Colombia's potentially groundbreaking new Victim's Law will provide cash compensation to those who can prove that they have been victimized in the country's longstanding civil war. An estimated 4 million people stand to benefit from the measure.
President Juan Manuel Santos signed five decrees laying out regulations under the so-called Victims Law on Tuesday. The Congress approved the law in May, and Santos signed it in June.
The law will provide cash to the families of Colombians who had been slain, kidnapped, raped or forced from their land during the conflict involving leftist rebels and right-wing militias, which saw its most intense fighting during the 1990s. The new law also aims to return land to those who have had property seized by armed groups.
The government will accept claims going back to 1985, a date lawmakers chose because of its symbolism as a particularly bloody chapter in Colombia's conflict. That year, rebels from the now-defunct M-19 guerrilla group seized the Palace of Justice, sparking a standoff that ended with more than 100 dead, including the rebels and 11 Supreme Court justices.
Santos said at a ceremony that he hopes the law will "transform a past of horror into a future of hope."
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He has made the law, which takes effect Jan. 1, a centerpiece of his presidency since taking office in August 2010.
The government estimates it will cost the equivalent of more than $26 billion during the coming decade to pay reparations to victims. They'll receive one-time payments of up to 40 monthly minimum-wage salaries, which next year will add up to the equivalent of $11,900.
In the first year, the government expects to pay an estimated $3.2 billion in compensation and other benefits including health care costs and home repairs to about 130,000 people, Justice Ministry official Miguel Samper told reporters.
Santos said the amounts to be paid, while modest, are the highest the government could afford given the large numbers of people who will qualify.
"We know that doesn't compensate at all for being displaced ... much less the killing of a loved one," Santos said. "We would like to give them more, much more. But it isn't physically possible."
Since the 1960s, most of the victims of Colombia's internal conflict have been civilians, and land tenancy has long been a key issue in the fighting. Many paramilitary fighters now work as hired guns for the holders of stolen land.
Santos said the government will establish special tribunals to rule on claims of stolen land, and that in the coming year officials expect to decide about 2,000 initial claims.
Santos has set a goal of returning 4.9 million acres (2 million hectares) of stolen land to their rightful owners by 2014.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.