Wealthy farmers 'exploit' recipients of Colombia's land restitution program
Publisher: Colombia Reports
Story date: 11/12/2012
Language: English

Farmland given to displaced farmers in northwest Colombia as part of the government's Victim and Land Restitution Act, is actually under the control of three wealthy businessmen, local media reported Monday.

According to local media, Colombia's anti-corruption unit visited the municipality of Ayapel in the Cordoba department to check on land, which once belonged to William and Gerado Moncada, brothers who worked for Pablo Escobar, and now handed back to rural farmers who had been displaced due to armed conflict.

Upon investigation they found that the farmers were no longer there and the land was instead in the hands of three wealthy local businessmen.

"They had been persuaded to sell [the land to] the three people who exercise economic power in the area," read the anti-corruption unit's report.

Investigators reportedly collected testimonies of local peasants who claimed that the disputed land was delivered to the local businessmen [whose names were not released in order to not compromise the ongoing investigation] by Rafid Janna Marquez, who was gunned down just days after the sale. Authorities are investigating whether a connection exists between the land sale and Mr. Marquez's death.

The three businessmen, according to INCODER, a Colombian insititute for rural development, have surrounded the 1,181 acres with electric fences. INCODER asked prosecutors to go after "those responsible."

President Juan Manuel Santos' administration targeted the Cordoba department as a pilot location for land restitution, but since its signing in 2011, the Victim and Land Restitution Law has experienced mixed results. In September, a US think tank claimed the project was not working.

"Despite the shining promises of the Victims' Law, we found...there is very little interest at the local government level," Lisa Haugaard, the executive director of The Latin American Working Group, toldColombia Reports in September. "Some officials are interested, but they receive no support and no resources so that they can begin to resolve the issues...what is most difficult is that some of the people and forces behind the displacement are still there in power, ready to prevent the restitution of lands."

The law requires that committees, including victims of forced displacement themselves, draw up action plans for reparation [i.e. land]. According to Haugaard however, these committees have been infiltrated by "bad actors" who seek to "open up land sales which had been frozen."

INCODER has investigated alleged crimes like the one purportedly committed in Cordoba on a number of occassions, yet there have been reports of corruption within INCODER itself. In October, an investigation was launched to uncover and prosecute INCODER officials who have become known as the "land cartel" – bureaucrats who use the resources given to them by the national government and then sell the land intended for poor farmers to the highest bidder.

"These lands belong to the farmers of Colombia...not to [the] rich and opulent who don't need it," saidColombia's Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Juan Camilo Restrepo.

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