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 violence.
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 200,000 displaced.
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 to grow.
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 U.S. 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 approved).
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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S.-based human rights groups opposed the military aid, which has made Colombia the third largest recipient of U.S. military assistance.
The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001 led to increased U.S. 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 U.S. 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 terrorist organizations."
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 U.S. 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.