Colombia’s Ley de Víctimas

When violence came we had no choice but to leave everything behind and go to the city. We never imagined back then that displacement was going to be a trip with no end, with no point of arrival. We move, but we do not move on. Looking back, we have been in three “places” during this journey — the violence at home before we left, the misery of the slums after we fled, and the lack of sleep now that we have returned to what we used to call home. One never ceases to be “a displaced person”. It is a stigma, a way of life.

                                                                                 — A peasant father of four who fled from his rural community and later returned*


Last week Kasia shared facts about the Colombian conflict and the situation of the IDPs with you (click here if you haven’t read her post!).

The conflict’s history is long and very complex, with many factors contributing to its course. But I think it is valid to say that it is rooted deeply in inequality of land distribution. The hacienda system that was introduced by the Spanish Conquistadors created a system of land tenure that until today is the most unequal in Latin America, as indicated by the Gini coefficient of 0.86. Or in other terms: 1.15% of land owners owning 52.2 % of all arable land in the country. The conflict started when in the bipartisan system the interests of peasants and latifundistas clashed over Agrarian Reforms and agricultural labor rights. Over the course of the last six decades the land remained catalyst of the conflict and central resource for the illegal armed actors. It serves as stronghold of territorial presence, corridors for the trafficking of arms and drugs, is sold illegally to multinational companies and functions to launder money generated through narco-business. The millions of people that have been displaced from their lands (or killed) are the human cost of this struggle over territorial sovereignty and resources.

In order to face the disastrous humanitarian situation of the IDPs, the Colombian government has issued some of the most progressive legislation in the world. The Law 1448 of 2011 was considered a breakthrough in the victims’ rights to compensation. Known as the Ley de víctimas y restitución de tierras, it was a novelty because for the first time the existence of the conflict and its victims received official recognition by the government. They were defined as “those people who individually or collectively have suffered violation of their fundamental rights because of the internal armed conflict through acts that have occurred since January 1, 1985, provided that this violation is the result of violations of international humanitarian law or serious and flagrant violations of international standards of human rights.”·The law also allows displaced farmers to reclaim land that was stolen or obtained under threats by illegal armed groups since 1991. The first obvious gap of the law appears right here: Since the Paramilitaries officially do not exist anymore (after their disarmament was “completed” in 2006), thus the victims of recent paramilitary-successor groups are excluded from reparations. So much for theory.

Colombian history unfortunately is full of examples of great (mostly liberal) law initiatives concerning land rights and agrarian reforms that were later shut down through regulations by the following legislations, and in many cases made the case worse for the peasant farmers (landlords repeatedly expulsed peasants and share-renters from their land because they feared that they would apply for ownership titles under new legislation, e.g. after the initiation of law 200/1936).

There is a chance that these scenarios will repeat themselves in the near future. There has been a strong increase in threats and murders of community leaders that were campaigning for return. The state’s historical weakness in the protection of its citizens in the rural areas as well as in the implementation of laws and projects in the agricultural sector are an ongoing process. And as long as those who benefit from the present situation and from the resources of the state continue to form part of the power structure, the concentration of property ownership will continue to expand.

It also is an act of transitional justice in the middle of an ongoing violent conflict. To implement it in an environment like this and against the interests of powerful landowners and companies will be very challenging. On the other side, the victims should not have to wait for the end of a conflict that has already lasted more than 60 years already.

This was a brief introduction into the topic, one that is important for Soli Colombia’s work here. We will be further analyzing the gaps in the law and its implantation over the next months!

Saludos de Bogotá,


* Citation from: Médecins Sans Frontières (2006): “Living in Fear. Colombia’s Cycle of Violence”, p.7, online here!