BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombia has "chronically failed" to protect people trying to reclaim stolen land, threatening to sabotage President Juan Manuel Santos' unprecedented efforts to end the Western Hemisphere's worst internal refugee problem, a major human rights organization says.
In a report presented Tuesday, Human Rights Watch said fewer than 1 per cent of criminal investigations into forced displacements have yielded convictions. And it counted at least 21 land claimant activists killed since 2008.
Land restoration is at the heart of Colombia's half-century-old internal conflict. Human Rights Watch said some 4.5 million people have been forced from their land over the past three decades, chiefly by far-right militias working for ranchers and agro-businessmen. Activists trying to reclaim stolen land are subject to persistent threats and selective assassinations.
Santos "is leading a serious and unprecedented effort to restore land, but the acts of violence and intimidation against displaced families who are trying to return home threaten to sabotage his initiative," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch-Americas.
"Unless Colombia can effectively prosecute abuses of land-claimant activists, these people will continue to be murdered, threatened and displaced for demanding what is theirs," he added in presenting the report: "The Risk of Returning Home."
Forced displacement has long been a strategy of Colombia's illegal armed groups – chiefly far-right militias in the service of ranchers and agro-businessmen – to obtain land illegally and exert territorial control. Colombians, mostly poor peasants, have been expelled from a total of 23,000 square miles (6 million hectares), roughly the size of Massachusetts and Maryland combined.
The 203-page report says successful prosecutions have been obtained in fewer than 1 percent of 17,000 criminal investigations of forced displacements by the chief prosecutor's office.
A 2012 land restitution law championed by Santos can have little success, the report says, without better protection of returnees by law enforcement: "The threats and attacks are entirely predictable given Colombia's chronic failure to deliver justice for both current and past abuses" against displaced people trying to reclaim stolen land.
Human Rights Watch said it documented more than 80 cases of land restitution claimants receiving death threats by phone, flyer or in person.
The report chiefly blames successor groups to far-right paramilitaries who officially demobilized during the 2002-2010 presidency of Alvaro Uribe, a conservative rancher. Many of their members simply regrouped into drug-trafficking, extorting mafias now called "emerging criminal bands."
Human Rights Watch also documented cases of intimidation and attacks against land restitution claimants by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country's main rebel group. The rebels are currently in peace negotiations in Cuba with the Santos government to end a conflict rooted in disputes between large landholders and peasant farmers.
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report from Lima, Peru