U.S. aids Colombia program restoring land titles

The new face of U.S. aid to Colombia is not a Black Hawk helicopter or a Green Beret trainer but a smiling 77-year-old peasant clutching the deed to a five-acre farm.

This month, Alfonso Mejia received title to the land he had been forced to flee in 2000 by members of a right-wing paramilitary group, just before they massacred 11 of his neighbors.

Mejia and hundreds of other residents expelled from their plots in the northern state of Bolivar were pawns in a struggle among armed groups of various political stripes vying for drug trafficking routes, local influence and land.

Mejia spent much of the decade moving from town to town, never daring to reclaim his property, which was illegally transferred to leaders of the paramilitary group by a corrupt notary. His limbo was shared by 3.2 million Colombians displaced by this country’s long-running civil conflict.

Now he’s finally come home, under a resettlement program kick-started by President Juan Manuel Santos, who assumed office in August. Mejia’s is one of 160,000 families the government plans to resettle over the next two years on about 5 million acres it has reclaimed from illegal land grabbers. The resettlement program will be financed partly by the U.S. anti-terrorism-and-drugs aid package known as Plan Colombia.


“I barely escaped with my life and my house remained abandoned all this time,” said Mejia, one of 95 residents who received deeds in a ceremony in Mampujan presided over by Vice President Angelino Garzon. “There is a lot of work to do. But I can finally plant my own manioc and yams.”

U.S. aid officials say their assistance is designed not only to resettle people such as Mejia but to help them make a go of it. He will get low-interest credit to fix up his house and plant crops, and the community will get money for infrastructure, clinics and schools. Mejia won’t be able to sell the property for 15 years.

Santos has made resettling Colombia’s displaced population, which is second only to Sudan’s in number, an imperative of his administration because of the social ills associated with it, including high crime, teenage pregnancy and unemployment rates.

Tim Rieser, foreign policy aide to U.S. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who has been critical of Colombia’s human rights record, said his boss welcomes Santos’ agenda.

“Sen. Leahy has long believed that addressing the underlying social and economic causes of the polarization and conflict that have persisted in Colombia is key to creating a peaceful and just society,” Rieser said.

The U.S. role in Santos’ land-allocation program reflects a significant shift in Plan Colombia from the days of the George W. Bush administration. From the plan’s inception in 2000 through 2007, 80% of the $7 billion funneled to this country went to the Colombian military. By 2012, the ratio of military aid to economic aid should roughly even out.

The land-titling program is no panacea, however. A major concern is that those returning to their land will be threatened anew by criminal bands that have arisen to take the place of the paramilitary groups and are involved in drug trafficking and land grabs.

For that reason, the U.S. Agency for International Development is plowing money and personnel into a dozen so-called Regional Coordination Centers to establish better police protection and rule of law.

The shift in focus comes as U.S. funding is declining because of budget pressures. Moreover, the plan all along called for Colombia to eventually take over much of the financial burden as the security situation here improved.

From more than $700 million in 2003, Plan Colombia aid may decline to $475 million in the current fiscal year. Colombians are gradually taking over funding of such functions as eradication of illegal coca crops. U.S. aid for drug eradication may dip to $150 million this year, down from $325 million in 2008, sources said.

Kraul is a special correspondent.