Over two centuries, Colombia transferred vast quantities of public land into private hands. Much of this process was justified publicly in terms of giving land to the landless and reducing rural poverty. And yet Colombia retains one of the highest concentrations of land ownership in the world. Why? Analyzing the period 1960–2010, we show that the effects of public land distribution across 1100+ municipalities are highly heterogeneous. Where small and medium-sized farms dominate, land distribution increased average farm size, decreased land inequality, and accelerated local development. But where land was concentrated in the hands of a rural elite, distributed land was diverted to bigger farms, resulting in fewer small and more large farms, greater plot size dispersion, and lower levels of development. We explore whether these effects flow through voter turnout, political competition, or public expenditure and taxation. Land distribution increases turnout, makes politics more competitive, and increases public service provision. But landed elites use patron-client ties to distort local policy and decision-making to their benefit. Land distribution’s secondary, institutional effects on the distribution of power outweigh its primary effects on the distribution of land.