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Killing haunts Colombia's peace plan

A slain activist was trying to regain families' land seized a decade ago by right-wing paramilitary groups.

February 08, 2007|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

MONTERIA, COLOMBIA — Yolanda Izquierdo received death threats, but her pleas for police protection went unanswered.

When she was killed last week, it delivered a devastating blow to Colombia's tortured peace process.

Izquierdo, 44, was gunned down in daylight on the patio of her concrete-block house in the Mi Ranchito barrio in this torrid cattle-country town 300 miles northwest of the capital, Bogota. She was leading a group of 800 displaced families trying to regain possession of land seized a decade ago by right-wing paramilitary groups.

No arrests have been made in her slaying, but human rights advocates think she was targeted by militia leaders to send a message to displaced Colombians to give up their fight for reparations.

"Fighting the paramilitaries is like a burro going up against a tiger," said Miguel Arroyo, a displaced farmer, after hearing of Izquierdo's slaying.

"Other members of her group told her that there had been phone calls, so she went to Bogota and asked the prosecutor's office for protection," said her daughter Dina, 15, interviewed Monday at the family home, where an altar had been set up in Izquierdo's memory. "When the police didn't respond, she told me she had a feeling she wouldn't live much longer."

A mother of five, Izquierdo thought she was playing by the rules of the peace plan advocated by President Alvaro Uribe and supported by the United States.

Uribe sees the plan as a blueprint for ending decades of civil war and bringing justice and reparations to war-crime victims and millions of displaced Colombians.

Under the plan, about 31,000 right-wing paramilitary soldiers have given up their weapons. Dozens of their leaders have surrendered in exchange for the promise of light sentences, as long as they confess to their crimes and give back what they plundered, including millions of acres of land taken from peasants such as Izquierdo and her followers.

The right-wing militias started ostensibly as defensive forces against revolutionary groups, but evolved into shock troops that engaged in massive land grabs, drug trafficking and mafia-style takeovers of government contracts and businesses.

They are thought to be responsible for most of the slayings in the nation's long-running civil war.

Government investigators have fanned out across Colombia to gather evidence, opening 20 offices to handle claims from the displaced and other victims. The government has started broadcasting televised encouragements for victims to come forward.

Izquierdo and her group faced considerable risk by making their claims.

Since October, she had spoken several times to prosecutors, laying out a case that her group was the legal owner of Las Tangas, a sprawling hacienda now in the hands of the Castano family, which oversaw paramilitaries.

She testified at a hearing last month in Medellin, where militia leader Salvatore Mancuso calmly confessed to hundreds of crimes, including kidnappings and massacres.

"She was a natural leader, a good woman," said Colombian lawmaker Bernardo Miguel Elias Vidal, who employed Izquierdo as a campaign organizer.

She caught his attention several years ago after leading displaced farmers in a takeover of government land near Monteria.

Izquierdo's killing is widely thought to have been ordered by paramilitary groups that have no intention of giving up their land, and that see her efforts as a threat.

"She was very brave but very vocal and possibly imprudent," said Rodrigo Ogaza, who was forced from his 12-acre farm near Turbo in 1981.

Ogaza is a member of another displaced victims group based in Monteria. He said his group kept a "lower profile" than Izquierdo's.

"We do not make public accusations against specific paramilitary groups or try to recover specific parcels of land, because to do so would be suicidal," Ogaza said. "What we demand is an integral solution for Colombia's displaced. It's the government's responsibility to do it."

The killing followed the slayings of two land activists in northern Colombia in January. Gustavo Espitia of Lorica and Oscar Sanchez of Guajira both had gained public attention as victims advocates.

Also in January, a fire thought to have been the work of an arsonist destroyed the City of Women community center, a U.S.-supported housing development for displaced women in the Caribbean port city of Cartagena.

The center's director, Patricia Guerrero, said the blaze was a message to those who lived there to "keep quiet" and stop seeking reparations.

The fire brought a rebuke from U.S. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), whose staff helped fund the project. In an e-mail, Leahy described the fire as a "despicable crime against some of Colombia's poorest displaced families."

Reparations were set in motion by the Justice and Peace Law passed by Colombia's Congress in 2005.

In addition to setting conditions for the surrender of paramilitary leaders, it established a reparation fund to be financed principally by assets reclaimed from paramilitary groups.

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