As he contemplates running for a third term next year, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe must first get over the swine flu, which he was diagnosed with over the weekend. But he has another thing to worry about besides his health: his impressive record on national security appears to be fraying.
The achievements had been stunning. Uribe's U.S.-backed military pounded Marxist guerrillas while his peace envoys convinced 30,000 right-wing paramilitaries to disarm the two feats leading to a steep reduction in kidnappings and homicides and making Uribe the most popular Colombian leader in decades. But if the war is being won, why then are so many terrified Colombians abandoning their farms in the hinterlands and crowding into the cities?
Last year, 380,000 Colombians were forced off their land amid fighting between rebels, paramilitaries and the army, a 24% increase from 2007's figure, according to the Bogotá-based human-rights group Codhes (the Spanish acronym for the Human Rights and Displacement Office). Colombian officials, in turn, put the number of displaced at 294,000 for just the first six months of last year. "It's the million-dollar question," Marie-Helene Verney, spokeswoman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Colombia, says of the perplexing trend. "Something is going on."
What's happening, analysts say, is that rather than winding down, the country's 45-year conflict is evolving. In the 1990s and in the first half of this decade, campesinos were often driven off their land en masse by rebels or their foes, the paramilitaries. Following Mao's advice to separate the water from the fish, the warring factions depopulated the land to disrupt the enemy's civilian support network. According to Codhes, such scorched-earth tactics have uprooted more than 4.5 million people since 1985, leaving Colombia (pop. 45 million) with the world's second largest population of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Only Sudan, with nearly 5 million, has more. (The Bogotá government began keeping track of IDPs in 1997 and its running total is 3.1 million.)
Uribe was first elected in 2002 on a campaign pledge to crush the guerrillas. As the rebels retreated, the annual number of displaced persons fell. But now the yearly figures mirror those registered during the most horrific years of the war. Many of the victims have been targeted by a new generation of private armies whose ranks include paramilitaries who disarmed earlier this decade. Unlike the ideologically driven death squads of the 1990s, these new militias are focused on drug-trafficking. Colombian police put the number of new armed groups at eight. But the New Rainbow Foundation, a Colombian NGO that investigates the war, puts the number at 82 and says they have between 4,000 and 10,000 fighters. The militias often clash with guerrillas and with each other for control of land that can be used for growing coca the raw material for cocaine or for smuggling narcotics.
Human-rights groups also accuse these new militias of working hand-in-glove with legitimate businesses to take control of large swaths of land to mine gold, drill for petroleum and produce palm oil for Colombia's booming biofuels industry. Says Jorge Rojas, who heads Codhes, "In almost every case where there is a big palm-oil development, there is widespread forced displacement." Adding to the confusion, members of the Colombian Army have been accused of killing civilians and dressing them up as rebels and of driving farmers off their land in guerrilla strongholds.
Colombian government officials believe that IDP figures have been inflated by poor people trying to scam the government out of benefits provided to legitimate victims, such as food and temporary shelter. But they admit to being surprised by the rising numbers. "It's worse than what we had expected two, three or four years ago," says Armando Escobar, who heads IDP programs for the government's social-welfare agency.
The victims often exchange one kind of hell for another. After escaping the violence, they usually end up in ugly, overcrowded city slums. At one of the cramped IDP shelters in Bogotá, run by the Catholic Church, about 30 former farmers were taking classes in breadmaking, a new skill that might come in handy in the capital. When asked about government claims that security has improved, many simply rolled their eyes. "The armed groups are still there," says one woman who abandoned her farm in southern Caqueta state. "They've just changed their names."
Besides Caqueta, the area generating the most displacement is Nariño state, which borders Ecuador. A key drug-trafficking corridor, Nariño is home to thousands of acres of coca being fought over by rebels and newly formed militias. In February, guerrillas massacred 17 Awa Indians, provoking hundreds to abandon their homes. On Wednesday, masked gunmen killed 12 more Awa, including a six-month old baby, and officials fear another exodus. "In Nariño, as in many parts of Colombia, the conflict rages on and abuses are rampant," says José Miguel Vivanco, Americas Director at Human Rights Watch. "Instead of pretending the conflict doesn't exist, the national government needs to do much more to protect civilians."
Worldwide, there are more than twice as many displaced people about 25 million as war refugees, according to the U.N. But because they do not cross international borders, which can provoke the wrath of governments and the attention of aid groups, they are sometimes overlooked. In Colombia, most people live in the cities where security has improved. By contrast, the displaced are often impoverished Indians and Afro-Colombians who live in the most remote pockets of the countryside where few votes are at stake.
Thus as the May 2010 presidential election approaches, Uribe is focused on changing the Constitution so he can run for a third term while the other candidates are vowing to ape his security policies while failing to focus on the blind spots like the alarming number of displaced persons. "People think things are going so well so they would rather not admit there's a problem," says Rojas, of Codhes. "It's the politics of sticking your head in the sand."