In the early morning of 14 July, members of the Colombian National Police and the Mobile Riot Police Squad surrounded the subsistence farming community of Las Pavas in southern Bolívar province. By the end of the day, more than 500 people had been forced off their land, including several pregnant women and about 100 children.
The police entered the community and destroyed homes and possessions, carrying out the local police inspector’s order to displace the 123 families of Las Pavas. For the past 12 years, these families have lived on and worked the land of Las Pavas, which belonged to an absentee landlord, a relative of deceased cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. At the community’s request, the Colombian Institute for Rural Development initiated a process of “eminent domain” to claim the land for the state and draw up titles for the residents of Las Pavas.
However, two palm oil companies who wish to acquire the land pressured a local judge to issue an order of displacement against the Las Pavas families. Human rights defenders have challenged the legality of this order. Representatives of the National Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, or Defensoria, and the Municipal Human Rights Defender’s Office, present on the day of the displacement, opposed the order and requested its suspension. But the police inspector denied their request.
The 123 families displaced from Las Pavas are now living under plastic tarps in a field alongside the school of Buenos Aires, the township to which Las Pavas belongs. CPTers Sarah MacDonald and Pierre Shantz traveled to Buenos Aires 23-25 July to visit the Las Pavas community.
Because of legal proceedings underway, three women were permitted to stay on their land in Las Pavas. A commission from the regional Defensoría visited these women 24 July and reported that police are present, surrounding the women’s houses and prohibiting them from accessing their land to harvest crops.
Meanwhile, the judge who ordered the displacement has given the palm oil companies permission to enter the area and work the land. Company workers have damaged fences, allowing cattle to roam freely and eat the women’s crops. Asked why they are doing this, the workers replied that the land is theirs and they can do whatever they want.
Shantz and MacDonald accompanied a commission of community leaders 25 July to meet with the mayor of El Peñon, the municipality that includes Las Pavas. The mayor said this was an unfortunate situation but he felt powerless to do anything. Because the mayor has not taken a clear public position, the palm oil companies are freer to continue violating the community’s rights.
CPT-Colombia initiated an urgent action alert during July requesting that people e-mail the Colombian government to demand justice, restitution and humanitarian aid for the families of Las Pavas. More than 80 people sent letters, which the team shared with the Las Pavas community. Community leaders, grateful for this expression of international solidarity, said, “[the letters] fortify us more than eating lunch.” CPT-Colombia continues to accompany the Las Pavas community.