Justice Delayed is Justice Denied

Justice Delayed is Justice Denied
Misael Payares, a leader of Las Pavas negotiates with riot police during the eviction of 2009.

Misael Payares, a leader of Las Pavas negotiates with riot police during the eviction of 2009.

In Colombia the problem is not so much unjust laws, as it is the failure to apply existing laws and legislation in a timely manner. The communities Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) Colombia accompany are hugely affected by these failures, as is the entire country. In effect such delays result in the continued impunity for perpetrators of crimes, thereby undermining the rule of law’s ability to prevent future crimes. Victims are not only denied justice and compensation; they are also at risk of becoming repeat victims of repeat offenders. The situation in which the campesinos of Las Pavas, which CPT has been accompanying for over five years, is emblematic.

Pipio Dies Waiting for Justice

One campesino of Las Pavas who will never see justice is Rogelio Campos Gonzales, better known to his friends in the community as “Pipio”. Pipio was one of the very few members of the Las Pavas campesino community who remained on his land in the face of continual harassment by armed security personnel of palm oil company Aportes San Isidro (ASI). Most of his neighbours had given up and moved back to the nearby village of Buenos Aires. Pipio died on April 13th, 2014 after suffering a heart attack.

Pipio's cows responded to him even when he called them by name.

Pipio’s cows responded to him even when he called them by name.

The Emblematic Case of Las Pavas

The Las Pavas community has been the victim of forced displacement at least three times, and many of them, with the exception of Pipio and a half-dozen others who opted to stay on  their land, four times. The first displacement was due to threats by paramilitaries, the second because of threats by Jesus Emilio Escobar, uncle of the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, the third by  state security forces at the request of a palm oil consortium that had purchased the land title from Jesus Emilio Escobar. The fourth displacement came after the campesinos yet again returned to their land in 2009. The violent actions of palm oil company ASI’s private armed security guards have pushed most of the families off of their farms again. Nevertheless, despite ongoing threats, many are again returning.

The First Forced Displacement

The first forced displacement took place in 2003, when paramilitaries of the Bolivar Central Block, under the command of ‘Raúl’ (‘El Rápido’), threatened to kill them if they continued to cultivate the land. The campesinos, out of necessity, cultivated these lands. Emilio Escobar, who was the registered owner of these lands, abandoned them in 1993. The displaced campesinos chose not to formally lodge a complaint to government authorities. This decision was sensible given the national context in which this forced displacement took place: The Colombian government had a long history of collaboration with paramilitaries, so at the time victims of paramilitary crimes were more fearful of deadly reprisals than hopeful of governmental protection.

Newly planted African palm.

Newly planted African palm.

First Return, Followed by Second Forced Displacement

In 2004 and 2005, when things seemed to have calmed down, the campesinos once again began cultivating their land. This time they organized themselves, forming ASOCAB, the Campesino Association of Buenos Aires. This enabled them to get a loan which allowed them to plant cacao crops and trees for lumber in addition to their usual subsistence crops that provided their food security and a small surplus. In 2006 the Campesinos of ASOCAB formally applied for land titles under Colombia’s agrarian reform laws. The first step was to invite the Colombian Institute for Rural Development (INCODER) to come and verify that the title-holder –Jesús Emilio Escobar Fernández– was not, and for the last five years had not made any use of the land. Once this was established INCODER could declare eminent domain (declare the land to be abandoned, in which case the state takes ownership of land). As state administrator of abandoned and unused public lands INCODER could then grant the campesinos of ASOCAB titles to these lands, because they, by working it for five consecutive years, had gained the right of possession (informally known as “squatter’s rights”). INCODER came and did an inspection in June of 2006 confirming that the ASOCAB families were indeed occupying and farming the land thus qualifying for titles, and began the process for eminent domain. But later that same year new threats from Jesús Emilio Escobar resulted in the second forced displacement of the campesinos of ASOCAB, and they once again abandoned their homes, primary source of food, and livelihoods.

An official of INCODER performs a visual inspection to document the use of the land by the campesinos.

An official of INCODER performs a visual inspection to document the use of the land by the campesinos.

INCODER Clears the way for a Third Displacement

INCODER didn’t follow up on their own inspection; it never declared  eminent domain, much less grant land titles to the campesinos of ASOCAB. A year later Jesús Emilio Escobar illegally registered the sale and transfer of his land title to Labrador –a palm-oil consortium who immediately began to cut down and burn the forests, drain the wetlands, and plant palm trees on the land. The Registrar’s Office that recognized the transfer should not have done so because INCODER’s study clearly indicated that Emilio Escobar had abandoned these lands and had thereby lost any claim on them. This cleared the way for what would be the third forced displacement of the campesinos of ASOCAB.

Second Return, Followed by Third Forced Displacement

Seeing the destruction of the land caused by Labrador, ASOCAB campesinos, tired of waiting for INCODER to act, peacefully repossessed the land. Labrador filed a complaint alleging that the campesinos had invaded and were now illegally occupying its land. A local judge ordered the campesinos removed, and on July 14th, 2009, state security forces arrived to forcefully evict the campesinos. Ironically, through a cruel, twisted and perverse interpretation and application of the law, victims of two forced displacements were re-branded as the illegal invaders and occupiers of  land that was illegally registered to Labrador and displaced for a third time. After their eviction the campesinos once again regrouped in nearby Buenos Aires, where some of them had homes and family. But for the campesinos of ASOCAB, as for most campesinos in Colombia, resignation was not an option. Access to land is their only form of food security, so out of necessity they immediately began to plan for their return.

Finding Allies

They sought and gained the support of national and international allies: human rights defenders, media, embassies, legal advocates and non-governmental organizations. They also joined forces with other communities in similar situations. They took their struggle to the streets of  Bogotá, where they and their allies were joined by thousands of other campesinos. Their situation was now well known and clearly visible. The court of public opinion ruled in their favour. Things were looking up! A campaign was launched.

CPTer's demonstrate in front of the Body Shop in Toronto, Canada.

CPTer’s demonstrate in front of the Body Shop in Toronto, Canada.

A successful boycott against The Body Shop, ostensibly a fairtrade organic cosmetic retailer in North America and Europe. At the time The Body Shop purchased its palm oil used for cosmetics from Daabon Organics –a member of the Labrador palm oil consortium.  Eventually public demonstrations at The Body Shop stores, created negative publicity that led them to stop buying palm oil from  Daabon Organics. Daabon, also branding itself as a fair trade, environmentally friendly, socially responsible and organic business,  eventually decided to withdraw from Labrador, leaving ASI as the sole investor in Las Pavas. In addition to that, ASOCAB’s persistent but nonviolent resistance won them the  prestigious National Peace Prize –no small feat considering that there were over 80 contenders. The judges awarding the prize are well-known and highly esteemed individuals and it’s endorsed by the United Nations as well as major national newspaper, radio and television networks.

Governmental Recognition and Support

The court of public opinion’s ruling forced the Colombian government to act. Colombia’s Constitutional Court, the highest court in the land, ordered INCODER to reopen and proceed with the eminent domain declaration so that titles could be granted to the campesinos. The Unidad de Víctimas –a government institution responsible for coordinating assistance, care and reparations (including land restitution),  as well as immediate delivery of humanitarian aid to victims– recognized the campesinos of ASOCAB as victims entitled to assistance.

The third return, April 2011.

The third return, April 2011.

The Third Return

Bolstered by all this support the campesinos of ASOCAB and their allies felt that there was no reason to further delay their return to Las Pavas. Planting season was rapidly approaching! On April 4th, 2011, they returned to their land, and once again began to plant crops, to put up fences and build homes, albeit amidst  ASI’s ongoing palm oil operation.

The State Giveth and the State Taketh Away

However, justice was to be delayed yet again. At the behest of ASI, Miriam Martínez, a regional State Prosecutor, declared that the first displacement of the campesinos by paramilitaries had actually never taken place; that it was all just a fabrication invented by the leaders of ASOCAB, who had deceived both their national and international allies and the state in order to obtain titles to land that they had illegally invaded. Like many victims of forced displacement who seek land restitution here in Colombia, ASOCAB found itself in a new legal battle against the state, now having to first reclaim their status as victims before they could proceed with reclaiming their land. (This is not uncommon in Colombia. Many victims of forced displacement are assassinated because they seek land restitution!)

Farmers demonstrate at Parque Bolivar, Bogotá. The sign reads, "Now, before asking for the restitution of land, we have to ask for the restitution of our condition as victims."

Farmers demonstrate at Parque Bolivar, Bogotá. The sign reads, “Now, before asking for the restitution of land, we have to ask for the restitution of our condition as victims.”

The community challenged this ruling and with the help of their allies were able to have the National State Prosecutor, Viviane Morales look into the case. Morales visited Buenos Aires where she met with ASOCAB and other stakeholders. Morales reopening the investigation cast doubt into the regional Prosecutor’s original declarations. However, within months of her launching the investigation, and before she had reached a conclusion, Viviane Morales was removed from office, ostensibly due to irregularities in her nomination. The case was then transferred to the State Prosecutor’s Human Rights office where it remains, unresolved.

INCODER, in compliance with orders from the Constitutional Court, declared  eminent domain in favour of the campesinos. But ASI found a new way to delay and forestall the implementation of that ruling by appealing it to the Consejo del Estado –the highest court an appeal to a government administrative ruling can be heard.  Because of the backlog such an  appeal may not be heard for many years, and under Colombian law ASI could legally continue to occupy the land in question until their appeal is heard. Meanwhile INCODER would be also be prevented from granting titles to the campesinos of ASOCAB. ASI is appealing INCODER’s ruling based on the initial regional State Prosecutor’s investigation, which remains in effect until the new investigation that was launched reaches a conclusion.  Justice is once again delayed, and thereby denied.

A farmer looks over the 50 plantain trees and 200 cassava plants destroyed by Aportes San Isidro guards.

A farmer looks over the 50 plantain trees and 200 cassava plants destroyed by Aportes San Isidro guards.

ASI does not recognize that campesinos were ever displaced from this land, and therefore do not recognize their  legal claim to it. They further claim that as legitimate owners and victims of a land invasion they have a right to actively resist this illegal occupation.

The Fourth Displacement

Within two years of their most recent return in April of 2011 all but five or six ASOCAB families were once again forcefully displaced from their land, returning to Buenos Aires, now for the fourth time. Despite the favourable rulings by high courts and several government institutions, instead of justice the campesinos of ASOCAB were left to suffer continual and brutal persecution by the private armed security personnel of ASI: their fences repeatedly cut, their crops destroyed, their houses torn or burnt down, members of their community threatened, harassed and assaulted. The company erected and guarded a locked gate on a public road severely limiting the campesinos right to transport goods and people using their own vehicles such as the community tractor, motorcycles and horse. The tires of vehicles left outside of the gate were slashed, and a tire of the community tractor was shot out while bringing in a load of roofing materials.

A molotov cocktail used to burn down a house.

A molotov cocktail used to burn down a house.

ASOCAB and its allies have denounced each and every instance of these atrocities to the authorities, but no one has ever been held accountable. Local authorities use the ambiguity of the land ownership as an excuse for doing nothing. Although company personnel have occasionally complied with orders to remove the locked gate, a number of prefabricated replacement gates in plain view indicate their intention to immediately replace it. Experience has taught them that there will be no criminal charges laid against them, and that any laws protecting the rights of these campesinos will never be enforced. Most of the campesinos, tired of planting crops, putting up fences and building houses only to see them destroyed left once again for Buenos Aires. Of the few who remained, including Pipio, most had no place in Buenos Aires to return to. However over the last couple of years, out of necessity and little change in conditions, families once again began returning to their land. But for the most part the campesinos of ASOCAB remain the victims of a what in effect constitutes a fourth forced displacement, this time because of relentless persecution by the private security guards of ASI. Ironically this fourth displacement was allowed to take place with the full knowledge and often the tacit consent of local and national state authorities and institutions charged with the responsibility of protecting them as officially recognized victims.

A New Light at the End of the Tunnel

There is, however, a new cause for hope. In late September 2015 the Colombian Constitutional Court made another ruling that favours communities like Las Pavas. This ruling overturned an old agrarian law that allowed former title-holders like ASI to remain on the land while they appealed INCODER’s decision to the State Council. This new ruling means there is nothing standing in INCODER’s way to evict ASI from the land, grant titles to the campesinos of ASOCAB and protect them from any further harassment from ASI.

Women and children of Las Pavas walk through the gate - now removed -  under the watchful eye of Aportes San Isidro guards.

Women and children of Las Pavas walk through the gate – now removed – under the watchful eye of Aportes San Isidro guards.

Justice at Last?

When the local judge ruled in favour of ASI in 2009 state security forces were very quick to forcefully remove the campesinos from this land. After their long and arduous struggle can the campesinos of ASOCAB now safely assume that the Colombian judicial system will be as quick to do them justice? Or will judicial expediency continue to occur only when and if it favours the rich and powerful?
Those who survive Pipio are left with questions: ‘If ASI had not been allowed to impede vehicular access to the community by installing a guarded gate would it have been possible to get Pipio to a hospital in a timely manner?’ and, ‘Will we ever see justice done and receive titles to our land and be left to work it in peace? Or will we, like Pipio, die waiting?’