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Afro-Colombians Driven Off Land in Cocaine War

January 04, 2006|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

PEREIRA, Colombia — Armando Garces was reluctant to leave his mountain village even after right-wing militia members had gone door to door telling residents they had 48 hours to evacuate, or else. He didn't like being ordered to abandon the only home he had ever known.

Then a daylong gun battle erupted between the paramilitary fighters and leftist guerrillas over control of nearby coca crops and transit routes. Garces' town, nestled in Colombia's Pacific coast rain forest, was caught in the crossfire between the rebels above the town and militia members below it.

"We hid under our beds all day, and the next morning we were gone," said Garces, recalling the terrifying day in June when his township, Bajo Calima, became a battleground in the nation's long-running drug wars. "Everyone agreed it was time to look for some other future."

So the 25-year-old woodcutter, his wife, two children and about 500 other residents joined the swelling ranks of Colombia's internally displaced. More than 3 million people have been driven from their homes by the civil conflict between armed groups vying for political dominance and the control of crops, especially those linked to the nation's drug trade.

Only Sudan has more internally displaced citizens than Colombia, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, a human rights group that has tracked the displaced around the globe for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Although Colombia has had a large displaced population for two decades, its size has increased quickly in recent months, experts say, and a disproportionate number of them are, like Garces, Afro-Colombians. They are targeted because they lack political clout and sophistication at a time when their rural homes have become economically attractive.

Ricardo Esquivia, general coordinator of Arvidas, an advocacy group for the displaced in Sucre state, said most AfroColombians who own such land either lack full knowledge of their rights or the political power to enforce them. One factor working against Afro-Colombians is the 80% illiteracy rate in the areas where many live, said Esquivia, himself an Afro-Colombian.

"They are historically vulnerable and relegated [to a lower status] because they have never fully exercised their economic, social and cultural rights," said Jorge Rojas, a leading advocate for human rights and the displaced in Bogota, the capital.

Those rights include a constitutional provision that guarantees land title to rural Afro-Colombian communities that have organized loosely as a group and occupied their property for 10 years or more, said Luis Murillo, a former governor of Colombia's Choco state. Murillo, also an Afro-Colombian, estimates that 1 million Afro-Colombians, or one-third of those living in rural areas, have been forced off of their land.

The growth of the displaced has much to do with the changing logistics of Colombia's multibillion-dollar cocaine trade. The success of U.S.-sponsored spraying programs meant to eradicate coca leaf production in Colombia's Amazon basin has caused a shift in coca farming to more remote areas, including the coastal zone surrounding Bajo Calima, where Afro-Colombians are concentrated.

The port city of Buenaventura near Garces' hometown and the estuaries that drain into it have become the most important cocaine processing and transshipment centers in Colombia, U.S. law enforcement officials have said.

Garces and other residents were lucky to escape with their lives. In past years, both paramilitary and guerrilla groups in towns such as Bajo Calima have massacred thousands of people whom they suspected of helping the other side or just for being in the way.

Since July, Garces has lived in a shantytown called Plumon on the outskirts of Pereira, built into the side of a river canyon. It has no running water or electricity.

Internal refugees such as Garces put enormous pressure on towns where they have moved. "It's impossible to solve the housing problem. We are incapable," said Pereira City Manager German Dario Saldarriaga, whose town in the interior -- about 120 miles northeast of Buenaventura and 105 miles west of Bogota -- is struggling with 15,000 displaced residents, about half of them Afro-Colombian.

Pereira has built three new hospitals and is erecting nearly 1,000 housing units to accommodate the influx of displaced people, but needs 4,000 more houses to deal with the overflow. Meanwhile, crime has skyrocketed, Saldarriaga said.

"Sometimes we feel overwhelmed, but it's much worse in other cities like Medellin and Cali," he said.

Human rights groups inside and outside Colombia see a longer-term risk in the government's inability to stand up for the land rights of its citizens. Many say the voices of the displaced aren't being heard in Colombia's nascent peace process.

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