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COLUMN ONE

Colombia's Fugitives From Woe

Millions in recent years have fled the violence in their war-torn nation. The rich relocate to places like Miami and Madrid. For the poor, internal exile and misery are the norm.

March 31, 2001|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAZUCA, Colombia — In this slum outside Bogota, Jose Donato lives in a tin shack overlooking a quarry that spews dust on his home all day like a light, poisonous rain.

Fifteen hundred miles away, Fernando Gonzalez Pacheco, one of Colombia's most beloved talk show hosts, sleeps safe at night in a Miami condo complex with a pool and tennis courts.

These men are the two faces of Colombia's growing refugee crisis, a national disaster that has forced millions from their homes as violence escalates with the infusion of U.S. aid to the drug war.

For the rural poor, flight means a squalid respite in the shantytowns that ring the cities of this nation already torn apart by guerrilla war. For the rich and the middle class, it is a plane trip to Miami or Madrid, where growing numbers of Colombians have created a community in exile populated by industrialists and politicians, actors and businesspeople.

The exodus, the hemisphere's largest, has rent the country in many ways. But perhaps most destructive is this: Rather than creating a shared feeling of loss among a far-flung people, Colombia's crisis has instead deepened the divisions in an already divided country.

In doing so, this flight of more than 2 million people since 1995--a figure that amounts to one of every 20 Colombians--has intensified the sense of a society without common ground. And it has worsened the chances for peace, with the country's best and brightest abroad and its poorest and most miserable remaining as recruitment fodder for gangs, guerrillas and death squads.

"It's one of the greatest tragedies of the current Colombian situation. Nobody is in the boat rowing together," said Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami professor who is an expert on Colombia. "There is no solidarity in Colombia."

The massive dislocation has also had a devastating effect on the economy. Unemployment has soared to almost 20% as the rural poor cram into already crowded cities in search of nonexistent jobs amid a severe economic downturn. Meanwhile, the rich and the middle class flee with their bankbooks, resulting in the loss of more than $2 billion a year in capital, according to some estimates.

The dislocation is worst in the countryside, where entire villages have fled the violence of Colombia's mind-boggling array of armed groups. Leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups and narco-traffickers routinely attack civilians, either to seize territory or to clear more land to grow coca plants, according to human rights organizations.

Donato and his family of five are a case in point.

Three years ago, Donato got word that his name was on a list of men slated for execution. He was targeted, he thinks--by either narco-traffickers or local rebels who tax cocaine production--because he quit his job as a fumigator at a cocaine plantation to participate in a government program designed to encourage legal farming. The same day, he packed up his family and headed for Bogota, the capital.

Like thousands of other refugees, the family ended up in Cazuca, a ramshackle collection of tin shacks and dirt roads slouching toward Bogota. Poverty, crime and despair have made the slum an urban wasteland.

The hills of Cazuca are barren, speckled only with the blue plastic sheets that serve as shelter for thousands. Through the middle runs a dirty stream, the runoff from the quarry that belches dust all day. For the women, the stream serves as a laundermat. For the children, it is the community pool.

Once in Cazuca, Donato pieced together a house of corrugated tin and plastic sheets. A government official visited him once, he says, and offered to help the family out. He never saw the man again.

Now, Donato spends his days worrying about how to feed his family. He looks for work but hasn't been able to find any. He reads the Bible and has faith in God. But not the government.

"They promised to help us, but they didn't," he said. "Everything we have, someone else has given to us."

Paramilitaries, Rebels Troll for Fighters

The violence in the countryside has created hundreds of thousands of people like Donato with little sense that the government can protect them from violence or help once they have escaped it.

As a consequence, they become disconnected and disgruntled, turning into candidates for the paramilitary groups and guerrillas who troll such slums, according to refugee experts.

"There is no concept now of one country, of a united nation," said Libardo Sarmiento, a political scientist affiliated with the National University. "There is a real Balkanization."

Worse, the government seems to return the apathy of the displaced with indifference of its own. Even now, a debate rages between President Andres Pastrana's office, which estimates that last year there were no more than 180,000 internal refugees, and local churches and charities, which put the figure at more than 317,000.

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