The Situation of Victims of Land Seizures Worsens in Uraba
From the José Alvear Restrepo Collective
(Translated by Steve Cagan, a CSN Volunteer Translator, and edited by Teresa Welsh, a CSN Volunteer Editor)
Thursday, September 23, 2010, by IPC
After the murder of Hernando Pérez, which occurred this past September 19 in the community of El Totumo in the municipality of Necoclí, in the Uraba district of Antioquia, the situation for the campesinos who have been the victims of land seizures in the agro-industrial region has become so difficult that most likely five leaders will be forced to leave their municipalities in the coming days.
Urabá / Victims of Crimes by the State
This is how Carmen Palencia, a leader of the Association of Victims of Urabá for the Recovery of Land and Goods [Asociación de Víctimas del Urabá para la Restitución de Tierras y Bienes (Asovirestibi)], described it. She did not hesitate to describe the murder of Pérez as a hard warning about what the process of land recovery that the Government intends to move forward in the region will be like.
According to Palencia, a number of the members of the Association received death threats weeks ago while several campesinos from Necoclí were pressured to abandon their claims. Now, after the tragic disappearance of Hernando Pérez, several of those who were threatened are thinking of leaving the area.
"Right now we have two leaders of the community El Totumo who were threatened, and we are seeing how we can get them out of here because they are at great risk. We have another associate in Apartadó in the same situation; last week some armed men went to the house of a female associate from Chigorodó looking for her. About three months ago we got an associate out of the area under cover because they were going to kill him and we sent him to a city in the interior of the country. We "tossed" him there, but what else can we do?" said Palencia
This leader spoke of intimidations that come from armed groups that operate in the area and are in the service of figureheads and landlords who function as the owners of extensive acreage devoted to cattle raising and agro-industrial crops such as oil palm.
"Here we are in the hands of these violent men. They travel around the region without any problems. They are threatening those of us who are reclaiming our lands. How can it be that not even the presence of the Minister of Agriculture prevented them from murdering Hernando?" said Palencia, alluding to the fact that hours before his death, Hernando Pérez attended the ceremony in which 34 land titles were handed over to the same number of families from the communities of La Teca, California, Calle Larga and Nueva Unión, which belong to the community of Nueva Colonia, in the municipality of Turbo, an event at which Juan Camilo Restrepo, the new Minister of Agriculture, was present.
The situation is so serious that on September 24, members of the Association will meet in Bogotá with the Vice President of the Republic, Angelino Garzón, in order to look at possible measures to protect the victims of this scourge. Also attending will be non-governmental organizations that accompany these processes, like the Fundación Forjando Futuros ["Forging Futures Foundation"].
Gerardo Vega, Director of the Foundation, said that he will ask the executive branch to create investigation units made up of prosecutors, judges and police in order to find those responsible for these crimes, so they do not continue in impunity. "We also need to have the presence of the highest representatives of the Government in the regions, so that the violent men will understand that returning the land has been a national decision," said Vega.
The Director of the Foundation will also propose to the vice president that he provide an incentive for the creation of organizations of victims of land seizures in the entire country that would have the appropriate support of the government, and further that measures be promulgated to protect the leaders who have been threatened. And he will also invite international organizations to participate and to accompany the campesinos who are reclaiming their land.
A Worrisome Situation
With the disappearance of Pérez, there are now 47 campesinos connected to the process of reclaiming land who have been murdered in this country in the past three years, of which seven have been in the Urabá area of Antioquia. Just in May of this year there was the strange death of Albeiro Valdez, whose lifeless body was found in an unpopulated area of the community of El Totumo, in Necoclí. While the first forensic reports indicated that his death was produced by natural causes, now there are clear indications that he was a victim of poisoning.
What worries the people who live in the agro-industrial region, perhaps one of those most affected in the country by the seizure of lands, is that all these crime still remain in impunity, "and this has turned into a license for them to continue killing us," indicated Palencia.
For Alberto Yépez, Coordinator of the Human Rights Observatory of the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination, an organization that has been following the situation of the victims of land seizures in the country, things like this ought to lead the national Government to fine-tune their strategies for protecting the campesinos who are reclaiming their land, now that they have expressed their political intention to return lands that have been taken from them in the past.
"Before returning the land, the Government must be present with their security organizations, and confront these mafia paramilitary structures that are still occupying the land and that have already demonstrated in Urabá that they are not prepared to turn over the land voluntarily. The Government will have to go there not only with the law, but with the guns; that is, with military authorities, but in order to support the campesinos," sustained Yépez.
For the Coordinator of the Human Rights Observatory, the fact that the Congress of the Republic is rushing to debate the so-called Land Law, a legislative initiative that is intended to return two and a half million hectares to campesinos who were victims of violence during the last four years, provides a crucial moment not only to provide effective guarantees for the peasants, but also to begin to reveal who was behind the scourge of the land seizures.
"I believe that before proposing actions like social land value assessments with the victims, the national Government must first carry out an evaluation of who the companies or investors are who ended up benefiting from the seized lands, make their names public and find the judicial mechanisms so they can also be connected to the investigations of the deaths of these campesinos who are reclaiming their land," added Yépez.
In addition to asking for quick action in the investigations of the deaths of the campesino leaders, many of which remain in total impunity, Yépez warned about the violent attacks that victims of seizures are suffering in other regions of the country.
"There is very strong pressure against campesinos who reclaim their land in Córdoba, César, Magdalena, Cauna, Nariño, and Norte de Santander. These are areas where there is a strong presence of paramilitary groups, and where important economic conglomerates connected to agro-industry have settled in; these are the ones who in the end benefit from the seized lands," asserted the activist.
IPC Press Agency, Medellín, Colombia
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