Colombians Flee War Without End
By Hiram Ruiz
US Committee for Refugees
December 1, 2002
Colombia, often heralded as South America's oldest democracy, is now a nation
plagued by widespread political violence, internal conflict, a booming drug
trade, and a flagging economy. Its many social and political problems have
engendered a massive level of migration, both voluntary and forced. More than half a million Colombians are driven from their homes by conflict every year,
the majority of them rural people who become internally displaced. A growing
number, however, are urban residents leaving the country to escape the
The Colombian government's Social Solidarity Network, the agency charged with
assisting internally displaced persons, calls forced displacement "a major
humanitarian crisis and a violation of the human, political, and civil rights
of thousands of Colombian citizens." Jorge Rojas, the president of the
Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), one of Colombia's most
respected human rights groups, told participants at a September 2002
international seminar on displacement in Colombia, "Displacement, migration,
and mass exoduses are contributing to a fragmentation of Colombian society."
Conflict and political violence are not new in Colombia. Between 1948 and
1966, during a period referred to as "La Violencia" (The Violence), an
undeclared civil war among supporters of the Liberal, Conservative, and
Communist parties left an estimated 200,000 Colombians dead and more than
The present conflict dates from the 1970s and involves government forces,
left-wing guerrilla groups -- primarily the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) -- and right-wing
paramilitary groups under an umbrella organization known as the United
"Self-Defense" Groups of Colombia (AUC). Drug traffickers and other criminal
elements add to the country's widespread violence.
In the 1980s, the Colombian government encouraged the FARC and other guerrilla
groups to end their insurgency and enter the political mainstream. In response
to the government's overture, socialists, labor leaders, leftist elected
officials, former guerrillas, and others formed a new political party, the Union
Patriotica (UP). Over the next few years, however, paramilitaries, reportedly
aided by the Colombian military, killed more than 3,000 UP members, including
its candidate for president, and decimated the party.
In 2001, guerrillas and paramilitaries carried out attacks in more than 90
percent of Colombia's thousand-plus municipalities. They fought for control of
territory (particularly lucrative coca-growing areas), massacred civilians, and
emptied more than 40 villages of all their residents. The Colombian Commission
of Jurists reports that in 2000, paramilitaries were responsible for nearly 80
percent of non-combatant deaths and forced disappearances in Colombia and
guerrillas were responsible for 16 percent. CODHES estimates that
paramilitaries were responsible for 52 percent of forced displacement in 2001,
while guerrillas caused 43 percent.
Migration, Flight, and Displacement
The magnitude and complexity of Colombia's conflict-induced displacement is
already unmatched in the Western Hemisphere, and the dim prospects for any
resolution to the conflict or its causes suggest that the problem will continue
According to CODHES, some 2.7 million Colombians have become internally
displaced since 1985, including 315,000 in 2000, 342,000 in 2001, and 204,000
during the first six months of 2002. The World Refugee Survey 2002 lists
Colombia as the country with the world's third largest internally displaced
population (after Sudan and Angola).
The Colombian government's estimate of the number of displaced
Colombians -- 852,000 -- is lower than that offered by CODHES. The government
estimate only takes into account displacement since 1995, when it first began
registering displaced persons. Even since the registration system became fully
operational in 2000, however, it has missed many displaced persons who refuse
to register with the government out of fear or mistrust.
Nearly 50 percent of displaced Colombians are unemployed. Most live in
shantytowns surrounding Colombia's largest cities and find only poorly paid day
labor or work in the informal economy. According to the US Department of
State, only 34 percent of displaced Colombians have access to health care and
only 15 percent of displaced children attend schools. A disproportionate
number of Afro-Colombians and indigenous people are displaced. Although these
groups represent less than 20 percent of Colombians, they comprise one third of
the displaced population.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that over the past
five years, approximately 1.2 million Colombians have emigrated to other
countries. Although the largest number have probably settled in Venezuela and
other nearby countries, many have migrated to Europe and North America. Most
Colombians who migrate to Europe and North America are urban, middle-class
people who fear -- or have already been subjected to -- kidnapping or extortion,
primarily by the guerrillas.
However, only a fraction of the Colombians who migrate abroad request asylum.
In 2001, about 10,000 Colombians were officially recognized as refugees in
countries in close proximity to Colombia. Some 12,000 Colombians applied for
asylum in North America and Europe during 2001. Most of the tens of thousands
of Colombians who seek refuge in the United States every year arrive with
tourist visas and remain in the country without documentation after their visas
expire. They usually join the informal economy, where they are subject to
exploitation. In 2001, only approximately 7,300 Colombians applied for asylum
in the United States. Most Colombians do not request asylum, fearing that if
they are turned down they will be deported to Colombia (though more than 60
percent of those who applied for asylum in the United States in 2001 were
Despite the difficulties that undocumented Colombians face in the United States
and other countries, record numbers continue to leave their homeland every year.
Colombian government passport offices are unable to keep up with the volume of
requests for passports.
Two recent developments point toward a continuation of this displacement and
flight: increased US assistance to the Colombian military, and the election of
a new Colombian president whose promises to take a hard line with the guerillas
foreshadow more fighting.
The first factor that could fuel the internal conflict, and thereby displace
more people, is increased US support for the Colombian military. Until
recently, there was little international involvement in Colombia's conflict.
That began to change in 2000, when the government of then-president Andres
Pastrana proposed "Plan Colombia," a $7 billion program billed as a way to
combat drug trafficking and promote peace and development.
Pastrana aggressively sought international support for Plan Colombia, but only
received significant financial commitments from the United States, which agreed
to fund much of his request for military aid to fight narcotrafficking. The
Clinton administration and Congress approved a two-year, $1.3 billion package
that provided $519 million to the Colombian military, $123.8 million to the
police, some $220 million for "alternative development" programs to encourage
farmers to plant crops other than coca, aid to displaced persons, and various
human rights and democratization projects. Many Colombian and US-based human
rights groups opposed the military aid, which has made Colombia the third
largest recipient of US military assistance.
The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001 led to
increased US support for the Colombian government's anti-insurgency efforts.
The United States lists both the FARC and the AUC as terrorist organizations.
In March 2002, the Bush administration proposed a new military aid package that authorized the broadening of the scope of US involvement in
Colombia from primarily anti-narcotics activities to explicitly anti-insurgency
activities as well. Congress approved the administration's request, and in
July passed a bill authorizing the use of funds for a "campaign against
narcotics trafficking, [and] against activities by organizations designated as
New Leaders Promise Tougher Line
A second factor that could fuel the war and boost the number of displaced persons is
the arrival of a new president whose approach to achieving peace differs
markedly from that of his predecessors. In May, Colombians overwhelmingly
elected Harvard-educated Alvaro Uribe Vélez, a hard-liner who promised to get
tough with the insurgents. Uribe's critics and international human rights organizations have linked the new president -- who has survived
four assassination attempts and whose father was killed by the FARC in 1983 -- to
drug lords and paramilitary groups.
Former president Pastrana, who had been elected in 1988 as a peace candidate,
had engaged the FARC and ELN in peace talks, making significant and unpopular
territorial concessions to the FARC to bring them to the negotiating table.
But when the talks did not yield any concrete results, the peace process
collapsed in early 2002. Colombians' frustrations with the failed peace talks
and a new wave of FARC violence in the months before the elections appeared to
contribute to Uribe's victory. On August 7, minutes before Uribe was sworn in
as president, FARC guerrillas fired four mortars near the presidential palace
in Bogotá, killing 14 people.
Shortly after taking office, Uribe declared a state of emergency, permitting
him to curtail some civil rights, and announced a new emergency war tax. He
also voiced plans to arm 15,000 villagers, and proposed the creation of a
network of more than a million informers who would be asked to report
suspicious people or activities to the military.
Colombian and international human rights groups criticized the proposals,
saying that they violate international humanitarian law by blurring the
distinction between civilians and combatants. But the Colombian government
argues that these steps are necessary to "reestablish the rule of law" and
protect the civilian population. Speaking at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies in October 2002, Colombian Defense Minister Marta Lucia
Ramirez said, "The security of the citizens will no longer be only or
primarily the responsibility of the police or the armed forces, but of the
whole of the state.... We want to live with peace and security. But to
achieve peace, irrespective of any future negotiation with the armed groups, we
must first strengthen the rule of law."
Others, however, question whether Uribe's harder line offers any better
prospects. Julia Sweig, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations,
writes in the September/October 2002 Foreign Affairs, "Between drugs,
paramilitaries, guerrillas, and a collapsing state, Colombia's condition is
steadily worsening. A purely military approach to the crisis, however, will not
resolve the country's deep-seated structural flaws, any more than it has in the
past. Nor can more fighting permanently end the violence. Unfortunately, a
military approach seems to be just the kind of strategy that Uribe seems intent
on pursuing. And Washington, with its new resolve to fight terrorism around the
globe, seems fully determined to help him execute it."
President Uribe's hard line, the United States' green light to Colombia to use
US military aid for anti-insurgency activities, and the ability of the guerrillas and
paramilitaries to finance their activities through earnings from the
ever-growing drug trade would appear to ensure that the already decades-long
conflict in Colombia will remain a "war without end."
Nearly one in every ten Colombians is already internally displaced or has fled
the country. Since there appear to be few prospects for an end to the violence
that is creating this upheaval, the problem is only likely to escalate. In
Colombia, the effects on individuals, society, and the economy will be
devastating. As more Colombians flee the country, and the United States
becomes more entangled in the conflict, what has until now been a primarily
internal crisis may have repercussions throughout the region and beyond.
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