BOGOTA (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of people displaced from their land during five decades of civil war in Colombia could lose out unless the government returns the property fairly and jails those responsible for driving families from their homes, an Amnesty International official says.
Nearly 6 million people have been displaced by right-wing paramilitary groups and Marxist rebels since hostilities began in 1964. Only those who can prove ownership are eligible to get land returned under a three-year-old restitution law.
But bureaucratic red tape and intimidation threaten to deprive claimants, who hope to wrest property back under the Victims and Land Restitution Law, of a fresh start, Amnesty’s Esteban Beltran told Reuters on Wednesday.
“A law that was very important and positive when it passed is now running the risk of failing,” Madrid-based Beltran said during a visit to Colombia to promote the group’s two-year investigation into land returns.
Fewer than 3,000 people have returned to their properties and only 800 perpetrators have been prosecuted under the 2011 law, he said, adding that violence against claimants is common.
Some 35 murders are under investigation. The government estimates 8 million hectares (19.7 million acres) were stolen during the conflict.
“Land restitution is advancing. Like any process it’s faced obstacles that have been overcome by the entities responsible,” Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo said in a statement.
More than 84,000 hectares have been returned to victims, who have received over 55 billion pesos ($25.4 million) in aid, he said.
Colombia must address the problems urgently, Beltran said, because the law only allows land reclamation for another seven years. Amnesty has compiled 40 recommendations and is meeting with government agencies to discuss them.
Many claimants do not have deeds and cannot prove ownership. Others, living in poverty, cannot take time off work to complete the process.
Some properties are inaccessible because they are in zones still too dangerous for owners to return. Also, some plots were bought by corporations, many involved in mining or agriculture, in what officials say they had thought were legal purchases.
“Colombian and foreign businesses cannot benefit from a process where they have illegally acquired land,” Beltran said.
“Millions of people will be limbo about their right to truth, justice, reparations and without land to start a new life,” Beltran said.
The government and Marxist FARC rebels have been negotiating a peace accord, which includes land reform.
Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta and Julia Symmes Cobb. Editing by Andre Grenon, Helen Murphy and Peter Galloway