I’ve written before about the land titling disputes that are so central to much of our accompaniment work here in Colombia. I think, too, that it’s important to name it as not solely a Colombian problem. When Julie and I bought our land in southern Ohio, the title had to be cleansed of a problem from the 1800s. When we were in Guatemala, Mennonite Central Committee facilitated the purchase of a big piece of land for a group of returning refugees that turned out to have five separate titles registered at the courthouse.
Here in Colombia a large tract of land in the Magdelena River valley that was part of a government railroad project was divided up between a small group of business families in 1921. Manuel Enrique Barreto’s grandfather was one of those. Agreements were signed, but no deeds were ever registered. The land was essentially vacant until the 1970’s when peasant farmers began to move into the area and clear small parcels for their families.
Barreto himself arrived in the early 1980s to start a ranch claiming he owned all the land in the area. Turned out he didn’t want to develop a cattle ranch so much as an airstrip and a cocaine processing lab. He and his paramilitary supporters told their neighbors they could stay on their farms as long as they kept quiet about it. Some of the neighbors actually worked for Barreto as carpenters and ag laborers, and some were present when Pablo Escobar, the renowned drug lord showed up for a visit.
Since that time there have been two decades of threats, murders, and court cases over who actually has legal right to the properties, with the federal court siding with the campesinos a few years back. The actual delivery of titles has yet to happen. That’s why we keep coming back here.
Fast forward to a big windstorm that knocked down a great number of big trees in the area in late August last year. One of those trees fell in a jungle area a hundred yards or so from some open pasture and not far from where you can make out the drainage ditch that ran alongside Barreto’s airstrip. It wasn’t until January this year that someone happened to be walking through that overgrown area and noticed a metal tube sticking out of the bottom of the uprooted stump. Then they noticed other pieces of metal in the ground. It was a small airplane, buried.
I have to insert here that as a guy who thinks he knows a lot about trees, I am astonished at how fast trees grow in this kind of ecosystem. The tree that fell is roughly two feet in diameter. A tree that size in in the US Midwest would be a maybe a hundred to a hundred-twenty years old. Here, more like thirty.
In my previous post I was referring to what happened next. News of the plane was not shared openly, but on March 1, the day I arrived in Barranca, four men were discovered working at digging up the plane at the behest of someone they called El Patron with the intent of removing it. They were told to stop by the community and calls were made to various authorities and to us as a group who has provided security for this community for many years. Two of us arrived on March 3 and visited the burial site with several community members. The government had brought in a platoon of soldiers by helicopter to secure the site the previous afternoon. Other contacts told us that a federal crime scene investigation team would be arriving the next week. We took lots of photos for evidence, in case the team of investigators didn’t show up. On our second day at the site there was a journalist from a Colombian news channel who showed up. Subsequently, both he and the army have published articles naming the plane as linked to narcotrafficking.
As of this writing, more than two weeks later the investigation team has not showed up. The soldiers also left after about a week, but there has been relatively open communication between the army’s commanding officer and the community contacts. We are hopeful that if El Patron’s crew returns, the army would be back quickly also. Additionally, the UN Human Rights Commission in Bogota contacted community leaders just yesterday to say they have assurances at the federal level that the site will be investigated, too.
For the community, this airplane brings back painful memories and a fear that this El Patron character is someone connected with the narcotrafficking history of the area, and who wants to keep this piece of evidence out of federal hands. Community members fear they will be blamed for making this a public. We are paying special attention to this fear and trying to be as present and supportive as possible.