PBI: Welcome to the PBI Coffee Break. Today we’ve invited Argemiro Lara, member of MOVICE, leader of a land restitution process in Sucre, human rights defender and president of the Association of Farmers of Finca La Europa. Argemiro, can you tell us about the restitution process for the community in Finca La Europa, and about the main obstacles facing the community as it tries to recover its lands?
Argemiro Lara: The process in Finca La Europa is taking place in the region of Montes de Maria. In 1953 the farm was bought by local farmers and put under the management of a tobacco growers’ union which the farmers belonged to, and then in 1969 when the INCORA was created by Law 135, it formally adjudicated the land to 114 families, and the families started growing yucca, yam, tobacco, sesame, beans…
The farm covers an area of 1324 hectares. Until the 1990s we lived peacefully, producing our crops, but then the illegal armed groups started appearing and the violence against the farmers began, the persecution and the targeted assassinations, especially of the leaders.
Between 1990 and 2008 they killed 15 of my colleagues, some of whom were activists, and they disappeared six people. The farmers were forced to leave because of the incursions by paramilitaries and guerrillas.
PBI: You started returning in 2008. How has the process been until now, and what obstacles is the community at the farm facing?
Argemiro: When we came back we found that the land had fallen into the hands of a company, which had bought some titles from the former owners. We went to the INCODER and asked how it was possible that they had let others sell land that was ours.
Towards the end of 2008, on 13 December, my colleague Alex Miguel Correa was murdered, he was a member of the Management Board that we had set up. In 2012, a 10 year old girl from La Europa was disappeared and she remains missing to this day, and in 2014 they tried to kill Andres Manuel Narvaez. All of this has been happening alongside our process with the Land Restitution Unit: in 2013 we applied for the land to be given back to us, the Land Unit passed the case onto a judge, the judge passed it to the Specialist Land Restitution Tribunal in Cartagena. It stayed in the Land Unit for a year, it spent another year in the Sincelejo Court, and in 2015 it made it to the Tribunal, but there’s been absolutely no response yet.
And now we’re receiving threat after threat. On 12 April 2016 we got some text messages telling us that we had 48 hours to leave the land. Then on 1 August there were phone calls from people telling me that they were going to let me get killed on the land; on the 18th they called again; in September a man phoned me, he said that he was Comandante Juancho himself, the leader of the Carmen del Bolivar Self-Defence Forces, and was ordering me to come to a meeting with him, and so I asked him: “but, why do you want a meeting?” He said: “No, what’s happening is that I know you are a leader in the area and I need to coordinate with you so that you can tell me who the bad people are in Ovejas municipality, so we can do some cleaning up”. And I said to him: “The truth is that I don’t support those kinds of things because here in Finca La Europa we have the Marine Infantry, we have the Police here and backing us up, and we will never support the illegal armed groups” and I hung up.
On 12 October, a woman with an Antioquian accent called me and said: “Son of a bitch you’re going to get yourself killed over the land” and then hung up. I reported the incident to the Public Prosecutor’s Office and asked that they monitor the situation in Finca La Europa more closely. On 17 October I went to a meeting, we had created a Farmers Coordination, and we were coordinating with farmers in the region to work on reconstructing the social fabric, and on the issue of the Farmers Reservation. We had a meeting in Sincelejo to coordinate our activities. When I got to a neighbourhood in Sincelejo called Camilo Torres, two men on a motorcycle came near us. I’m with my body guard, and he says to me “Boss, heads up those guys look suspicious”, and when they drove by again they stopped, got off and pulled out a handgun and aimed at us, but the bodyguard was ready and shot the man twice, he died a few hours later in a Sincelejo clinic.
PBI: Recently we’ve been seeing many murders, attacks and threats against community leaders and human rights defenders – how do you see the attempt against you in the broader context of what is happening in the country?
Argemiro: There is a connection. We played an active part in the plebiscite on 2 October, we created action committees, educational initiatives and it was after that when the threats began. I think there is a link and that the enemies of peace are against those who want a peaceful life in the country.
PBI: What is your evaluation of the protection given by the Colombian State to defenders, and social and community leaders in rural areas? What action do you hope to see from the State to ensure the protection of social leaders in rural areas?
Argemiro: We’ve asked the Colombian State, both the Ministry of Interior and the UNP (National Protection Unit), to give us collective measures because it isn’t just us leaders who are at risk, the farmers are too. But the Government doesn’t have a law that says: “give protection to this population group”. So it just provides protection to the leaders, but when they only give protection to us leaders, that’s when these kinds of things happen.
They gave me and Andres collective protection; but then Andres was shot four times and the year later they took away his protection and they took my car away and left me with just one bodyguard, and now they’re going to reinstate the measures because someone just tried to kill me. So they give you measures if you manage to survive, but otherwise they cut you off, expose you to the contract killers which are operating in Sucre. Because in Sucre now there aren’t armed groups as such, yes there’s the Bacrim, those groups exist; but I insist that the landowners who came before, who are now called businessmen or multinationals, continue to use the same methods, against people who don’t think like they do, they pay people to kill the leaders and that’s what they are doing in Sucre department.
PBI: What can the international community do to help the process?
Argemiro: The international community has played an important role in Colombia in this conflict during the last few years, and it has prevented more massacres from taking place in the country. For Finca La Europa, the international community can urge the Government to keep the process moving forward, which is stuck in the Cartagena Specialist Land Tribunal at the moment, it is being stalled in the hope that people despair and give up the fight, so that they can keep the land.
PBI: What can be done to improve the situation?
Argemiro: I think that unless the land issue is resolved, the community will always be at risk, and that is why we need the Tribunal’s decision in order to protect the lives of the people of La Europa, because they are in danger.
We also need collective protection measures for the whole community to be genuinely put into place. We don’t ask for much; we’re asking for the road to be improved because it is dangerous, full of pot holes and the car has to drive very slowly; in the entrance, they should put a camera, to identify the contract killers who are coming by and circling around the farm; they should put alarms in the community, so that the farmers can defend themselves and warn the authorities. We have asked for these collective measures, we’re not asking for every farmer to have a body guard, no; we are asking for the roads to be improved, for the communication system to be improved because it is really very bad. But the land issue must be resolved.
PBI: Do you think that the Peace Agreement will make it possible for the restitution problem to be resolved?
Argemiro: I think that the Tribunal should rule in our favour. We have that hope. Our only hope is that the Peace Agreement resolves this problem, both in terms of illegal land occupancy and the problem of insecurity, these are the issues which are affecting us the most at the moment.
PBI: Thanks very much for your time.