02 March 2009

Garzal Update

The conciliation mentioned in this post is taking place tomorrow and Wednesday in Simití, which I and my teammate Chris will be accompanying. It's an important stage in the Garzal struggle, and the outcome could be triumphant or disastrous for the communities of Garzal and Nueva Esperanza.


The Garzal township, including the towns of Garzal and Nueva Esperanza, lie along the Magdalena river a few hours north of Barrancabermeja. Just to the west, the foothills of the San Lucas Mountains begin sloping upwards. The 136 families who live in Garzal and Nueva Esperanza make their living on the land, growing cacao and vegetables, raising cattle, and fishing.

During the 1980’s, the Barreto family lived and worked in Garzal processing coca into cocaine and transporting it for the notorious drug czar Pablo Escobar. Flights full of cocaine took off as frequently as 3 times per night from a small runway on the Barretos’ land, carrying drugs that had been brought down from the mountains. In 1989, the drug lab was raided and Mr. Barreto received 2 years in jail. Over the next few years the Barreto family all but abandoned their land in Garzal. Other landless families moved to the area and began working the land. Now, the Barretos are back and demand not only the land they used to live on, but the entirety of all the land in Garzal for their own.

Approximately half of the families in Garzal and Nueva Esperanza legally own their land based on a Colombian law that states that a person can take legal ownership after 5 years of living on and working the land. INCODER, the Colombian Institute for Rural Development, issued paper titles to 64 families a few years ago, but returned and took them back under the pretext of needing to make changes to the documents. The Barreto family had false titles drawn up which show that they own all of Garzal, and have used these papers to bring a legal suit against the community. They want to officially revoke the 64 titles that currently exist and have mired the case in court for years.

Update: In recent weeks, the conflict has escalated significantly. The Barretos brought a criminal case against ten members of the community, including arrest warrants against them, based on trumped-up charges as a measure to put pressure on the communities. The judge currently assigned to the case has called both parties—the communities and the Barreto family—together for a “conciliation.” This essentially implies that the communities will have a chance to address the terms of the sale of their land to the Barreto family. The communities do not want to sell at all, and will attend but will not negotiate. Despite having no legal claim to the land, the Barreto family has used their sizeable wealth and power to intimidate and bully the rightful owners of the land.

The situation is tense at present as the communities wait to see whether or not justice will be done. The two parties meet for the “conciliation” on Wednesday, 4 March. An INCODER representative plans to visit the communities in approximately 2 weeks to investigate facts on the ground. CPT will maintain a presence in the community during the first week of March, as the farmers consult with their lawyer, prepare for and attend the meeting with the Barreto family.

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