Carmen Palencia is a key element to one the Colombian government’s most important initiatives, and she fears for her life because of it.
The President of the organization Tierra y Vida (Land and Life) lives and works in a version of Colombia quite different from the prosperous and vibrant country that showed its best side during the Summit of the Americas last week in Cartagena.
She lives in a country where there is no peace, where there is an abundance of intimidation and threats, and where efforts to recover what is yours can cost you your life.
Her Colombia is the one of the land rights leaders that are at the forefront of the property restitution process for victims of the conflict. The process was initiated by President Juan Manuel Santos’ government.
According to official statistics, at least 17 of these leaders have been murdered since Santos signed the Victims’ Law in June of last year. But the real list of victims of the Victims’ Law is much larger.
“In Urabá, for example, it is very difficult. 14 people from our organization have been murdered since last year,” Palencia told BBC Mundo.
“The government has given signs that they want to advance the issue, but they have not been able to guarantee the safety of those for seeking land restitution – and much less for those of us who are leading the process,” added the president of Tierra y Vida, a movement comprised of land rights leaders in eight departments throughout the country.
The most recent victim was Manuel Antonio Ruiz, who was part of the land restitution process in two municipalities in the region of Urabá in Chocó in the north of the country.
Ruiz disappeared along with his son Samir on March 23 after he received a message announcing that he won an award of three million pesos (a little more than $1,600 USD), which turned out to be a trap.
Unknown people intercepted Ruiz and his fifteen year old son when they went to pick up the prize.
Their dead bodies, which showed signs of torture, appeared several days later.
The case generated outrage in Colombia, and the call to ensure protection for land rights leaders grew.
A member of Congress even publicly asked for government employees who have more than two body guards – about 9,000 according to the member of Congress – to give up one of those guards in order to improve the security of the threatened leaders. He gave up on the unsuccessful idea one week later.
The authorities insist that the threats and intimidation will not slow down the restitution process.
Minister of Interior Germán Vargas Lleras said that new security measures were already being implemented on an individual basis to prevent any additional murders of land restitution process leaders.
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
The Colombian Victims’ Law takes the protection of land rights leaders into account on paper, but the practical difficulties cannot be ignored.
The Protection Unit of the Ministry of Interior constantly receives protection requests for individuals, and not all of the requests are tied to the land restitution process. Each request is subject to a risk analysis in order to optimize the use of resources.
This practice makes sense when you consider that the Colombian government spends $250 million USD on this every year.
But the mechanism is not perfect: according to the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman of Colombia, Manuel Ruiz asked, in vain, for protection on three occasions prior to his murder.
The Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman feels that, in the case of the land rights leaders, it would be better to assume that the entire group is at risk, guaranteeing adequate protection for all of them.
Para la Defensoría, esto demuestra que en el caso de los líderes de restitución de tierras lo mejor sería presumir un riesgo colectivo que garantice una protección adecuada.
“The very act of being a leader in these processes makes them vulnerable, and they should therefore be provided with a security scheme that consists of more than an individual risk analysis,” said Human Rights Ombudsman Volmar Pérez.
But the official also stated that the responsibility to protect land rights leaders lies not only with the Ministry of Interior, but also with the local authorities.
For Carmen Palencia, however, the root problem is that the state institutions still need to be cleaned up, especially those involved in the land restitution process.
“They have changed the names of the institutions, but they are still the same officials who were coopted by a criminal network that they formed 15, 18 years ago,” she told BBC Mundo, referring to the paramilitary groups that were behind the largest displacements in her region.
“This criminal network remains in full force, and they are there waiting for leaders to provide them with an opportunity to murder them,” explained Palencia, who asked the Protection Unit to replace her body guards “because they did not generate confidence.”
In fact, Ruiz’s murder was attributed to the “Black Eagles” (Aguilas Negras), one of the iterations of the “Urabeños” criminal group, which is considered by many analysts to be one of the principal successors of the paramilitaries that officially demobilized in 2006.
For Palencia, the murder of leaders linked to the land restitution process has even greater implications because it demonstrates that paramilitaries are still active.
“Those responsible for the displacements, the ones that have the victims’ lands, obviously don’t want to give them up,” she told BBC Mundo.
But are they successful?
“In the case of Tierra y Vida—no. We are still here. Our members are the same. The people have not given up. They are standing strong,” she said.
“It’s because we are reclaiming what is ours,” she concluded.
Arturo Wallace, BBC Mundo, Bogotá