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A Colombian tribunal’s order to restore stolen land to 32 displaced families is a major step in carrying out the country’s land restitution law, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities should take vigorous measures to protect the beneficiaries of the ruling in Córdoba department, who have been subject to threats and intimidation.

The ruling on February 13, 2013, by a specialized land restitution tribunal, orders the restitution of approximately 164 hectares (405 acres) of land on the Santa Paula farm, outside the city of Montería, Córdoba. People linked to a national paramilitary coalition, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), and its founder, Carlos Castaño, forced out the 32 families and fraudulently acquired their land between 1999 and 2002, according to the ruling. The land restitution office created by the country’s 2011 Victims and Land Restitution Law had documented and filed the 32 claims with a restitution judge on September 27, 2012.

“This ruling restores victims’ ownership over land seized by one of Colombia’s most powerful paramilitary mafias, in a region where it continues to exercise influence,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “It is a milestone achievement for Colombia’s land restitution office and the victims who have courageously stepped forward to reclaim their land.”

The Victims and Land Restitution Law, enacted in June 2011, aims to return millions of hectares of abandoned and stolen land to internally displaced people who have fled their homes over the past two decades. The land restitution office established under the law has received more than 30,000 restitution claims, and specialized judges have issued 16 rulings ordering the return of approximately 500 hectares of land.

Mario Cuitiva, a beneficiary of the ruling who leads the displaced families asserting claims to the farm, has reported to justice officials and Human Rights Watch several threats and acts of intimidation against him, forcing him to flee Córdoba in November 2012.

Yolanda Izquierdo, who had earlier led displaced families’ efforts to reclaim the Santa Paula farm, was shot dead in Montería in January 2007. In 2011, a judge convicted Sor Teresa Gómez in absentia for Izquierdo’s murder. Gómez, who orchestrated the theft of the Santa Paula farm, is a former AUC member close to the Castaño family. She remains at large and has been identified by police authorities as an active member of the Urabeños paramilitary successor group, which inherited the AUC’s criminal operations in certain regions and carries out widespread abuses.

The Santa Paula farm has a total area of approximately 1,120 hectares, according to the Córdoba land restitution office. The land restitution office has reported filing restitution cases with the specialized judges on behalf of an additional 80 families reclaiming land in Santa Paula, who are awaiting rulings.

“To convert this ruling into a reality, the authorities need to fully protect families returning to Santa Paula to reclaim their property,” Vivanco said. “Beyond bodyguards and security force protection, this means holding accountable and locking up those responsible for stealing the land and abusing the leaders who have tried to get it back.”

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