December 9, 2004


Colombia's poor inherit drug estates: President Alvaro Uribe has accelerated a program that redistributes land confiscated from narcotraffickers. (Rachel Van Dongen, 12/08/04, CS Monitor)

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 irony of a conservative American ally in Latin America distributing land to the poor is exquisite.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 9, 2004 8:25 PM

Christopher Dodd probably thinks the people are too stupid to properly care for the land. Watch the leftists try to take it back (on that premise).

Posted by: jim hamlen at December 9, 2004 8:38 PM

This is how the west was settled.

Posted by: Randall Voth at December 10, 2004 9:17 AM

Wow, conservatives move to the left in order to counteract the appeal of leftism to the poor.

How "ironic." And it's never been done before! In 70 years the Colombian OJ will be denouncing Uribe as a fraud and hating him passionately for saving the country.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at December 10, 2004 10:50 AM

On its face the idea sounds good to me. In fact perhaps we should do the same thing in the Sunni triangle. Distribute the wealth/land of those Ba'athists who support resistance to a democratic Iraq back to the Sunni community. I think you'd see a change of behavior there.

Posted by: Genecis at December 10, 2004 11:45 AM

I'd be impressed if he were redistributing the land of the Colombian big landholders who aren't narcotics traffickers.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 10, 2004 3:54 PM

It's just smoke and mirrors. And contra-Mr. Eager, redistributing the land of the big land owners won't do much either. What's really needed is De Soto style reform, where the laws about land are simplified and codified. A legal system that enables a prosperous middle class soon makes large land holding irrelevant. In this case, if the land is distributed but then tied down with all sorts of "progressive" restrictions, it's just a pallitive.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at December 10, 2004 8:53 PM

I'd like to see if De Soto style reforms work on a big scale.

But I'm a Southerner who now lives in Hawaii. You'll never convince me that largescale landholdings are irrelevant.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 11, 2004 9:25 PM


If you simply redistribute the land without creating the means for people to hold onto it, either by ending the ability of the big boys to exploit the crookedness of the system to get their land back or by creating a means for people to get their produce into the world market, you acheive utterly nothing. I would say that America's '40 Acres and a Mule' land reform without serious legal protections for the freed slaves didn't make people's lives any better.

You need to have rule of law and you need to have an opportunity for newly landed farmers to benefit from their work and you need to have capital for development.

Posted by: Bart at December 12, 2004 4:02 AM