Colombia's poor inherit drug estates

President Alvaro Uribe has accelerated a program that redistributes prime land confiscated from narcotraffickers.

Sandra Betancur used to work for drug lord Jairo Correa Alzate on his sprawling ranch in this hot, fertile corner of central Colombia. Now she's close to owning the very land that once belonged to the lanky capo, who was killed eight years ago. "We didn't have anything and now we have a lot," says Ms. Betancur, who lives here with her 4-year-old daughter.

Colombia, like many South American countries, is a nation of economic extremes. Less than 1 percent of the population owns 60 percent of the land. Now the government has reinvigorated a program that gives land seized from millionaire drug dealers to the poor - in effect, tearing a page from the Marxist playbook. While leftist rebels have been waging war for 40 years in the name of the disadvantaged, conservative President Alvaro Uribe's program is undercutting a main plank in their platform.

"This would be the magic solution," says Alejandro Reyes, a former professor at Bogotá's National University, who has studied the geography of Colombia's war and faced five death threats because of his work. "But that solution is very difficult."

As head of Terra Co-op Ltd., Betancur is one of 76 families who have been given the right to work Mr. Correa's former estate, situated on 1,726 acres of prime farmland off the highway between Bogotá and Medellín. As the first beneficiaries of a land-distribution program under Mr. Uribe, they plan to milk cattle, install a fishpond for tourists, and grow passion fruit and lemons. If they do a good job, the government might award them permanent title to the property after five years.

Statistics about how much land belongs to narcotraffickers are nearly impossible to come by. Mr. Reyes estimates that as many as 9.8 million of Colombia's 111 million acres of arable land could belong to drug lords. In his two years in office, Uribe has seized 30,000 acres and turned over 24,846 of them to the poor and displaced victims of the Colombian conflict. The government is currently examining another 738,000 acres for possible transfer. That's compared to 12 properties given to a single family in the previous 12 years.

"The lands are the best - they are fertile and very well located. This is the redistributive process that the country is waiting for," says Agriculture Minister Carlos Gustavo Cano.

The government is also planning other uses for the confiscated property, including solving the country's prison shortage. Uribe recently announced that "Naples," the 7,000-acre ranch of infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar in Antioquia state, would be used for a new jail, despite protests by local authorities.

According to Diego Zubieta, a top official at the National Institute of Rural Development,under Uribe 90 farms confiscated by the National Drug Directorate (DNE) are in the process of being evaluated for the program, and 20 have been donated to a total of 130 families. Mr. Zubieta says that once a property has been selected, the national and local governments hold a lottery to choose the land's new owners. Priority is given to the poorest applicants, along with those with some farming expertise.

But the program is already beset with problems at all levels. Last month, DNE director Col. Alfonso Plazas was forced to resign under accusations of corruption and mismanagement of properties. Betancur says the government transferred the property to her without giving the farmers credit for buying cattle or seed. And the new owners aren't allowed to build anything on the property - they can only renovate - and they are having a hard time getting credit because they don't have permanent title to the land.

"The problem is [we don't know] who it belongs to," says Oscar Cardona, agriculture adviser to La Dorada's mayor.

Another problem is selecting who exactly should get the land - locals resent when poor people from outside the area are given the land. And many estates are caught up in endless legal procedures, often having to do with the legality of the confiscation.

In the case of "Naples," it was seized 16 years ago but only officially became government property in July. For now it is the property of Puerto Triunfo, a sleepy town on the Magdalena River.

But the ranch is in ruins: looters have destroyed the main house in search of treasure buried in the walls and floors; trees grow in what was once a luxury bathtub; and the drug baron's famous collection of some 500 exotic animals - including African pelicans, miniature donkeys, and Malayan tapirs - is gone, except for 11 hippos who frolic in the 12 man-made lakes. Life-size replicas of dinosaurs dot the property, and a private company is renovating the large airstrip.

Luis Francisco Santos, director of Puerto Triunfo's environmental agency, says the community would like to use the drug lord's property to generate jobs by setting up fish farms and a crocodile nursery. The national government considered creating a museum of crime but settled on building a jail.

The debate has left the six displaced families living on the land in legal limbo. Meanwhile, Mr. Santos accuses the residents of stealing some of the ranch's assets and says that giving such properties to the poor will never work.

"It isn't a solution to give away land. Unfortunately in our culture we're not prepared for land reform. The people [would rather] have the money in their pockets," he says.

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