Afro-Colombians Driven Off Land in Cocaine War.

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.

Although kidnappings and killings have declined, the process that President Alvaro Uribe began in July 2003 to try to demobilize Colombia's armed factions doesn't do enough to ensure that the displaced may someday return to the millions of acres of land they have abandoned, said Lisa Haugaard of the Latin America Working Group, a coalition of religious and humanitarian agencies in Washington.

Haugaard and others fear that a law passed last summer outlining the terms of "reinsertion" of fighters into society will mean that most of the abandoned land, which totals 10 million acres, will simply remain in the hands of demobilized paramilitary fighters.

If that turns out to be the case, shantytowns such as Plumon, where Garces lives, and Bosques de Otun could become breeding grounds for a future generation of Colombian insurgents, she said.

"There is definitely a silence in the peace process on this question of land rights. Yet it will be dealt with in conflict and in a myriad of conflicting ways on the ground," Haugaard said.

Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota fear that the problem of Colombia's displaced is a humanitarian time bomb and said the U.S. Agency for International Development's $30-million annual aid package is being redesigned to focus more on the needs of Afro-Colombians. That redesign is partially the result of pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus in the U.S.

"It's a huge crisis for a country already dealing with a lot of other crises at the same time," said a U.S. Embassy official who asked not to be identified.

Control of the drug trade isn't the only motive causing armed groups to push rural Afro-Colombians off their land. In Sucre state, where Esquivia works, about 60,000 have fled the countryside for the state capital, Sincelejo, to escape the bloody fight for control of avocado and palm plantations or simply for territorial dominance.

Adelina Zuniga left her 15-acre farm in Macayepa for Sincelejo two years ago after massacres of suspected guerrilla sympathizers in her town sent a chilling message. Having fled the countryside, her family initially slept 15 to a room in a Sincelejo shanty. She has now emerged as a leader of the displaced and pastor of a local evangelical church.

"People arrive with no place to stay, no work and bothered by the local police. Almost all the old folks who came with us have died of despondency. They go from being important to feeling useless. They see no solution," Zuniga said.

The influx has led to social problems, including teen prostitution and the growth of street gangs, said Esquivia of the Arvidas advocacy group.

Until security improves back home, Garces plans to stay put in Pereira's Plumon slum, where he has found work paying $2 a day picking coffee and loading sacks of cement onto trucks. Besides, people who have gone back to Bajo Calima have found nothing but a burned-out ghost town.

"I'm not going back to the war," he said.

[Source: By Chris Kraul, Pereira, Col, Los Angeles Times, US, 04Jan06]

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