Before the United States elects a new president on November 8, a potentially more consequential vote will take place in the Americas. On October 2, Colombians will say yes or no to a peace agreement between the government and the FARC, an insurgent group whose roots stretch back decades, to the very beginning of the Cold War. It’s notoriously difficult to tally the number of the war’s victims, especially those who lived in the countryside, but this 2013 report by Colombia’s Historical Memory Group gives an idea of the scope of the brutality: hundreds of thousands dead, tens of thousands disappeared, serial massacres and systemic torture.
Perhaps the number that most challenges the imagination, especially when contrasted with the generally favorable coverage Colombia gets in the US press, relates to those driven from their homes and communities; 5.7 million people have been displaced over the last half-century, about 15 percent of Colombia’s total population. According to the report cited above, between 1985 and 2012—a period marked by increasing US involvement in the Colombian conflict, capped by Bill Clinton’s multibillion-dollar aid program, Plan Colombia—26 individuals every hour were displaced. Back in 1982, Gabriel García Márquez, in accepting his Nobel Prize for Literature, tried to convey the magnitude of “political disappearances” in Latin America to his Swedish hosts by invoking the Rapture: “Those missing because of repression number nearly one hundred and twenty thousand, which is as if no one could account for all the inhabitants of Uppsala.”
And here’s the Historical Memory Group, taking a page from García Márquez: “To understand the magnitude of forced displacement, it is enough to imagine an exodus of all the residents of cities such as Medellín and Cali.”
Some of this displacement was directly related to war, and can be blamed on the military and the FARC. But much of it has to do with the fact that the US-bankrolled counterinsurgency was cover for a massive paramilitary land grab. As the anthropologist Winifred Tate put it:
The Colombian countryside has experienced what is called ‘the reverse agrarian reform.’ Beginning in the 1980s, drug traffickers, many of whom became paramilitary leaders, began buying up land and using violence and threats to push people off the land. Victims reported being told, I’ll buy from you or your widow. Land was used to launder money and to buy their way into the respect of the elite. Much of this land has been taken over, directly or through third-party sales, by regional elites, agribusiness involved in teak, oil palm, or banana production, or the growing extractive industries. According to one estimate, as many as 6 million hectares of land changed hands. Nobody really knows—in many places, paramilitary groups burned land registries, while in other regions these registries are inaccurate, or the files lost or not maintained. At present, USAID reports that “in rural areas, less than 1% of the population owns more than half Colombia’s best land.”