Colombia’s largest and oldest rebel group FARC systematically engages in displacing people from their land, according to a study made by the Prosecutor General’s Office.
The study focused specifically on the FARC’s powerful Eastern Bloc, who between 1997 and 2011 allegedly displaced 324,596 people from 82,707 homes in what the study describes as “an explicit policy.”
Colombia has between 4.9 and 5.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), more than any other country in the world.
The root of the problem is Colombia’s 49-year armed conflict, in which rebel groups, paramilitary organizations and criminal gangs have fought with each other – and with the government – to obtain valuable resources, secure drug-trafficking routes, and silence opposition.
Newspaper El Espectador reports that in 2012 over 250,000 people were forcefully displaced.
The Eastern Bloc: the most powerful in the FARC
The focus of the Prosecutor General’s Office study was the FARC’s Eastern Bloc, described as the rebel group’s “most powerful bloc in terms of numbers and territory” by analysis website Insight Crime. It’s heartland is in the Macarena region of Meta department, south of Bogota. But it also operates in the departments of Cundinamarca, Boyaca, Casanare and Arauca to the north, the border departments of Vichada and Guainia to the east, and Guaviare and Vaupes to the south.
This area includes Colombia’s “Eastern Plains,” estimated to be worth as much as $300 million per year in cocaine sales thanks to their position along the Brazilian and Venezuelan borders. The violent fight to control the plains’ drug-trafficking routes has led to massive displacement.
“For the overlapping armed groups of guerrillas, neo-paramilitaries, narco-traffickers, and organised crime, the war has splintered into a fight for control of land for large-scale agriculture and ranching, the drug trade, illegal mining and, at the Venezuelan border, the movement of gasoline,” said Mary Small, assistant director for policy at the Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, in an interview with the Guardian newspaper in August. “As the war has become de-ideologized, all armed groups rely on the strategic use of terror to control communities and silence opposition.”
Threats, robbery and murder
The Prosecutor General’s study says that 91% of those displaced by the FARC left their homes citing “terror” and “insecurity,” with others leaving because of direct threats from the guerrillas.
The FARC would typically dress up as Colombian soldiers and threaten to murder the occupants of a house unless they left, or, to a lesser extent, attempt to recruit a family member. Often the process is systematic and long-term, with threats followed by robbery and damage to property and livestock, and then murder.
The department of Meta saw farmers leave behind some 5000 hectares of land between 1997 and 2011. In total 114,269 people were displaced in the department, almost twice as many as in the second-most affected department of Arauca.
71% of the registered cases involved the displacement of more than one person at a time.
“We were happy before, now we feel suffocated”
The vast majority of those displaced by the FARC ended up in Bogota, with 272,084 people swelling the slums in the capital’s southern end. In a 2011 study on IDPs living in the city’s southern suburbs of Soacha – the most populous in Bogota – and Ciudad Bolivar, those affected were encouraged to write phrases about what life is like for a displaced person.
“We were happy before, now we feel suffocated,” read one. “We’ve lived through the hardest thing, to leave behind our lands and throw everything away,” said another.
A 2011 report from the World Food Program (WFP) found that after fleeing their homelands displaced people would typically end up living in severely overcrowded conditions. The average would be 2.9 to a bedroom; 3 or more is considered critical by international standards. Moreover, 25% of IDPs found themselves living in declared danger zones, where there was a good chance of their home being destroyed by a landslide or flood.
According to the WFP report, only 6.3% of those who had been displaced in the last 2 or 3 years lived in adequate housing, and in a study of 7 major cities, including Soacha, almost 25% of displaced children under 5 years old were considered malnourished, double the national average.
Victims and Land Restitution Bill
The number of people being displaced by the FARC’s Eastern Bloc does seem to be reducing. The Prosecutor General’s study showed that, since 1997, the most cases of forced displacement came before 2002, and that since 2008 the rate has dropped.
In October 2011 the government passed the Victims and Land Restitution Bill, a wide-ranging set of measures aiming to compensate an estimated 4 million displaced victims over the next 10 years. They even created a department within the Ministry of Agriculture specifically tasked to manage the land restitution process.
“They are great laws, but the problem is implementation,” said Gabriel Rojas of the NGO Codhes, in an interview with the Guardian, adding that until earlier this year those people displaced by the activities of “BaCrims” – criminal gangs descended from now-defunct paramilitary organizations – did not count as victims and could therefore not claim the relevant protections and benefits afforded to those displaced by the traditional rebel groups of the FARC and the ELN.
The WFP report stated that the paramilitaries and their successor organizations were responsible for more forced displacement than the FARC, by 31.3% to 26.7%.
Rojas was repeating worries already raised in April by an IDMC report, which said that the Victims and Land Restitution Law “has been hampered by a lack of financial resources and delays in the appointment of essential staff.” Additionally, the report said that attempts to provide land restitution to victims has “faced violent resistance,” with “more than 700 leaders claiming their land rights [having] received death threats.”
Since November 2012 the government has been in peace talks with the FARC, hoping to end the country’s armed conflict. So far the two parties have only reached an agreement on land reform, part of which concerned returning land stolen from displaced persons.
Marco Romero, president of Codhes, told newspaper El Espectador in May that the peace process may offer a final solution to the problem of forced displacement: “In the long term we support the peace process. We believe that peace could offer a definitive solution.”
The negotiation teams in Havana, Cuba, where the peace talks are being held, are now discussing political participation, the second point on the five-point agenda.
- Las Farc y su política de desplazamiento (El Espectador)
- COLOMBIA: Improved government response yet to have impact for IDPs (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre)
- 250 mil nuevos desplazados en Colombia (El Espectador)
- Codhes official site
- Criminal Activities of the FARC and Rebel Earnings (Insight Crime)
- Colombia: Resources for humanitarian response and poverty reduction (Global Humanitarian Assistance)
- Colombia’s internally displaced people caught in corridor of instability (Guardian)
- Colombia (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs)
- Displaced people in Bogotá and Soacha: characteristics and protection (Revista paz y conflicto)
- La población desplazada en Colombia: Examen de sus condiciones socioeconómicas y análisis de las políticas actuales (MERPD)
- EVALUACION DE LA SEGURIDAD ALIMENTARIA Y NUTRICIONAL EN LAS POBLACIONES VULNERABLES DE COLOMBIA (World Food Programme)
- Comunicado Conjunto, La Habana, mayo 26 de 2013 (Press Release from President’s Office)