YOMAIRA MENDOZA receives up to five death threats a day. They
come in the form of anonymous text messages. On the morning after
our first meeting, she told us of the latest one.
"I received a message saying they knew what I was doing, they
knew I had talked to you, that we had walked around the farm; and
did I think you would all be able to save me from my death?" she
I was visiting Colombia with a group of journalists at the
request of Christian Aid, in order to meet people who are trying to
return to the land from which they were removed during the
long-running civil conflict.
Mrs Mendoza is a leader of Caño Manso ("Calm Creek"), a
settlement in the Curvaradó river basin in the Colombian department
of Chocó. It is one of a number of "humanitarian zones" set up in
the region by groups of displaced people who are reclaiming their
land, on non-violent principles, and in accordance with
international humanitarian law.
Mrs Mendoza believes that the author of the death threats is
someone representing the business-owners who have taken over her
land. Her family was among the 3000 people exiled from their land
during "Operation Genesis" (also known as "Black December") - mass
displacements undertaken in the region by paramilitary groups set
loose by the Colombian government to combat insurgents during the
Peace Brigades International, an organisation that protects
human-rights defenders, estimates that between 1996 and 1997, in
Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó, about 3000 Afro-descent and mixed-race
people were forcibly displaced - about 70 per cent of the
population. Last year, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights
(IACHR) held the Colombian state responsible for not preventing the
DESPITE the brutality of the displacement - it was foreshadowed
by rumours that a notorious paramilitary unit known as
mochacabezas ("beheaders") were coming, and bodies were
seen floating down the river - leaders such as Mrs Mendoza have
fought to return to their land. Obstructing them are powerful
business interests (called "bad-faith occupiers") who, in the wake
of the displacement, seized the vacant land, transforming it into
plantations of palm oil and other crops.
Mrs Mendoza's attempts to recover her land have been met by
savage resistance. On 7 January 2007, her husband, José Eustoquio
Cifuentes Rojas, was killed in front of her: "Someone called out to
him at night, and they shot him, and he fell at my feet."
She is convinced that the killing was ordered by the occupant of
her parents' land, who had threatened them repeatedly, but nobody
has yet been brought to justice. The death threats started in
January, after she made a statement to the Office of the Attorney
General, which is investigating the murder.
"For [my husband], nothing can happen. He has already died. But
I would like to know why, and who was behind it. And also that
whoever did it pays for it."
Land restitution in Colombia is a dangerous business. In August,
the Office of the Attorney General reported that it was
investigating the murder of 56 leaders, claimants, or participants
in the process. Many of those I spoke to had seen people shot.
Nevertheless, the law is on the side of the displaced. In 2000,
the state awarded more than 100,000 hectares of land to the
Afro-Colombian communities in Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó as
"collective land-titles". But during the next decade, the land grab
by bad-faith occupants continued apace.
COLOMBIA LAND, an organisation that monitors the implementation
of restitution, points to "the collusion of the palm-oil companies;
corrupt government officials; the military; paramilitaries; and
individuals falsely representing the communities". "Cleansing" the
land of bad-faith occupiers is part of the plan for land
restitution published by the Constitutional Court in 2010, but it
is a slow process, hampered, some say, by a lack of political will.
Frustrated by the pace of justice, communities have taken matters
into their own hands. Caño Manso is one of eight humanitarian zones
established in the region. I visited three. Families live in close
proximity, in wooden structures. There is no running water, and a
generator provides electricity for a short while in the
But they were not joyless places: children ran around, football
matches were taking place. And there was a strong sense of
solidarity within and among the zones. These are determined
"I made the decision: I will either starve to death here or go
back to my land, even if they kill me there," says Enrique Petro, a
76-year-old man who donated five hectares of his private property
to establish the first humanitarian zone in Curvaradó. He has
received death threats after testifying in both Colombia and the
"She was born into the resistance," Leidis Tuiran Gonzalez says
of Daniella, her seven-year-old daughter, in Caño Manso. "She was
born in the womb fighting, and she came out kicking."
I was shown, with some pride, the remains of a house that once
belonged to Luis Felipe Molano Diaz, a bad-faith occupier who had
been subject to a state eviction order. It had been demolished by
the community, with their bare hands.
But the defiance was shadowed by grief. Mr Petro has lost two
children in the conflict, and has seen his land "all chopped up.
They destroyed it all." His wife is too afraid to return:
"Everything we have lost - our children, and everything else -
weighs too heavily on her heart."
THE humanitarian zones incorporate memorials to those who have
fallen. In Caño Manso, a small hut, painted blue and white, serves
as a "house of memories". It is inscribed with names and dates
marking murders. Hanging from the roof is a picture of Walberto
Hoyas, a 40-year-old father of two, who was assassinated in 2008 by
paramilitaries who invaded the zone.
Mrs Gonzalez witnessed the killing: "He was an important leader,
who knew a lot about what was happening in the region; so they
killed him to shut him up."
Memories were still raw in Costa Azul, a new zone set up in
2013. A banner at the entrance reads: "In memory of Manuel and
Samir Ruiz." In March 2012, Manuel, a community leader, and his
15-year-old son, Samir, travelled to the town of Mutata, lured by a
bogus text-message telling them to collect a prize.
Significantly, the message arrived the day before Mr Ruiz was
due to accompany a state mission to help identify bad-faith
occupiers in the region. During their return, by minibus, they were
abducted. Their bodies were found four days later, in the river.
They had been shot.
The ombudsman's office reported to the Constitutional Court that
the killings were committed by paramilitaries, and were "directly
linked" to the part Mr Ruiz played in the land-restitution
The day of their disappearance was "the blackest day we have
ever lived", James Ruiz, one of the surviving sons, says. He
describes the mocking phone-calls from the kidnappers, the
collusion between the police and the paramilitaries, and the token
attempts by the police to find the bodies.
Trinidad Ruiz, Manuel's wife, weeps, remembering the events: "I
felt like my world was ending. . . And I still have to carry it
Today, the Ruizes' family land remains occupied, despite
promises by the government to return it to them. "Each of the
children should receive their piece of land," Sandro Ruiz, the
eldest son, says. "A little piece of farmland for each of the
children - that is why my father was involved in the struggle."
MY MANY conversations revealed a familiar pattern: displacement
by paramilitaries between 1996 and 1997; a land-grab by business
groups; and, more recently, attempts to reclaim the land thwarted
by businessmen, in league with paramilitary groups.
The paramilitaries are the legacy of a 1968 law that allows the
military to arm civilians "when it was deemed appropriate, as in
the defence of private property". This had been a response to the
formation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in
1964, a guerrilla group set up to overthrow the government and
establish a Marxist regime.
But these deadly armed groups used the threat of insurgency as
camouflage. Politicians, trade unionists, human-rights leaders, and
community leaders have all been targeted in the past 25 years.
More than 200,000 people are estimated to have died in the
conflict, and 5.7 million have been internally displaced, and the
National Victims Unit has identified six million victims - 12 per
cent of the population - are eligible for reparation.
The Colombian government and the FARC began peace talks in
October 2012. The challenge, articulated throughout our trip by
Christian Aid's partner, the Inter-Church Justice and Peace
Commission (CIJP), is securing both peace and justice.
In 2005, a law was passed that offered much-reduced sentences to
demobilised paramilitaries who confessed their crimes. But Dr
Alirio Uribe, a human-rights lawyer, says that only 15 convictions
have been secured. Paramilitaries continue to terrorise their
"This has been a peace process between friends," he says. "It
was carried out by politicians who had strong connections to the
paramilitary structure. . . They were continuing to carry out new
displacements, new sexual violence."
He wants to see a "transitional justice" programme in place that
would involve not only the guerrillas and paramilitary groups, but
IN THE humanitarian zones, however, there is little faith that
the state will help them. "The government does not want to give us
back our territory," Miguel Hoyas, a brother of the murdered
Walberto, says. "We ask ourselves: where is the democracy for us
the poor people? Democracy does not exist."
In the absence of a strong state, it falls to organisations such
as the CIJP to agitate for victims' rights. Led by a Roman Catholic
priest, Fr Alberto Franco, the commission has, for more than 20
years, spoken out against human-rights violations, and fought to
secure justice for victims through the courts.
It is dangerous work. Members have been subject to death
threats, kidnapping, and attempted murder. The headquarters in
Bogota lies behind steel bars capped by barbed wire.
The commission has doggedly pursued the perpetrators of
atrocities. In 2012, it helped to secure the conviction of General
Rito Alejo del Rio, sentenced to 25 years in prison for his part in
the murder of Marino Lopez, a leader of the Cacarica community who
was decapitated by paramilitaries. The judge found that the general
had "met with, and protected, the AUC [paramilitary group] in the
"Today, Colombia has begun recognising victims," Marco
Velasquez, a community leader from Cacarica, says, "but it's not
due to the work of the government, but to the struggle, the fight,
of many human-rights organisations, and campesino
Progress is frustratingly slow. The organisation Human Rights
Watch reports that, as of July, just one family had returned to
live on their land as a result of rulings secured by the
government's restitution unit.
The deputy director of the national victims unit, Iris Marin, is
aware of the scale of the challenge facing her, given the threat
that reparation poses to "territorial economic powers in the
region". She urges caution: "We are not asking people to be quiet,
but they need to do so with adequate protection."
She denies that there is a lack of political will to secure
justice and protection for victims. The government has allocated
more than £16 billion to the implementation, over a
ten-year-period, of its Victims and Land Restitution Law.
Two months after our visit, news comes from Christian Aid that
Mrs Mendoza has been provided with a car and a bodyguard by the
National Protection Unit. She is still being threatened.
There is also news that Luis Felipe Molano, and two other
bad-faith occupiers, have been evicted - after four years of
campaigning by Christian Aid and its partners. It is a small but
significant victory for communities that are fighting for justice,
as well as peace.
Christian Aid Week 2014: Give people a future without fear,
runs from 11 to 17 May. For more details, resources, etc., visit www.caweek.org.
WITNESS FROM A
MAURICIO MORALES/CHRISTIAN AID
Credit: MAURICIO MORALES/CHRISTIAN AID
FR ALBERTO FRANCO
(right) travels in a car provided by the National
Protection Unit in Colombia. It provided his bodyguard, too.
For a man who survived a suspected assassination attempt last year
(his vehicle was shot at three times), he is remarkably plucky,
getting out of the car beside a military checkpoint to explain the
chequered history of the Colombian army, and later to take
photographs of banana plantations that, he believes, belong to
Born 54 years ago in a small
village in Caldas, he joined the Redemptorist order after being
inspired by a missionary who visited his school. He has worked
with CIJP for 20 years, speaking out against the abuse of power,
and helping some of the most marginalised people in the country to
secure their rights.
"The Church as an
institution has not done enough about the causes [of
displacement]," he says. "It has missed a prophetic attitude."
He takes his inspiration
from Archbishop Oscar Romero and Leonidas Eduardo Proaño
Villalba (an important figure in Ecuadorian liberation theology),
and he is fervent in his belief that peace in Colombia must be
accompanied by justice:
"A lot of [priests] work for peace, but a lot of people are not
making the connection to social justice," he says. "The Bible
connects the two: the theological problem is disconnection."