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Sunday, April 12, 1998 Published at 19:44 GMT 20:44 UK


Colombian homeless eye Escobar estate
image: [ Rebel soldiers: refugees are fleeing the ten-year civil war ]
Rebel soldiers: refugees are fleeing the ten-year civil war

In Colombia, thousands of properties bought with drug profits have been taken over by the authorities in the past 10 years. But so far, none have had their ownership legally passed to the government. In the latest case, refugees from the political violence want to start farming on the Napoles estate of the legendary drug baron Pablo Escobar, and this is triggering a new dispute. From Bogota, Timothy Ross reports.

A quarter of a million families are refugees from the civil war in the countryside, and President Ernesto Samper has promised that they'll be given new homes and land taken from the drug traffickers who own more than a third of Colombia's best farmland.

[ image: Pablo Escobar: infamous king of cocaine]
Pablo Escobar: infamous king of cocaine
The security forces have taken over thousands of companies, apartment blocks, houses, cattle ranches, vehicles. But despite a law for ownership to pass to the state for the benefit of the most needy, so far, not one has actually been legally transferred.

Pablo's hippo running amok

The 2,000-acre Napoles farm and zoo of the emperor of cocaine Pablo Escobar was taken over nearly ten years ago. But after his death, relatives tried to reclaim it through the courts.

While the luxurious buildings are crumbling, the lakes have dried up and most of the animals have died or been sent to zoos, except for a stray hippotamus which sometimes terrifies nearby villages.

[ image: President Samper: promise of land]
President Samper: promise of land
Now 15 refugee families say they'll move on Tuesday to live and work there, even though there is no land title.

"The government has promised us if we do not get titles, they'll find us other land," claims Luis Fernando Vargas. But the local authorities say it's not suitable for farming and want the estate instead turned into a tourist complex providing work for hundreds of families and income for the whole region.

Ivonne Alcala, the director of the National Drugs Board responsible for assigning trafficker possessions to charities, admits her office doesn't know how many properties have been taken over, and claims the asset confiscation law was deliberately drawn up to make it impossible to apply.

One foundation that rehabilitates abused children last month asked for a confiscated vehicle, only to be told "There are none."

The police however say 63 vehicles were confiscated since January and sent to the drugs board, but they all seem to have already disappeared.

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