that is economically viable in the stateless wilderness: coca.

From their mid-1960s founding, Colombia’s leftist FARC and ELN guerrilla groups have put land reform at the center of what they claim to be fighting for. After killing or kidnapping thousands and trafficking hundreds of tons of cocaine, the guerrillas’ claim to raise the banner of land reform (or any other political demand) is of questionable legitimacy. But though the guerrillas no longer represent it, anger and frustration about land are very real in Colombia’s countryside.

Rural justice – not letting the displacers and the dispossessors get away with it – sits at the center of resolving Colombia’s conflict. This will remain a priority even if the FARC and ELN are eventually defeated on the battlefield (which is unlikely to happen soon).

The new law

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos surprised most everyone last year when, shortly after taking office, he made land restitution – something he barely mentioned on the campaign trail – a central priority. Santos named as his agriculture minister Juan Camilo Restrepo, a former treasury minister, senator and ambassador who frequently denounced the concentration of land in illegal actors’ hands and had vocally criticized the land policies of Santos’s predecessor, Álvaro Uribe.

Shortly after taking office in August 2010, Santos and Restrepo introduced, and moved through Colombia’s Congress, a bill that would provide reparations to victims of the conflict and restore land to the displaced. The law that emerged in June 2011 mandates the return of land to people who were forced off of their property on or after January 1, 1991 (as many as 400,000 families). The Santos administration expects this law to make possible the return of 2 million hectares of stolen land and the distribution of 4 million hectares of unoccupied, government-owned land.

The law creates a national land-restitution agency and a registry of dispossessed lands. It places the burden of proof on current landowners who, if challenged, must demonstrate that they obtained their land in good faith. If they cannot do so, their land reverts to the displaced claimant. If they can, then the government must find a solution such as payment, lease-backs, or eviction.

President Santos has staked a huge amount of political capital on this law. Its passage required much arm-twisting within the pro-government coalition that dominates Colombia’s Congress, many of whose members are political heavyweights in rural zones that saw much land theft. The bill had to overcome vocal opposition on Colombia’s far right, most prominently from ex-President Uribe, who opposed language recognizing the existence of an armed conflict in Colombia and who objected to its potential cost. But the law ultimately passed, and Santos signed it into law on June 10.

Why did President Santos choose to take on the thorny land issue? Clearly, as a pro-market, self-professed “Third Way” politician, he does not believe in redistributing wealth – government officials are quick to correct anyone who refers to land restitution as land “reform.” But he does speak of improving the way the free market works in Colombia’s countryside which, as Agriculture Minister Restrepo has said, “has many elements of feudalism.” That begins with clear property rights for landholders, and Santos, even in his inauguration speech, stated that small landholders should become “businessmen … each one a prosperous Juan Valdez.” (Where Afro-Co
lombian and indigenous communities’ collective landholdings fit in all this remains unclear: the law lacks a previous consultation mechanism, and thus leaves these communities out.)

Making It Work Beyond Bogotá

These good intentions, however, don’t necessarily filter down beyond Bogotá, to “las regiones” where land theft and forced displacement were worst. It is there where the “pushback” against land restitution will originate – and it will be carried out by people accustomed to using violence to achieve their objectives.

From Uribe, his popular predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos inherited a governing coalition that knits together two strands of Colombia’s elite. While this is admittedly an oversimplification, we can say that on one hand is the urban, modernizing, globalized, manufacturing-and-services elite that includes much of the country’s socially prominent families. On the other hand is the rural, large-landholding and extractive-industry elite, often tied to narco money and paramilitarism, which has seen its political influence rise sharply over the past 20-30 years. This latter faction has accumulated much land, often illegally and through violence, throughout Colombia’s countryside.

Juan Manuel Santos, and most of his government, comes from the first group. A scion of a prominent Bogotá publishing family, he has surrounded himself with well-trained technocrats. Representatives of the second group – which arguably ran key institutions during Uribe’s tenure, such as the DAS intelligence service and the INCODER land agency – are left out of high-level positions in the Santos administration. Allies of the “reverse land reformers” have lost influence in the national government.

But Colombia’s state looks very different at the local level than it does at the national level. The same institutions – the police, the judiciary, cabinet ministries, to say nothing of mayors’ and governors’ offices – can be led by committed public servants in Bogotá, but can be part of the problem in places like Sucre, Magdalena, Guaviare or Nariño.

The Pushback

It is beyond the main cities, in “las regiones,” where narcos bought up land, where landowners organized paramilitary militias that massacred peasants, where “new” paramilitary groups are now springing up, and where the dominant development model is large-scale, capital-intensive agriculture, plus barely regulated mining and other resource extraction. It is here where the institutions of the state – through corruption, penetration by mafias, intimidation or even officials’ ideological conviction – are decidedly on the side of the land usurpers.

Look at the Montes de María, a small, fertile region in north-central Colombia that saw dozens of paramilitary massacres and the displacement of as much as a third of some municipalities’ populations between 1999 and 2001. Here, a preliminary analysis by the Agriculture Ministry has so far identified 40,000 hectares of land stolen from displaced people, the theft legalized by outright fraud in land-registry agencies. Many of the politicians elected in this region during the period of mass displacements have been sentenced to prison for supporting the paramilitaries. But the wave of land-buyers who followed the violence continues unabated; it has proved impossible even to maintain a temporary legal freeze on agribusinesses’ land purchases. Meanwhile, members of the same political group as the jailed politicians appear poised to do well in Sunday’s local elections.

Then there is the vast department of Meta, south of Bogotá, which the paramilitaries first entered with the horrific, military-supported 1997 Mapiripán massacre. A wave of displacements followed. Here, the government has already exposed the theft of over 200,000 hectares of land from displaced people, duly legalized by corrupt authorities. Meta’s plains are now blanketed with vast cattle ranches, oil-palm plantations and – with recent discoveries making it the country’s number-one petroleum-producing department – oil exploration sites.

Or consider the emblematic case of the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó communities, in the Pacific coast department of Chocó. Here, even though communities have collective land titles, the paramilitary-tied landowners who displaced the population continue to block their use of the territory, and the local government has failed to act, or even been aligned with the other side.

At the local level, Colombia’s state has been unable to slow or to punish an alarming increase in murders of displaced people who have organized for land restitution. Nearly twenty such leaders have been killed since Juan Manuel Santos took office in August 2010. The killings are likely to get worse as the restitution effort gets truly underway, and as the occupiers of displaced people’s land face the possibility of losing “their” property.

The “Black Hand”

President Santos caused a minor stir in June when, in two speeches and an interview, he referred to a shadowy “Black Hand” in Colombian politics.

On the side of the extreme, what I call the extreme right, are the killings of leaders who are asking that small farmers’ land be restituted, people who don’t want the state to come in and recover land that was wrongly taken, as was done through violence to millions of hectares, there is a mafia, an extreme right that has to do with the former paramilitaries.



With these comments Santos made clear that his government is aware that land restitution will face severe local resistance. But he has not made clear what his government plans to do about the “Black Hand.”

Defense officials have announced plans to protect beneficiaries of land-restitution programs, but these plans tend to involve physical protection for a short period, after which those who get their land back may again be vulnerable.

Ultimately, it will be impossible to deploy police or soldiers to protect every vulnerable beneficiary of land restitution. Instead, there are two steps Colombia’s government can take to prevent Santos’s “Black Hand” from bringing restitution to a screeching halt.

The first is to investigate and punish, swiftly and transparently, all killings of land and victims’ rights leaders. A high probability of being charged, tried, and convicted is the best way to dissuade those who would
murder a land-restitution advocate or beneficiary. The justice system, with full cooperation from the executive, must work assiduously to ensure that this probability is as high as possible. Currently, though, it is very low: our questioning of several Colombian analysts and officials indicates that of the nearly 20 land-restitution leaders killed since August 2010, no case has reached the indictment or trial stage.

The second step is to prevent local officials from using their positions to slow or block land restitution. This, too, will be difficult, because implementing the new land-restitution law will depend heavily on mayors and governors. As the International Crisis Group has pointed out, these positions are critical for carrying out the policies that emanate from Bogotá. Largely as a result of decentralization reforms in the 1980s and 1990s, mayors and governors control significant budgets, issue often lucrative contracts, and play a large role in the demarcation of land and registration of sales. If a municipality’s mayor or a department’s governor is tied to large landholders or even violent groups who have benefited from land theft, he or she can pose a significant obstacle to Bogotá officials’ well-intentioned efforts.

In an excellent piece posted today, La Silla Vacía, an investigative journalism website, explains further:

The Victims’ [and Land Restitution] Law does not delegate specific land-restitution functions to the mayors (this was done on purpose because many local authorities have been involved in dispossession or are manipulated by the victimizers). But for those who have worked on pilot projects, it is evident that when a mayor’s office – a municipality’s maximum police authority – uses its institution to favor restitution, it makes the process faster and safer for land-rights leaders.



The upcoming vote

That is why the October 30 elections are so important. It is positive that the Santos administration has weakened the “Black Hand” at the national level. But the October 30 vote is all about the regional level, where it remains strong.

The 2011 campaign has been more violent than the last local elections, in 2007. Colombia’s non-governmental Electoral Observation Mission (MOE) found that 41 candidates had been killed as of October 18, 14 more than in the 2007 campaign. While most killings’ motives haven’t been established, many of them took place in municipalities that have suffered displacement and illegal appropriation of land. The departments of Antioquia and Córdoba, flashpoints of displacement and dispossession, lead the MOE’s list of violent acts against candidates.

This week, WOLA hosted Manuel Garces, a candidate for mayor in Lopez de Micay, Cauca. Mr. Garces has been the victim of four assassination attempts, several death threats, and a defamation campaign since his campaign began earlier this year. Two members of his team were also murdered. The “Black Hand” behind these attacks is a murky alliance of regional political elites, paramilitaries, narcotics traffickers, and local military and police authorities. By returning to the region for the election, Mr. Garces risks his life by confronting the powerful networks that seek to consolidate corruption rings and impunity in the region. No matter what the outcome of the election, Mr. Garces, along with several other candidates in similar positions, will continue to run a high risk for publicly confronting local powers tied to dispossession of small landholders.

Despite a political reform passed in July, which intends to combat criminal and armed-group influence on campaigns, many old practices are still occurring. The Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, a think-tank hired by the Interior Ministry to identify risks of such influence, published a report in October naming 100 candidates with likely links to organized crime and armed groups. La Silla Vacía identifies three political parties, which together are fielding 17,000 candidates, fostered by Juan Carlos Martínez, a politician currently in prison for ties to paramilitary groups.

The amount of money being spent on campaigns, despite widely ignored legal limits, also raises suspicions. Any visit to Colombia’s regiones right now makes evident – through the profusion of billboards, t-shirts, and broadcast advertisements – that some candidates have remarkable amounts of campaign funds to spend. During an August 2011 visit to Sincelejo, the capital of Sucre department (population 625,000), several individuals interviewed told us that a successful campaign for mayor of Sincelejo would cost about US$5 million, while a governor’s race would cost US$10 million. (Campaign backers, we were told, would then be first in line for lucrative local government contracts.) Even if these estimates were exaggerated by a factor of two or three, the cost of political victory in the local elections is still beyond the reach of most displaced or victims’ advocates. It is, however, attainable for the wealthy – including those whose wealth is drawn in part from illegal activity and usurpation of land.

What will happen?

We won’t know immediately after the October 30 voting whether the illegal land-concentrators’ allies “won” or not. This will require scrutiny of the victors in hundreds of municipalities. If it turns out that they did capture local power in many regions, though, the prospects for President Santos’s land-restitution plan will dim considerably.

In many regions of the country where land concentration and displacement are most extreme, the combination of local officials’ foot-dragging and continued intimidation of victims can prevent restitution from moving forward. The “reverse-land reform” of the past 30 years can resist the central government’s ambitions.

If that happens – if the dispossessors win again – the message once again will be that crime pays in Colombia. And one of the guerrillas’ main pretexts for remaining at war – that looting of small landholders cannot be stopped non-violently – will be strengthened. If the restitution program falters, the conflict will continue to grind on.

Watch these elections. Pay close attention to who wins. In a few years, when we look back on whether Santos’s land restitution plan succeeded, failed or barely muddled through, October 30, 2011 will be a key date in the timeline.