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APARTADO, Colombia — The sun was sitting low in the sky when Luis Izquierdo noticed the group of armed men walking onto his family’s farm in this town in Uraba, a region of northwestern Colombia that abuts the Caribbean Sea. In the fading daylight, he couldn’t see them clearly at first; he and his parents and siblings thought they might be soldiers looking for something to eat or drink.
Their guts started to clench, however, when the men came closer with their rifles shouldered. They realized it was more likely that the men belonged to a paramilitary group that had recently started to terrorize the area.
Though the encounter happened more than 25 years ago, in February 1993, Luis, who was 18 years old at the time, has a clear memory of what happened next. The men forced the family to lie face down on the floor inside their house. Three times they asked for his father to identify himself. Three times his father gave his name. “That’s him,” one of the gunmen said. “No, it’s not,” another one replied.
The debate didn’t last long. Another gunman, who seemed to be the leader of the group, walked toward Luis’ father and shot him in the back of the head. Luis’ father appeared to die instantly, but that didn’t stop the other men from taking turns shooting at his body. As they did so, they called him “guerrillero”—meaning a member of one of the left-wing guerrilla groups that had been present in Uraba since the 1970s.
Luis remembers that his body froze with fear, even as he cried tears of grief. From his position on the floor, he could see the men’s boots approach his father’s body. And he could see his father’s body jerk with the sound of every shot.
Eventually the men grew tired of shooting and decided to burn the house down. But they spared Luis, his five siblings and his mother, taking them outside and leaving them to watch as their home turned to ashes. It took the family hours to gather the strength to seek help at the farm of one of Luis’ uncles, several kilometers away.
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The men who killed Luis’ father belonged to one of the constellation of armed factions that took part in Colombia’s 52-year conflict. Named Los Tangueros, it formed in the late 1980s to confront the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, and other left-wing guerrilla insurgencies that kicked off the fighting in the 1960s, rebelling against a succession of both conservative and liberal governments.
At first, Los Tangueros and its sister groups collaborated with the Colombian armed forces. The government even passed laws allowing the army to arm and train some of the groups’ members. These right-wing armed groups became known as the paramilitaries, and in the late 1990s they united under a nationwide organization: the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC. But the paramilitaries eventually became so brutal that the government could not openly partner with them. The AUC was officially outlawed, though it was never a direct threat to the state.
The death of Luis’ father was just the beginning of his family’s troubles. A month later, Luis’ uncle was also killed by members of Los Tangueros who had determined that he, too, was a guerrillero. By that point, Luis and his immediate family had sought refuge in the city of Monteria, 40 miles east of their farm, just outside Uraba. They abandoned their land in Apartado and everything that was on it: their cattle, as well as their cassava and plantain crops.
In Monteria, a bustling city traversed by the Sinu River, Luis struggled to find his place. The city had one of the highest unemployment levels in the country, and there were no formal jobs at all for an uneducated man like him; he had stopped going to school when he was just 10 years old. He worked several informal jobs, including as a bricklayer and as a restaurant dishwasher, until he had saved enough money to buy a small motorcycle to use as a moto-taxi.
Many other people his age were in similar situations. Over time, Luis found solace in a group of young men who, just like him, had been displaced by paramilitaries from their land in Uraba and had little hope for the future.
About a decade after his arrival, though, the Colombian government took steps toward restoring peace in Uraba. In 2003, the AUC signed a demobilization agreement with the administration of then-President Alvaro Uribe. For the first time, Luis and his friends had reason to believe they might be able to return to their land one day, though they also knew they’d face plenty of hurdles. Many of their families had, like Luis’ family, abandoned their land entirely or sold it off for next to nothing as they fled the violence.
In 2011, they became even more optimistic. That year, Colombia’s Congress approved the Victims and Land Restitution Law, which aimed to return stolen and abandoned land to displaced Colombians and compensate victims of human rights violations committed during the conflict. In total, the fighting would leave more than 200,000 dead and displace around 6 million people.
At the time the land law came into effect, the government was already preparing for the post-conflict era, as officials were engaged in secret talks with the FARC that would culminate in a landmark peace deal signed in 2016. The land law established the Land Restitution Unit, or URT, to create a registry of stolen and abandoned land throughout Colombia, and to examine land restitution applications. Because Uraba was identified as one of the regions with the most stolen land, the URT set up one of its first and largest offices there.
After the AUC signed the demobilization agreement in 2003, Luis and his friends had reported the theft of their land to the attorney general’s office in Monteria. In 2013, a few years after the land law was passed, their cases were transferred to the URT.
Continue reading this story at: https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/27365/land-was-a-war-booty-colombia-confronts-a-legacy-of-mass-displacement.