MORROA, Colombia — Caught in the crossfire between far-right militias and leftist rebels, 40 families abandoned the farm they shared in the foothills of Colombia's Montes de Maria range. The land repeatedly switched hands before being sold to a businessman.
Nearly a decade later, a court in April returned the 770-acre (310-hectare) farm, called Pechilin, to the families without paying the businessman a penny. But none have gone back to raise cattle and cultivate cassava, corn and tobacco.
"Who is going to guarantee our security?" says Donaldo Ruiz, a tall, burly 54-year-old who does not look like the sort of man who scares easily.
Illegal armed groups believed to be largely in the hire of owners of ill-gotten land are threatening a bold, unprecedented effort by President Juan Manuel Santos' government to return vast expanses of land stolen from poor farmers. They've assassinated at least 55 land reform activists since 2008, human rights groups say.
Santos' land restitution campaign is considered central to peace talks being held in Cuba with Colombia's main leftist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC. It addresses their central demand for a radical agrarian reform that fundamentally changes Colombia's countryside, so a failure by the government to return the land could undermine what many consider the best shot ever at ending Colombia's half-century-long internal conflict.
Tens of thousands of parcels across rural Colombia, equal in size to the U.S. state of New Jersey by conservative estimates, were stolen by illegal armed groups or abandoned over the past quarter century, often with the collusion of corrupt local authorities or judges.
After Santos took office in 2010, he made returning the land to its rightful owners a hallmark of his presidency.
Pedro Geney, a land reform activist in the regional capital of Sincelejo, said criminal gangs that grew out of the far-right militias known as paramilitaries have created "an anti-restitution army" to resist the return of the lands.
"We are waiting for (the government) to tell us what the security model will be, because it certainly can't be a car and two bodyguards for each person who returns," Geney said.
The killers' latest confirmed victim: Ivan Dario Restrepo, a 44-year-old activist slain May 4 in his home in Bello, Antioquia, also in Colombia's northwest.
Since the paramilitaries emerged in the 1980s, Colombia's land has become concentrated in fewer hands. Drug traffickers laundered profits by buying up vast cattle ranches, and agribusinesses thrived often through shady dealings and land theft.
According to the government, 60 percent of the country's arable land was in the hands of just 14,000 owners in 2011, while 2.5 million families held less than 20 percent.
Colombia's peace commissioner, Sergio Jaramillo, told The Associated Press that authorities can reverse the concentration by "taking some of the best land in the country from those who acquired it illegally and distributing it to those who need it."
On May 26, in Cuba, negotiators from the government and the FARC reached a 20-page agreement, whose details are confidential.
Jaramillo, however, said the agreement is "very precise" about what happens in the countryside if a final peace pact is reached and the estimated 8,000 FARC fighters put down their weapons.
Farmers will get land titles, bank loans, technical assistance, help with irrigation systems and road and school improvements, and the government will conduct a complete inventory of rural lands to ferret out fraud, Jaramillo said. A property tax plan also will be imposed to discourage land from lying fallow, he said. Land reform has always been the peasant-based FARC's central demand.
Jaramillo added that after a peace treaty, the criminals who murder land restitution campaigners will no longer enjoy near impunity because the forces of law and order will have new allies: demobilized FARC fighters and some sort of international supervision.
But negotiators on both sides have made clear that nothing in the peace pact will be agreed upon until the whole deal is finalized, meaning the land deal depends on the signing of the peace pact.