On 28 May six men, some of them armed, arrived at a farm in the Bolívar province of Colombia, called Finca Alemania, asking for Julia Torres. A few days before, men dressed in black had been seen crossing the farm. In rural Colombia, such warning signs are taken very seriously. Julia’s husband, Rogelio Martinez, was murdered just three years ago by seven men, also dressed in black, who entered the farm. As a result of this and other assassinations, the government had set up patrols around the boundaries of the 553-hectare property. But with no warning, the patrols ceased on 23 May, apparently ‘on orders from above’. Julia now fears for her life and a campaign has been launched to write to President Juan Manuel Santos, seeking her protection.
Finca Alemania is no ordinary farm. It was established in 1997, under one of Colombia’s many attempts at land reform, and occupied by 52 families displaced by civil war. In the same year the first of the community leaders was killed, followed by others in 2000. The next year, the farm was occupied by the paramilitary group Héroes de los Montes de María and the families forced out. Over 600 cattle were stolen and crops and houses destroyed. The farm became a base for the paramilitaries from which they terrorised neighbouring communities. Their commander, Rodrigo Mercado Pelufo, now believed dead, is thought responsible for more than 3,000 disappearances in total. He acted with impunity not only because of his weapons but because he had local politicians in his pocket.
Then in 2005, under pressure from the international community, the government called for the disarming of all paramilitaries. The farm was abandoned and in 2006 the families began to go back. The inspirational character who headed the return was Rogelio Martinez. His death in 2010 galvanised the families into seeking international support, which appeared successful in fending off further assassinations and enabled them to grow crops and re-establish part of their cattle herd. However, the threats to Julia Torres show that Colombia’s land conflicts are far from resolved, and while paramilitaries may have disbanded they have often re-formed as violent gangs acting in the interests of big landowners, mining firms, drug barons or transnational companies.
Over the last twenty years, civil war has forced five million Colombians off their land. Peace negotiations between the Colombian government and FARC guerrillas began last October and reached the first point of agreement – on land reform – two days before the armed men arrived asked for Julia. The negotiations have to pass through several more stages before peace can be declared, but agreement on land reform is a crucial step. However, as with the other issues like political reintegration of the guerrillas and the drugs trade, implementation is going to be far from easy. Half of Colombia’s peasants don’t have title to their farms. Colombia has one of the world’s most unequal distributions of rural land. More than half of all farmland is owned by just one per cent of the population.
Finca Alemania is a small example of how land redistribution can be tackled: help landless peasants form co-operatives, provide grants and soft loans to buy potentially productive land, and out of their desperation may well emerge the drive to make the new farms a success. It also shows how the whole enterprise can still fall apart if, in remote rural provinces like Bolivar and neighbouring Sucre, the government in Bogota is unable or unwilling to confront big landowners who will murder people to get their way.
Before he was murdered Rogelio often spoke of the threats against him, and said if he ever left the farm it would be ‘feet first’. He said to Julia: ‘If they kill me, you mustn’t leave here. This is yours. Don’t let them take it.’ If he is to honour his agreement with the FARC, President Santos will have to ensure the safety of the new defenders of land reform, like Rogelio’s widow.
Original (edited) post and comments: London Review of Books