A Colombian court has ruled in favor of small land owners ordering that 23 plots of family land that were seized by paramilitaries be returned to their rightful owners.
The land has been under control of paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso Gomez, who was once a leader of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or the AUC — one of the biggest and more violent paramilitary groups in Colombia.
According to media reports, Mancuso and other paramilitary groups forced the families to sell their land at way below market prices under the selling conditions that, “if you don't sell your land, you sell your life.”
A court in Monteria Thursday ruled that land Mancuso stole from 23 families in the department of Cordoba finally be returned. The land restitution will return some 432 hectares of land to more than 100 people.
Many believe that since the paramilitary groups, otherwise known as death squads, were demobilized in 2006 under an accord with the government that land stolen by these groups were returned to their owners. In several instances around the country however, this was not the case.
Mancuso was extradited in 2008 for his involvement in the AUC, which has been found guilty of several human rights violations. Since then, the “empire” he established has been slowing crumbling, according to local media.
Families and small landowners have long been fighting for their right to retrieve their territory after the Supreme Court initially denied them that possibility. According to the top court at the time, the grievances did not show signs of forced displacement or dispossession, since the land was effectively sold to the paramilitaries.
Thursday's motion finally acknowledges that these families were also victims of the AUC.
Despite the apparent demobilization of paramilitaries almost ten years ago, these groups continue to operate in many parts of the country, according to eye witness reports and human rights groups. They are often referred to however as “neoparamilitary groups” or “bacrims.”
The continued existence of deathsquads threatens to put the current peace process in the country at risk, according to observers.
The Colombian government and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) have been undergoing peace negotiations in Havana, Cuba since 2012 in an attempt to put an end to over 50 years of armed conflict. The two sides are closer than ever to signing a final peace deal, with a tentative date set for March, 2016, however many believe that peace cannot be achieved if paramilitaries – who are not involved in the current peace process – continue to operate.