Colombia: The Rumble Over Real Estate


April 9, 2013: The peace talks with FARC continue in Cuba, but few details about the process are being leaked. It is known that one of the key issues has been land. This is a dispute that goes back over a century in Colombia. One of the major demands FARC has made is for taking large amounts of land from family and corporate operations and distributing it among millions of landless rural people. It’s this sort of idea that got FARC going fifty years ago. The “land redistribution” plan has some serious problems. It tends to perpetuate poverty among rural populations, who need education and access to better jobs and honest government more than free land. Corruption and rural gangsters make it difficult for small farmers to survive and that’s a major problem throughout the world, and especially in Colombia.

Two years ago the government agreed to a deal whereby some two million hectares (5 million acres) of land stolen (through fraud, intimidation, or outright theft) over the last two decades would be returned, along with buildings and other property, to some 430,000 families. But many of those who stole the land are willing to use a lot of lawyers, and hired guns, to avoid having to return what they took by force (or bought from those who did). This plan is getting a lot of land claimants killed out in the still lawless rural areas.

This all began seven years ago, as FARC and drug gangs were driven from large areas along the borders (that being the best place to grow coca and export the refined cocaine to overseas markets). As the former FARC territory again came under government control the government found it had inherited a lot of old social and economic problems. These were suspended by the decades of FARC and drug gang rule, and that in turn created some new problems. Now the newly liberated populations are free to vote, demonstrate, and protest, and many had legitimate reasons to do so. A lot of the problems had to do with real estate. Indian tribes wanted their land rights back, farmers wanted title to the land they had long worked, business owners want their property (which owners had to leave behind when they fled to escape getting killed by the rebels or gangs) back. The government is having a hard time sorting all this out, especially while under pressure to get legitimate economic activity going in what was long lawless "bandit territory."

As the leftist rebels become less of a problem, the drug gangs loom larger as a source of crime. Although some drug operations have been pushed out of the country, many drug gangs remain and are continuing to fight the police and each other for control of rural and urban territory needed to facilitate their drug operations (production and smuggling it out of the country). Meanwhile, FARC is trying to distance itself from its long association with the drug gangs. While FARC claims to have no connection with the cocaine trade are hard to accept, it is true that because of years of pressure from the military FARC has been forced to abandon many lucrative arrangements (mainly to provide security) with the drug gangs.

April 6, 2013: In the southwest security forces briefly suspended operations against FARC to allow FARC leader Pablo Catatumbo to leave the country for Cuba. There Catatumbo will join the peace talks with the government. Catatumbo is one of the seven FARC leaders who control the organization, which still has about 8,000 armed members and is still deep into the cocaine trade.

March 28, 2013: A senior ELN leader was killed in the southwest when the group of leftist rebels he was with was attacked by soldiers. The ELN is the smaller (about 2,000 armed members) of the two major rebel organizations in Colombia. FARC is about four times larger and, unlike ELN, is actively engaged with the government in an attempt to find a mutually agreeable way to end the decades of violence. 

March 18, 2013: Canada has agreed to sell military equipment to Colombia. This came in the wake of a new trade agreement between the two countries. In the past Canada has refused to sell military equipment because much of the violence in Colombia was politically unacceptable in Canada.  


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