VALENCIA, Colombia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When several men turned up at Damaso Dios's thatched-roof home settled on the sweeping cattle plains of northern Colombia, he knew his life was in danger.
"We'll buy the land from you or from your widow," said Dios, recalling the moment 12 years ago when paramilitary henchmen, who were going from farm to farm buying up vast tracts of fertile land, ordered him to sell them his plot.
"I had no option but to sell. My family left home within a week. They paid me almost nothing for my land," he said of the small plot in Colombia’s Cordoba province that became one of the most powerful strongholds of the right-wing death squads, created with the tacit support of wealthy landowners and politicians.
Of the tens of thousands of displaced Colombians battling to recover lands stolen by paramilitary groups and their bitterest enemies, the Marxist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Dios is one of the lucky ones back on his land.
He is one of nearly 23,000 eligible land claimants that President Juan Manuel Santos hopes will turn into votes and give him the edge in a closely fought June 15 runoff vote as he seeks a win over right-wing rival Oscar Ivan Zuluaga and a second term in office.
With just 3.5 percent of claimants back on their farms, returning land seized during 50 years of conflict has become Santos’ signature reform that set in motion peace talks with the FARC and is an acid test for the government's bid to wrestle control from armed groups.
Dozens of FARC commanders and government negotiators are thrashing out a peace deal that would end the war and pave the way for a deluge of new land claimants living in rebel strongholds.
Santos, a center-rightist from one of Colombia's most powerful dynasties, has staked his legacy on peace with the FARC and developing war-torn farmland into economically viable agriculture that would bridge the urban-rural divide.
HARD TO RETURN
Dios' plot was part of the 1,195-hectare Santa Paula ranch in northern Cordoba province, the heart of paramilitary might and key combat zone with the FARC for the cocaine trade. What began as a cluster of small farms morphed into a sweeping estate where paramilitaries would recharge after battle and plan attacks against the rebels.
The resettlement of the coastal region - scattered with cattle ranches and banana plantations - is part of government efforts to convince farmers displaced by FARC and paramilitary violence that Santos can deliver on the ambitious land reform and that they can safely return and contribute to the rural economy.
The so-called Victims and Land Restitution Law is seen as the centerpiece of Santos' efforts to heal the wounds of war, address rural poverty and bolster an economy that has been stifled by lack of rural development.
Although the FARC denies its part in decades of land grabbing - roughly a third of claims of forced displacement are attributed to the group - rebel commanders have publicly asked that rural reserves to support small farmers be created as part of the peace deal.
Critics of peace talks – like presidential candidate Zuluaga - say rebel interest in the reform is based on maintaining control of land used to grow coca, the raw ingredient that makes cocaine.
Cordoba was the birthplace of the now-defunct United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, a paramilitary group formed in the 1980s by the infamous Castano brothers.
Locals say "not a leaf moved" without the permission of the warlords, responsible for some of the worst human rights atrocities committed in the war between the government, paramilitary groups, drug gangs and leftist guerrillas.
With an outlet to the Caribbean, Cordoba is a gateway to the global cocaine trade. Paramilitaries and rebels have fought over its coveted corridor to smuggle drugs north to Central America, Mexico and onto the streets of the United States.
Around 5.7 million people, many of them poor farmers like Dios, have been forced off their land over the decades at gunpoint - or with the threat of death - by warring factions, the government says.
But more than a decade after the Dios family fled, they are back on their land.
"It's hard coming back, things are different now. The grass was hip-high when I returned," said Dios. His family is one of the first of 22 to return to the ranch after being given land titles and $11,000 in compensation from the government.
Their homecoming is the result of the restitution law initiated by Santos in 2011 that allows Colombians to file claims for seized land and claim compensation for relatives killed or missing.
The trickle of families back to Santa Paula and other nearby ranches is a showcase of efforts to encourage displaced families to rebuild their lives.
But these successes are the exception, and returning land is fraught with challenges.
Since the law was passed three years ago, only around 800 families have returned to their land for good. Many are too afraid to return to the conflict areas where government control is fragile and drug traffickers cling to their cocaine smuggling routes.
About four hours' drive across the plains from Santa Paula, along a dirt road and crossing a river by barge, sits an isolated farm in the mountains. Here another displaced farmer hopes he too can reap the benefits of the land law and return home.
At the ranch entrance, an official pins a notice to a wooden gate, signaling the farmer has lodged a claim with a judge to recover his 14-hectare holding.
"I never thought there was any chance of getting my land back," said the 72-year-old farmer, who asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisals. He was forced to sell his land to paramilitaries at a rock bottom price 16 years ago and fled to the small town of Valencia, about an hour’s drive away.
"It will take a lot of work getting the land back to how it once was and build a house. God willing the judge will rule in my favour," he said, as a surveyor marked off his plot under a searing sun.
The three Castano brothers who ruled their Cordoba fiefdom are now dead, allegedly killed in family feuds.
A 2003 peace accord led to more than 35,000 paramilitary fighters handing in their weapons, while hundreds of warlords who committed human rights abuses are due to be released from prison in the coming months, each having served a maximum eight years in prison as part of the deal.
Thousands of the former paramilitary fighters formed themselves into new drug gangs, known as BACRIM, which still hold sway in former paramilitary strongholds and whom the government now regards as Colombia's biggest security threat.
"I'm afraid," said the farmer. "You never know what will happen if they are freed. God forgives, men don't."
He has good reason to be fearful. Last year, 39 land activists were gunned down by BACRIM for trying to recover stolen land, according to the United Nations.
Returning land - which the government aims to do over a decade - is also complicated because no ceasefire has been declared between the government and FARC as peace talks continue and landmines litter the countryside.
"The land restitution process is taking place in the middle of a conflict, which makes it unique in the world," Ricardo Sabogal, head of the government’s land restitution agency told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview at the Santa Paula estate.
"In areas where conflict persists, 10 years isn't enough to implement the law. It will take longer. But if there's a peace deal, we can carry out this task very quickly."
Government plans to push ahead with land reform are also hampered because few farmers own land titles.
Back at Santa Paula, the pioneer families who returned are rebuilding their lives, tending to passion fruit trees under the watch of heavily armed police for their protection.
Martha Bula, who lodged her land claim after seeing a government broadcast, has built a one-room, wooden home on her plot where cassava grows and cattle graze.
"It feels wonderful to be back after so many years," said Bula. "We're living a dream that's almost hard to believe."
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