Colombia: The land struggle in Caucasia and the struggle between the ruling classes

Featured image: Nathalia Angarita. El País

We publish an unofficial translation of an article by Nueva Democracia from Colombia on the situation in Caucasia, a municipality in the sub-region of Bajo Cauca, Antioquia, at the north of the country.

Since March 24, the Caucasia region has been in the public eye, because the current largest land invasion is taking place there. It is estimated that there are more than 5,000 families which are occupying a land of 378 hectares. These are displaced families from Bajo Cauca and other parts of the country who have arrived, especially to informally work in mining, construction and peasant sectors. The families have built ranches and crops there, and have generated an entire incipient network of social life in that territory. Certainly, even before than this visibility on the media of the phenomenon, the occupation had already been happening in smaller numbers.

In the midst of many promises and political interests that sought to use the residents, the community began to organize, establishing the figure of a Community Board called Los Campanos as its spokesperson. The name given to the settlement was New Jerusalem.

Photo: Manuel Saldarriaga from El Colombiano.

The interests in dispute

Since 1998, the land in question was part of the assets of the drug trafficker Juan Gabriel Úsuga Noreña. In 2001, he was extradited to United States, but the lands remained being his property until 2003, when apparently he sold them to a gas and energy company called Promigas. In 2004, these lands were embargoed by the Prosecutor’s Office and today the lands are managed by the Society of Special Assets (Sociedad de Activos Especiales – SAE).

However, this embargo decision was appealed by Úsuga and the judge ruled in his favor, which has left the issue of legal ownership of this land in an ambiguous status, favorable to the interests of the drug trafficker. In this way, SAE was only the manager of the company “Finca Santa Helena SA”, the name given by Úsuga, but that does not authorize it as a private owner of the land. The person in charge of the liquidation of this company is Army Judith Escandón, who made the formal request to the authorities for the eviction.

Apparently, then, while the SAE serves as the formal manager, the drug trafficker has played his cards to actually keep control of the land. Escandón signed a lease contract for these lands with Faryd Vélez, owner of the Politécnico del Cauca CIAMDCO, who is the middleman of José Bayron Piedrahíta, alias “El Patrón de Caucasia”, one of the most powerful drug traffickers in Bajo Cauca, Antioquia. In addition to this, there would be another individual claiming the land about whom there is not much known, and the Public Companies of Medellín, under GEA [Translator’s note: Business Group Antioquia] control, also have interests in the area.

Today, the seizure of lands by the peasant masses has put the State between the hammer and the anvil: the interests of Petro, current administrator of the State, to keep a popular image to sustain his political capital, collide with the big landlord mafia of the region that advocates an immediate eviction of the peasants.

On May 27, 2024, Decree 0064 of the Mayor’s Office of Caucasia was issued, by which a series of measures were ordered to facilitate the eviction of 378 hectares of land in the urban area of the municipality. The restriction of the use of drones, use of parking lots on 200 meters around the hacienda and prohibition of carrying weapons by civilians in the municipality was ordered, to carry out the eviction. These forcible eviction has been opposed by some members of the government party, who advocate for an eviction agreed with the peasant masses.

The above expresses a struggle between, on the one hand, the mayor of Caucasia and the regional government of Antioquia, who have acted in favor of forcibly evicting and, on the other hand, the national government and the SAE, current administrator of the property, who maintain a position of avoiding the use of force. The government is trying to persuade the community to leave the land voluntarily, claiming that “occupation is not the way to access SAE assets” and that “we will initiate the process to recover the property” to offer alternatives for housing to the community. Both sectors in power, therefore, are against the fact that the peasant community has acquired its right to land through facts and seek to demobilize the community from its struggle, withdrawing its achievement and directing its demands through a more bureaucratic route, controllable by the State or simply repressing them in a blunt manner. Thus, although in the struggle between the national government and the local government we see two ways of addressing the problem, the result in the end would be the same: taking the land away from the masses.

People’s interest against the State

“I have the right to a decent roof that allows me to grow and live properly” reads one of the posters made by the families, in a demonstration that was held in protest to demand to Gustavo Petro guarantee the right they won by struggle.

The seizure of these lands by the community responds to an urgent need of democratize the ownership and use of lands in the country. The most updated data indicates that 14% of the owners control 80% of the territory and, in historical perspective, this reflects a process of land concentration and, with it, the deepening of the social backwardness generated by the control of the territorial resources of the nation by ruling agro-exporting classes, who impose their interests in the use and ownership of the land, ignoring the development needs of the country, which are only satisfied with the popular sovereignty of the territory.

The mass land occupations in the country or, the bigger visibility of this phenomenon, occurs in the midst of a particular political situation. The Gustavo Petro liberal government took advantage of popular discontent to catapult itself, and those popular masses to whom Petro promised changes, began to overwhelm the opportunist government, opening a space for make clearer the gap between the people’s interests of the agrarian revolution and the interests of the government of conservation and conciliation with the latifundium.

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