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Continued: Murderous gangs are fearsome obstacle to Colombia's long-elusive goal of land reform

  • Article by: FRANK BAJAK , Associated Press
  • Last update: June 16, 2013 - 5:15 PM

Negotiators resumed talks last week focusing on the issue of rebel leaders' participation in politics. Later on the agenda: weaning the rebels off cocaine trafficking as a funding source.

On land reform, the challenges remain immense.

An estimated 5.7 million people in Colombia have been forced from their homes over the past quarter century, according to CODHES, a non-governmental group that tracks them. The country has long been home to the Western Hemisphere's highest number of internally displaced people.

Land expert Yamile Salinas of the non-governmental group Indepaz says less than half of 1 percent of the estimated 7,800 square miles (2 million hectares) that the government says was stolen or cleared have been ordered returned by court rulings over the past two years. In those rulings, 57 percent of the dispossessions were blamed on paramilitaries.

According to the Agriculture Ministry, of the 35,846 requests it has received nationwide for land restitution, at least one in three is blamed on the rebels, although FARC leaders have vehemently denied stealing land. Another third were blamed on paramilitaries, the rest on unspecified criminal bands.

The government says the FARC stole huge expanses from the state, mostly in remote regions where it held sway.

In Sucre state where Pechilin sits, the thieves were overwhelmingly paramilitaries, and just 20 of more than 1,650 restitution requests have been addressed, officials say.

The Montes de Maria region has long been a key corridor for cocaine traffickers smuggling the U.S.-bound drug by boat along the Gulf of Morrosquillo on Colombia's northern coast near Panama.

Ranchers and drug traffickers first formed the paramilitaries in the 1980s to counter rebel kidnapping and extortion. The Montes de Maria region bore Colombia's most horrific bloodletting from 1996-2001 as far-right militias turned on civilians they suspected of being rebel sympathizers while, along with the military, they tried to expel FARC from the region.

In all, illegal right-wing militias killed 354 people in 42 massacres, according to the Center for Historical Memory, a state-funded public archives project.

Pechilin was caught in the crossfire, and most of its residents fled to Morroa, a nearby town of unpaved red-clay streets and mud-wall homes with intermittent electricity and water services.

Nellis Payares and her mother, Doris, shuddered at the thought of returning to Pechilin, even though they would qualify for government credits to rebuild and replant there.

"After what happened there, it's tough," said Payares, 21.

Her 68-year-old father, Luis, was hacked to death with machetes in September 2005 while trying to prevent the theft of his cows. No one ever determined the killers' identities.

Payares, her mother and her seven siblings had by then already fled the farm. She said she remembered diving under a bed as a child when gunfire broke out nearby.

A smile brightened Payares' face, though, when she imagined buying 10 cows and having them roam the old farm with her children. Her family was cooped up in her mother's cluster of three dirt-floor shacks in Morroa, which have no running water nor electricity.

None of Pechilin's 40 families have moved back to Pechilin even though all have deeds to their pieces of the farm.

"We are not going to fix this overnight," said Elina Rivero, a top official in the state land restitution office. "It's not that easy to erase the truly tragic history these families may have lived."

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