Colombia: A New Century, an Old War and More Internal Displacement

Nora Segura Escobar


Colombia and the Panorama of Violence


                At the dawn of the 21st century, Colombia clings to an uncertain hope of peace and seeks signs that might allow it to imagine a less anxious future. Many grassroots movements are attempting to introduce a new discourse of solidarity and to establish a vocabulary of reconciliation. At the same time, the power elites act on their own rationale and interests, in the name of the collective welfare and the various peace projects that they profess to represent. Meanwhile, an incalculable number of families and individuals, who have been violently expelled from the rural zones, cross the nation seeking security and protection in cities and towns. Most of them quickly shed the label of displaced and mingle with the poor urban masses, the majority of whom had already been displaced as a result of former violences.


                The violences, which Colombia has endured for over 50 years, have had as their main stage the rural areas of the country. They have made the peasantry and the colonizers of the agrarian frontier their principal, though not exclusive, victim. Today, migratory currents in multiple directions (country-to-city, intraurban, inter and intraregional) witness to the shifting nature and extensive geography of the social conflicts and to the unprecedented proliferation of armed groups, a development which has already begun to compromise Colombia's relations with its neighbors and to raise the temperature of conflict in the border zones. Since the beginning of the 1980s, the magnitude and degradation of the armed confrontation has made displacement the only safety option for many of the inhabitants of the territories in conflict.


                The "problem of the displaced" does not, however, correspond solely to confrontations between insurgent forces, paramilitary squads, and the state. Offshoots of these hostilities as well as other forms of the usage of violence —in the name of landed interests and the parcelling-out of regional power— expel populations from those areas involved in mega development projects and from those zones whose control is of strategic economic and military importance. It is thus a question of a very complex interaction between distinct types of violence (including common delinquency) spawning a terror that precipitates the flight of the unarmed populace.


                For many years invisibility and silence have reigned over the subject of the displaced. Only a few voices —inaudible to the echelons of official decision-making— spoke out, while some NGOs and religious organizations began important, although inevitably modest, support programs for the victims of displacement. Nowadays, although there exists a wider range of legal, institutional, economic, professional and organizational resources to deal with the needs of the displaced, the breach between the needs of these populations and the collective capacity to provide for them remains wide[1]. It is appalling to recognize the meager budgetary expenditures of some of the responsible government agencies, the bureaucratic insensibility of many functionaries, the technical weaknesses of some NGOs, and the lack of coordination between organizations.


How is Displacement Defined?


                From the point of view of its victims, forced displacement can be perceived as preventative action or as a response to specific risks[2], that which in any case implies a break in a way of life and of the social fabric, at both individual and collective levels of organization. From the point of view of the armed participants, whichever side they are on, displacement is the direct effect of the strategies of “the enemy” —the "other" is always to blame while one's side is not at fault.


                From an analytical point of view, forced migrations are generally classified into three categories on the basis of their imputed causation: those that emanate from the operation of economic forces (unemployment, technological development, and the exhaustion of natural areas of production); those that result from natural disasters (floods, landslides, earthquakes, and environmental disasters ); and finally, those caused by the force of violence (such as armed confrontations, intimidation, bombings, massacres, and threat of forced conscription). That which characterizes this classificatory scheme is that displacement is regarded as if it were the result of the chance operations of independent forces which affect unrelated segments of the population.[3] However clear the fact that such a typology is indispensable in empirical terms and from the standpoint of social intervention (both public and private)[4], it is also important not to lose sight of the effects of cumulative and causal factors on different segments of this same population as relates to levels of poverty and exclusion. Thus, for example, many displaced persons settle in undeveloped lands on the outskirts of urban centers, where risks of floods or landslides are high. Some had previously emigrated to new frontier zones in search of land; others come from families that had been forced to leave their lands due to former violences, still others have made the rounds of various economic enclaves or come as migrant laborers in pursuit of seasonal agricultural cycles.


                In any case, it can be argued that however distinctive the violent causes for expulsion may be, they lead to similar effects in the context of urban poverty[5]: high levels of incapacitation, vulnerability and disorientation. The suddenness and terror of the flight, the closeness to death, the intimidation and hostility, the frequent breakdown of solidarity between neighbors, the material and symbolic losses, and the erosion of the fundamentals of identity and self esteem, are just some of the factors that make violent expulsion a particular and very traumatic form of emigration, sharpened by the scant or nonexistent hope of return.


                 Official domestic policies failed to recognize these violently-induced displacements until the 1990s; this, in spite of the fact that there were obvious signs of massive population displacements is several regions of the country as a result of rising violence in the previous decade.


                During what is termed “La Violencia”, or period of undeclared civil war in the mid-twentieth century, reference was made to “forced migrants” within the scholarly conceptual framework of urban marginality, which placed the accent on incorporating poor urban immigrants into modern society. At the time, the strategies designed to support displaced peasant populations contemplated planned colonization schemes and the expansion of the agrarian frontier. During the 1970s, poverty, as a conceptual umbrella, blurred the differentiating elements among the victims of violence. Moreover, the comparatively lower numbers of peoples displaced also allowed for their invisibility. Thus, the state's global development policies amalgamated the poor from multiple origins without taking into account those elements which distinguished one violence from the other.


                In the middle of the 1980s, massive emigration brought on by the eruption and subsequent avalanche of the snow-covered volcano El Ruiz[6] and other natural catastrophes led the state to widen its interventionist approach to include the victims of natural disasters; approach which was later to incorporate the victims of narcotics traffickers’ terrorism.


                At the beginning of the 1990s, the specter of violence reached a wider range of victims. The term "displaced persons" came to refer specifically to expulsion, and precise policies were evolved to bring attention to this population. Policies to address internal displacement were finally enacted as laws by congressional approval in 1997 (Law # 387, July 18).[7] Currently, under the Pastrana Administration (1998-2002), these policies are part of the "Plan Colombia" and consist of programs which focus on the country's conflict zones and on crop substitution.[8]


                Growing awareness regarding “the problem of the displaced” and their codification as a question of public responsibility has undoubtedly translated into a new social sensibility in favor of the victims and pointed the way for new forms of action. Nonetheless, the doubt lingers regarding the degree to which it is more a matter of rhetoric than of authentic political commitment. To what extent does the written word correspond to actual budgetary decisions and to real administrative institutional functions? Without overlooking the obstacles common to contexts of civil strife, and without underestimating the priorities that high levels of conflict imply, the answer is not encouraging, judging by the information available on the situation of the displaced.


The Numbers of the Displaced


                The importance of determining the magnitude and geographic patterns of migration associated with conflict is obvious. However, despite dramatic increases in the scale, scope and degraded nature of armed confrontation in Colombia since the beginning of the 1980s, the first systematic attempt to record and measure violently-induced population expulsions did not appear until 1995; and it was carried out under the auspices of the Catholic Church and the NGOs, not the government.[9] Since 1993, the Office of the Presidential Adviser for Human Rights, with funding and counseling from the international community, has attempted to implement a system to record human rights violations in Colombia which would, of course, include forced displacement. But the crisis that accompanied almost the entire presidential administration of Ernesto Samper (1994-1998) enormously handicapped the development of this initiative. The discontinuity and temporary paralysis brought about in 1998 by the passage of power from Liberals to Conservatives, as well as other difficulties ensuing from the changes that the Pastrana Administration has incorporated into its peace strategies and administrative schemes for their management, have limited the development of the registration system.


                The various attempts to estimate the number of displaced persons have yielded enormous discrepancies. Furthermore, the enormous differences in the figures quoted, and in the periods covered, makes it impossible to establish comparisons. Thus, while the NGOs estimate that, between 1985 and 1998, violence led to the internal displacement of 1.5 million persons, in May 1998, the Presidential Counsel for Displaced Persons judged that, between 1996 and 1998, there were 340,000 people displaced, “whose levels of need made them absolutely dependent on aid from the state”.


                The Pastrana Administration's "Plan de Desarrollo" (Development Plan) does not assume a compromise with official figures, namely, those inherited from the former administration, and those of the Bogotá-based human rights group, Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES). Instead, it maintains that “in a short time the government will establish and apply a single, official method to quantify and identify precisely the number of displaced families, their places of origin and the causes for their displacement...”[10]. Hence, the present administration expresses its doubts regarding the statistics on the displaced and the methods that have been used to collect them.


                Nevertheless, the priority given to this issue by the current administration is evidenced by the fact that, at the end of 1998, the official Information System began systematizing the nearly 12,000 accumulated registrations that correspond to the period 1996-1998. These are the people who, nationwide, have gone through the necessary procedures to be recognized as displaced and who are considered eligible for emergency aid. In short, the discrepancy between the different estimates that are put forth suggests that, in some form, the political polarization also conditions the numbers, and that a more reasonable figure might be that of over one million displaced persons as of 1985.


 Geography of Displacement


                Colombia is a country of highly differentiated regions and this regional distinctiveness has also characterized the different dynamics of its violences, the specific tangles of conflict, as well as the nature of the armed groups and their concurrence with other power-exerting groups. Hence, displacement-repopulation and territorial control logics are inevitably articulated along regional lines.[11] For instance, regions like the Magdalena Medio, the Llanos Orientales, and Urabá have a long history of armed conflict and population displacement, while others —like the northeastern Chocó— have only recently begun to follow this path.[12]


The Spiral of Violence


                At the beginning of the 1980s the instances of conflict-violence-displacement began to increase at an unprecedented rate. Such instances spread to a large number of regions, including urban areas, they encompassed larger numbers and a wider range of actors, engaged an ever greater volume of economic and technological resources, and displayed a growing capacity to destroy, in short, horrifying levels of degradation in the conduct of the war. All of these developments affect population displacement patterns. Increased levels of violence and widespreading armed conflict coincided, on the political scene, with the peace agreements of the Betancur administration (1982-1986), with the birth of the Unión Patriótica (UP) —the political arm of the Fuerzas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC)—, and with narcotics traffickers' dual strategy to infiltrate and oppose the state. This state of affairs was compounded by the growing weakness and fragmentation of the Colombian state, the crisis of its judicial system and widespread impunity.

                “...Between 1981 and 1982 when the seventh conference of the FARC took place, military factors played a very important role; (...) it was decided that each front would become two, until there was one front per department. Three new fronts appeared in the Caquetá and Meta and another two in the Magdalena Medio. Between 1982 and 1983 another 10 fronts were added to the already existing 15. These operated in Vichada, northern Huila, eastern Meta, Córdoba, the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, the Magdalena Medio of Santander, northeastern Cundinamarca, southern Bolívar and central Tolima. (...) In the 1980s the FARC's growing expansion in the southern departments of Meta, Guaviare and Caquetá is explained —as far as financial resources is concerned— by the cocaine trade. The FARC also became involved in this activity in the departments of Putumayo, Cauca, Santander and in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta.”[13]


                According to this same source, the FARC's ongoing process of geographic expansion correlates with the progressive expansion of its sources of funding to include cocaine, kidnapping, and other extortionable sources of wealth in economically dynamic regions (cattle raising, commercial agriculture, petroleum, smuggling), regions which are very distinct from the relatively marginal zones that gave birth to the FARC.


                On the other hand, the growth of the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) dates from 1983 and is related to the Caño Limón oilfield and the construction of the Coveñas pipeline, in short, to the oil sector, which served as the ELN's main source of funding. These sources were later expanded to include extortion as of other natural resources such as gold, coal, and the export market. At the beginning of the 1980s, another insurgent group, the Ejército Popular de Liberación (EPL) became highly active in agro-industrial zones like the Urabá region, and, as of the mid-1980s, this armed group expanded considerably in the wake of the peace accords with the Betancur Administration.[14]


                As was to be expected, expanded guerrilla activity and narcotics trafficking throughout the decade of the 80s led to increased military expenditures, which far exceeded those of the former decade. Efforts were centered on modernizing military equipment and on increasing recruitment. Military spending also increased significantly during Belisario Betancur's presidency, with the exception of the year 1985. These hikes continued under Virgilio Barco's administration (1986-1990) and under Cesar Gaviria (1990-1994), who increased the ranks of both the military and police forces.[15]


                The emergence and expansion of paramilitary groups —linked as of their foundation in the 1970s to narcotics trafficking and the interests of ranchers and land barons— contributed new factors to the perverse dynamics of war. The extended use of kidnapping as an economic strategy or as means of exerting pressure on adversaries, among other factors, stimulated the investment of enormous sums of money into the privatization of justice and the improvement of military security, all of which obviously implies riding rough shod over the law, human rights and International Humanitarian Law, with varying levels of complicity on the part of the state security forces, depending on the region.


                Furthermore, in the face of growing security demands, the state also authorized the organization of peasant self-defense groups,[16] the majority of which were rapidly assimilated into paramilitary squads. Thus, in the middle of the 1990s, Carlos Castaño,[17] the visible head of the paramilitary squads, held that the Peasant Self-Defense Groups of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU) was “a counterinsurgent organization of a national nature, and we aspire to have a self-defense front wherever there is a guerrilla front. And the way things are going in this country, this is how it will be because, day by day, the state, through its Armed Forces, shows itself less capable of controlling the guerrilla advance. Hence, we must advance much as our enemy is advancing.”[18]


                Thus were established the determining factors for an unprecedented escalation of the country's armed confrontation and spiral of violence that in the second half of the 1980s raised the levels of extrajudicial killings, massacres, bombings, threats, and, as a consequence, of terror and displacement, to unforeseen heights. Moreover, apart from the armed conflict, but in intimate relation to it, all of the regions and localities of the country, depending on their specific characteristics, are now subjected to varying levels of insecurity and degradation in which many forms of organized delinquency flourish, reinforcing the different armed groups thanks to mutual alliances and desertions, which also serve to expand and accelerate the expulsion of the local populaces. The consolidation of large land holdings and traffic, in lands whose ownership deeds are precarious, fuels very real agricultural counter-reform movements, while the abandonment the countryside brings rising unemployment and poverty to towns and cities, added to the account of the displaced.[19]


                In the struggles for control over territories and populations, the real strength of the insurgent and counterinsurgent forces frequently lies more in the possibility of “taking the water away from the fish” than in direct confrontation. Thus, this strategy which focuses on undermining the enemy's social base renders one and all susceptible to becoming a military target. Initially, it is the organizations and their leaders which are focused on as friends or enemies, after that the civilian population is targeted; no space is allowed for neutrality.[20] As of this, the flows of displacement parse in different directions: they can be massive, familial, or individual; they can be cyclical or definitive, depending on insecurity levels; they can be made up of one experience or of successive episodes. For this reason, even a detailed description of the geography or of the magnitude of displacement at a given time can only be a weak approximation to the inner dynamics of this process.


 The Regions


                The expansion of the different guerrilla organizations over the national territory, together with the previously mentioned concurrent changes in the scale of their operations, financial resources and in the relative subordination of the political project to military strategies, reinforces territorial control as the principal axis of the insurgency's relationships with the civilian population. The paramilitary presence, as of its involvement with narcotics trafficking and landed interests, also imposes a logic of strategic aggrandizement and dispute for territory. Thus, any and all initiatives command a controlled and controllable population, and the emigration of those who are not.


                According to a study by the Episcopal Conference, between 1985 and 1994, of over a total of 586,261 displaced persons, the departments with the highest number of displacements were Antioquia and Santander, followed by Meta, Córdoba and Boyacá. The major reception areas for the displaced were, in order, Cundinamarca, Santander and Antioquia. For the third trimester of 1998, CODHES registered that the highest figures of expulsion were to be found in Antioquia, Cundinamarca, Santander, Bolívar and Córdoba[21]. In the intervening period, the number of massive displacements in the Chocó were dramatic, probably one of the highest in recent history. In the same period, major arrival areas were Antioquia, Santander and Bolívar, excluding Bogotá the capital city, which, according to this source, receives the largest number of displaced persons.


                Another source[22] identifies eight major agrarian regions, epicenters of population expulsion, that cover practically the entire national territory: the Caribbean (Urabá, Córdoba, Sucre); the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta (Magdalena and César); the Catatumbo and Perijá (Norte de Santander); the Magdalena Medio (Bolívar, Santander, Antioquia, Caldas and Boyacá; the North of the Orinoco (Arauca and Casanare); the Ariari-Guayabero-Guaviare (Meta and Guaviare); the Amazon (Caquetá and Putumayo); and the Southwest (Valle, Cauca, Huila and Tolima).


                Out of the 342 municipalities that had the highest rates of homicide, kidnappings and intense armed conflict between 1993 and 1995, 284 (83%) have a guerrilla presence and 152 (44%) a paramilitary presence dominated by systems of private justice in the service of narcotics traffickers. According to Cubides, there is also a great coincidence between guerrilla presence and paramilitary presence in the municipalities of Antioquia, Boyacá, Santander, Huila, Tolima, Caquetá, Valle and Chocó.[23]


Displacement and the Displaced: Before and After


                As data gathering passes through the sieve of national and international NGOs, through the churches and some state agencies involved in providing services and humanitarian aid, the public views displaced individuals as issuing from the poorest sectors of society, those who do not have alternative institutional or family support networks. Other social sectors who have some economic, social, cultural resources or solvent institutional or family networks, and who do not seek humanitarian aid, are excluded from the count and the analysis. Thus, the social stratification of rural and semi-rural society is erased in the characterization of the victim population, of its strategies of restoration and the paths followed to reconstruct its daily life.


                When there are such high levels of internal migration, displacement varies depending on when the pre-displacement and post-displacement phases occur. These variations are analytically useful to fathom the depths of destruction and uprooting, as much as for evaluating reconstruction conditions and resources. The time linking the two can be fragmented into successive stages or compacted into one movement, but its duration is variable, and its boundaries diffuse[24].


                When the peoples, families and communities expelled from their lands and uprooted from their habitats are dealt with as an abstract social category, their heterogeneity is blurred. Although many are rural inhabitants, others come from towns and medium sized cities. They contributed to their local and regional economies thanks to diverse occupations, to their relationship to the land and other natural resources. Ideologically, they might have sympathized at one time with one of the conflicting sides, or they might have taken an aversion to them all. Although they share the common lot of being the victims of aggression, insecurity and fear, of powerlessness in the face of weapons, of suffering losses, these experiences go through specific filters such as social position, gender and generations[25], among others. In the pre-displacement phase, experiences are conditioned by the nature of the violence to which the person is exposed, the risks and the probabilities of dying or surviving, and consequently, of being displaced. In the post-displacement phase, social position, gender and generational factors act as differentiating markers in the face of uncertainty and reconstruction dilemmas. Acknowledging these limitations to analysis, a brief and succinct characterization of the displaced will be attempted.


Gender and Age


                Gender —in terms of the symbolic construction of differences between men and women and as a principle that structures relationships— creates, under war conditions, a dichotomy whereby men are defined by what they do, while women are defined more by who they are. In pre-displacement situations men —more frequently than women— are the armed actors and, from this standpoint, are more likely to be the direct victims of war. By the same token, given that men, more often than women, are members of social, civic, religious, and political organizations and unions, they are also more likely to become military targets. Women, on the other hand, are primarily vicarious victims of war, because of their supposed or real relations with the combatants, or for reasons unrelated to their condition as social actors or representatives of the community. Nonetheless, sexual violence —a specific and atavistic aggression against women— connotes, in the context of war, the exercise of power and humiliation by the male enemy and, the affirmation of male over female. Furthermore, woman combatants, and those involved in political, civic, union, religious, community organizations, combine the common risks of both women and men.


                In the post-displacement phase, gender also shapes survival and reconstruction strategies, as much in the occupational sphere as in other areas[26]. In non agricultural contexts, while both sexes engage in the rebusque (the seeking of any means whatsoever to survive), women's experience and domestic expertise allow them to enter the labor market, through sectors such as personal services and others, whereas men's agricultural expertise does not provide them with a ready connection to the urban and non-agrarian economy. Moreover, women frequently discover new and broader social horizons than they had previously enjoyed, that which allows them the psychological resources to recover from the trauma of displacement. Equally, motherhood —as a primary female identity principle— constitutes a very complex force of both support and pressure to rise above one's losses. For men, the erosion of their role as provider —crux of their masculine identity and source of their domestic power— adds one more loss to those already suffered by displacement.


                The tendency to return, to relocate, or participate in the reconstruction of rural-agrarian or urban daily life, also differs depending on gender and the differentiated experiences suggested above. It is interesting to note that in the few projects sponsored by the state, and, principally, by national and international NGOs, the reconstruction of community life reproduces the gender dichotomy, perpetuating the participation of women only as housewives and mothers, once again excluding them as actors in the civic and communal arena.


                The generational level —as a factor that defines boundaries of specific activities and social relationships— maximizes, in war situations, the risks of recruitment and death for young men and women, while at the same time providing relative protection for elders. On the other hand, childhood —originally a protective barrier— becomes a basis for exposure to distinctive risks under the instrumental logic of the rule of arms. These generational differences also operate in the post-displacement transition periods, but this time in favor of children and young people of both sexes and against older people, who are slower to adapt to the new environment.[27]


                Child and adolescent labor is commonplace in rural and semi-rural areas, which is why educational planning and provision are not central to life in many homes. Before the exodus, schooling levels in the displaced infant and juvenile population tend to be low, due to the interaction between physical, economic and other difficulties of access to school, to the families' lack of appreciation and, in some cases, disvalue of education, and pressure to generate income.[28] In frank competition with school attendance, upon arrival at the reception area, both male and female child-adolescents become even more involved in the rebusque and in temporary employment. Girls and adolescent women become, in addition, substitutes for their mothers or other adult women in domestic duties. They care for infants, and participate is the sale of petty services and food products, as labor strategies. Despite the lack of reliable data regarding the impact of displacement on exclusion of minors from the education system, it is clear that the inability to participate in the written culture, that constitutes so many of the effective links with public and private bureaucracies; the spatial coordinates of the urban environment; the occupational structure; and so on, accentuate the exclusion of those that are illiterate by lack of practice or by total absence from the education system.


                By virtue of all the above, the households of displaced populations display features common to war situations, similar to those often identified as the results of poverty: low rates of masculinity, high rates of dependency, and an over-representation of women and minors under the age of 14, widows and orphans, one-parent families, and female-headed household —with the consequent lack of protection and fragility that proceeds jointly from war and poverty.


The Effects of Economic Displacement


                In the rural world and the agrarian economy, land is a means of economic, cultural and symbolic production. It constitutes a privileged axis of relationships, activities, life plans, and sources of identity, in particular for those who successfully construct a viable peasant way of life condensed into the ownership of a piece of land. Abandoned lands, harvests, animals, and houses —the fruit of labor and source of present and future security— are rarely protected despite overseeing by relatives or friends of the displaced. In some cases, land and house are abandoned in hopes of better times, but crops and livestock are lost. Finally, in other cases, assets are sold for less than they are worth in order to start a new life with some sort of material base.


                Multiple crises are rooted in the destruction of this vital domestic and extra-domestic space. The conditions of violence and degradation make reconstruction so unfeasible in this environment that the short and long term impact on personal, local, and regional life are incalculable. It cannot be forgotten that the consolidation of landed property and the concentration of wealth have gone hand in hand with practices of territorial dispopulation, and that the redistribution of forfeitures arising out of drug-trafficking activity is still but a remote possibility.

                The occupational diversity that existed among the displaced before their exodus (in addition to peasants, there are public employees, teachers, shopkeepers, professionals, the unemployed, street vendors and those who live off of the rebusque) indicates that this migrant population is socially and economically heterogeneous and includes floating elements.[29]. At any rate, it is mainly a population of medium and low occupational levels with modest remuneration for the men, and even lower for women engaged in domestic service[30]. Occupational opportunities in the reception areas are even more fragile, discontinued and unstable and, consequently, so are the monetary returns[31].


Social Solidarity, Dependency and Future Hopes


                The helplessness precipitated by displacement imposes a high level of dependence on public and private sources of protection and solidarity. The differing capacities to mobilize networks of personal and family support establish important variations in terms of uncertainty, insecurity, fear, and instability[32]. State programs offer very limited support and for very short periods of time. The displaced population, then, essentially depends on private support and solidarity, either through family ties, compadrazgo (a close-knit relationship established between parents and godparents), and other personal relationships. Beyond these supports, there is the social philanthropy of churches and the national and foreign NGOs. On the other hand, support from political organizations, unions, or ecclesiastical organizations is very limited. Research confirms the primacy of family solidarity in the transition process, followed by support from NGOs, both lay and ecclesiastic.


                 Previous experience in organizations or formal structures, familiarity with institutional culture, exposure to secondary and impersonal relations and information about the outside world, are a great help in the period following displacement. However, only exceptionally are those who have previous political, union or civic careers disposed to reveal their organizational links. The majority of the displaced are wary of participating in social organizations, and even more so when dealing with organizations of displaced persons[33]. The effects of fear intersect in diverse ways with the experiences of distrust and rejection in the places of arrival. The stigma of banishment accompanies them in their wanderings and therefore they attempt to erase the traces of this unwelcome “other.”


                None of this, however, stands in the way of the displaced circulating information about institutional offers of help, of demanding their rights, and of the presence of NGOs and other philanthropic agencies. Thus, this common identity of need allows them to recognize with gratitude the generosity and good will of persons they have encountered who have helped them in their transition to a new life. Nonetheless, we are dealing with happenstance, individualized relationships and not with relationships built upon an awareness of the benefits of collective action.


                A vision of the future, difficult to construct in the face of the overriding demands the present, rests on the dilemma of return vs. permanent abandonment of a former life under circumstances of realistic uncertainty and illusive hope. The persistence, for the most part, of the factors leading to expulsion in the regions and localities of origin make return a non viable option, limited to desires and fantasies (including those of the government)[34]. The vision of the future in a specific environment (rural or urban) or the delineation of life projects to overcome uprooting is tied to a combination of state action and divine providence made flesh in the NGOs, but above all, to an inexhaustible capacity for the rebusque. Clearly, while adults measure permanence or return in reference to job opportunities, sources of income, and abundance or scarcity of food, for adolescents the primary reference is to the high levels of insecurity in the urban neighborhoods and streets, which impose strict family controls, restrictions on when and where to meet with a boy/girlfriend, preclusions on having fun, and the constant fear of attacks, robberies, fights and other forms of violence.


The Crisis of Displacement: Summary and Conclusion


                By definition, violent displacement is a very traumatic experience both individually and collectively because of the series of disruptions, discontinuities, losses and deep wounds that accompany it. The degraded nature of Colombia's armed conflict and the strategies to control territories and their populations on the part of different combatants has unleashed a climate of terror and set in motion forces that destroy the solidarity between neighbors, instilling suspicion and deteriorating social relations, weakening community ties, organizational processes, rituals of integration, and interrupting the flow of everyday life.


                To all this must be added the multiple losses that include the death or disappearance of family, friends, or neighbors, the abandonment of land and possessions, and environmental destruction. In other words, all that makes up everyday life and nurtures the construction of individual and collective identity is torn asunder. Hence physically leaving does not guarantee that the fear and its effects —pain, disorientation, distrust, and uncertainty— will disappear.


                The effort to incorporate into an already tight labor market, saturated with informality, is perhaps the most critical knot in the place of arrival. For those who come from a farming background, mostly men, their qualifications and experiences are generally useless for competition in the non agrarian sector. Therefore both simultaneous work in several activities and very low earnings are the order of the day as part of the rebusque. For those, for whom the rebusque was already their lot in life, the crisis is perhaps not as wrenching.


                For most women, on the other hand, lines of existential continuity link them to opportunities to generate income. Their qualifications and skills, developed in performing domestic chores and in their private sphere, translate rapidly into personal services occupations, small food businesses, and other forms of employment and self-employment, whose effects surpass the merely economic.


                Child labor both inside and outside the home is yet another facet of settlement in the reception area. Domestic chores and childcare, street selling on a small scale, hauling groceries, begging and many other forms of rebusque are in open competition with school attendance for many minors.


                In the trail of these strains, relationships between couples suffer changes which tend to alter previous patterns of labor as of gender and age. The role of provider —a fundamental part of adult male identity and authority— is undermined by increased dependence on female and juvenile earnings, thus reinforcing responses that are deeply embedded in traditional masculine behavior and identity, namely, alcohol consumption, violence, and episodes of domestic and extra-domestic violence. But there is another response, which is nothing new in the traditions of Colombian gender relations, that of desertion on the part of the husband-father. Women, on the other hand, by prolonging their workday, can join the productive sector, that which serves as a source of power to renegotiate their position in the family, as a way of becoming informed, and as a means of widening their scope of social interaction.


                Female-headed households come about through physical or functional abandonment by the husband. This is another major impact of violent displacement on the household[35]. As in the case of other characteristics of displaced households, female-headed homes share many traits with households defined as poor by conventional methods, but the trajectories that have led to this similarity display important differences that need to be recognized both by analyses and intervention policies. The impact of violence on the structure of collective life in Colombia still has not been sufficiently measured or analyzed. In the reception areas, untoward pressures on urban terrains, public services, domestic networks, educational and health infrastructures, employment and subsistence sources exacerbate already deficient conditions. In cities such as Cartagena, Montería, Barrancabermeja, and Cali the urban physiognomy is changing and the informal sector is clearly expanding. In Bogotá, the effects of the growth of peripheral settlements is infamous, among other reasons, because of the levels of insecurity and delinquency, whose chief victims are the poorest sectors of the population.


                Collective action by the displaced people, such as takeovers of public offices, marches, and other ways of publicly evidencing their demand for recognition, have taken place in various regions of the country, and has on occasions fused with other political and social causes. Paradoxically, the massive presence of the displaced, and the limelight which has been recently focused on them, reorientates other social conflicts towards and against the displaced, making them, once again, the primary victims. The stigma which accompanies the displaced —that of a social problem, and source of insecurity, delinquency, subversion and violence— turns them, in the public mind, into the authors of their own disgrace, and makes them responsible for their defenselessness.


[1]  Cf. Salazar et al., “Identificación de la oferta para la atención a la población desplazada por la violencia política en Colombia”, Executive Summary, International Committee of the Red Cross, Bogotá, July 1998. CODHES informa, “Desplazamiento forzado y políticas públicas, entre la precariedad del Estado y el asistencialismo” Boletín No. 12, July 24, 1998, Bogotá. Various Authors, “Estructura familiar, niñez y conflicto armado”, Informe de Investigación, Facultad de Derecho, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá, 1997.

[2] The idea of displacement as “prevention” seems obvious in that the victims are the survivors of threatening events who sought to stay safe and preserve their lives (those that did not manage to do so are now dead). Nevertheless, the idea of prevention is subtly but significantly different from the mere “reaction” to terror. It refers to the degree of individual and collective disrupture stirred up by displacement and uprooting and, at the same time, to the public and private socio-cultural capital available for reconstruction.

[3] Politicized population displacements, namely, refugees and internal displacement, are most often conceptually related to phenomena of nationality, religion, ethnicity and class. Their visibility depends on, among other things, the episodic and massive nature of the movements, similar to those which occur after natural disasters. Economically-motivated expulsions, on the other hand, generally occur at individual or familial levels, and thus tend to go unnoticed by the public conscience.

[4] The association between exposure to violence and poverty can be seen in Mary Douglas, La aceptabilidad del riesgo según las ciencias sociales, Paidós, Barcelona, 1996. For the case of Colombia, see María del Rosario Saavedra, Desastre y riesgo: actores sociales en la reconstrucción de Armero y Chinchina, CINEP, Bogotá, 1996.

[5] The obvious question is, until when can a person or family be defined as displaced? Public policy, according to Law 387 of 1997, pinpoints a critical time of one year which can be lengthened in exceptional circumstances. From other perspectives, one might suppose that the material, emotional and generational effects of displacement can persist for a long time, depending on the relationship between the depth of the losses and the extent of the internal and external resources (in diverse order) at the disposal of the victims. The external signs, on the other hand, may disappear very rapidly or be intentionally hidden as self-defense and safety mechanisms.

[6] Saavedra, op. cit.

 [7] Under the administration of Cesar Gaviria, the Office of the Presidential Adviser for Human Rights began a preliminary analysis of displacement through an in situ mission by the Inter-American Institute for Human Rights. Their recommendations, along with those of the religious and non governmental organizations, were worked on by a government commission and later gathered as Programa nacional de atención integral a la población desplazada por la violencia, Documento del Consejo Nacional de Política Económica y Social (CONPES), report No. 2804, September 13, 1995, Departamento Nacional de Planeación (DNP). The governmental crisis during the Samper Administration hindered the institutional and legislative implementation of this program, so that it was not until after another CONPES document (No. 2924 of 1997) that a policy with the force of the law behind it was brought to fruition.

[8] See Presidencia de la República, DNP, Cambio para construir la paz 1998-2002, Bases, Bogotá, November 1998, especially Chapter 4, "Desarrollo y Paz: instrumentos y prioridades para la construcción de la paz", pp. 225-331.

[9] Conferencia Episcopal de Colombia, Derechos Humanos, Desplazados por violencia en Colombia, Bogotá, 1995. This study covers the period 1985-1994. The NGO, Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (CODHES), had carried out previous studies periodically published in a Bulletin, the latest of which (No. 11) includes information on the first semester of 1998. Diego Pérez of the Centro de investigación y Educación Popular (CINEP) covers the first ten months of 1997 in his Informe sobre el desplazamiento forzado en Colombia, CINEP, Bogotá, November, 1997. In view of the branching system of the diocese’s organization and the centrality of parishes in the local life, the clergy has enormous advantages over state institutions in gathering information about displacement.

[10] Presidencia de la República, op. cit., p. 236.

[11] This regional focus does not solely encompass a politico-administrative departmental scheme, nonetheless, it lends itself to the purposes for which the pertinent information for this paper is collected and presented. As to the "local" as a sociopolitical reality, Colombian municipalities gained force through the process of decentralization decreed by the Political Constitution of 1991. As a result, control over municipalities has progressively become an issue, and scenario, of conflict between insurgent and counterinsurgent forces.

[12] The case of Pavarandó (Chocó) is worth mentioning. In December of 1996, confrontations between the ELN guerrilla group and paramilitary squads brought about the displacement of seven black communities in Riosucio, inhabitants of the shores of the Salqui and Traundo rivers. The displaced divided into two columns. One moved into the jungle and headed for Panama, from where they were also expelled by the Panamanian government and security forces. The other column, about 7,000 displaced people, headed to Pavarandó, where they arrived in March of 1997. The journey was very painful since, aside from the obvious difficulties and shortages suffered, the fear of perishing along the way was overwhelming. The scarcity of food, shelter, and medicine, various elderly suicides, accidental deaths, and numerous births were all experienced on this twentieth-century version of the Trail of Tears. For several months the displaced lived in camps under the joint protection of the Presidential Counsel for the Displaced, the Red Cross, and some NGOs, but they never abandoned the idea of going back home.

[13] Camilo Echandía, Expansión territorial de la guerrilla colombiana: geografía, economía y violencia, Paz Pública, Programa de Estudios sobre Seguridad, Justicia y Violencia, Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Documento de Trabajo No. 1, 1997, p. 4.

[14] Echandia, op. cit., p. 4

[15] José Granada, La Evolución del gasto en seguridad y defensa en Colombia 1950-1994, Paz Pública, Programa de Estudios sobre Seguridad, Justicia y Violencia, Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Documento de Trabajo No. 6, p. 4. Granada questions the notion that defense spending necessarily means reduced social expenditures on the part of the Colombian state. He sustains that increasing resources and the enlargement of the state have allowed for both priorities to be seen to. According to Granada, from 1950 to 1994, the percentage of the GDP allotted to social spending was 5.48% whereas defense expenditures corresponded to 2.23% of Colombia's GDP.

16] In a seemingly naive (?) pretense at imitating the experience of the Rondas Campesinas del Perú (Peruvian Peasant Patrols) in their fight against the Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path), the Colombian government authorized the organization of groups that, in theory, should have carried out preventive tasks of gathering intelligence and alerting the authorities of possible guerrilla attacks, but which, in numerous many cases, took on a different character. In Urabá, for example, in 1995, the Grupos de Apoyo a Organizaciones de Desplazados (GAD) reported the existence of two large paramilitary structures. One was of a military nature, groups such as the Mochacabezas, Tangueros and Scorpion, armed with short and long-range weapons, and radios and communication stations, operated under the direction of Fidel Castaño. This military outfit was made up largely of ex-soldiers and utilized the most brutal methods to attack the guerrilla fighters and their social base. The other component of this paramilitary structure was the peasant self-defense groups, which were in charge of resettling the areas previously “cleansed” by the paramilitary component. They were recruited mostly in the same region, received monthly payments, and carried out agricultural and cattle-raising labors appropriate to the region. Cf. Urabá: el mayor éxodo de los últimos años, GAD, CINEP, ILSA, Comisión Andina de Juristas, International Peace Brigades, Comisión Intercongregacional de Justicia y Paz, Sección Movilidad Humana de la Conferencia Episcopal, and Consejería en proyectos para refugiados latinoamericanos, Bogotá, June 2, 1995.

[17] Fidel and Carlos Castaño, recognized heads of the paramilitary through the Peasant Self-Defense Group of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU), come from a family of Amalfí, Antioquia. Their father was kidnapped by the FARC and later killed because the fixed ransom was not paid. Thus personal motives of revenge and hate combine with other forces and interests to underpin alliances with sectors of the armed forces, the narcotics traffickers, and the land barons.

[18] German Castro Caycedo, En Secreto, Planeta Colombiana Editorial, Bogotá, p. 227. Within the framework of preliminary and tentative efforts to resume a stuttering dialogue that could eventually lead to negotiations and perhaps to future peace in Colombia, the FARC have demanded that the state demobilize the paramilitary squads, and in doing so have stalled a process that has not yet begun to advance. Analyses of the paramilitary phenomenon, like the recent one of Cubides and those of other scholars of Colombian violence, propose a much needed debate on this issue. Cf. Fernando Cubides, Los paramilitares y su estrategía, Paz Pública, Documento de trabajo No. 8.

[19] The presence of the displaced is viewed with hostility and varying levels of ambivalence depending on who is dealing with them, whether it is the civil or military authorities, the business sector, the church, the NGOs, or their neighbors. A well-known case is that of the 450 peasant families installed in the Hacienda Bella Cruz (Department of César), whose ownership was claimed by the family of Carlos Aruturo Marulanda, Colombia's ex-Ambassador to Belgium. Paramilitary action displaced 280 of these families. Some of them traveled to Bogotá and occupied the Instituto Colombiano de Reforma Agraria (INCORA) in order to press their demands. The then Governor of Cundinamarca, and later the civil and religious authorities of Boyacá, denied them temporary refuge. Finally, they were resettled on two farms in the Tolima department. Nevertheless, there are those community leaders and neighbors who think of the displaced, on the one hand, in positive terms, as a useful resource, while, on the other hand, they regard them unfavourably as competition, a source of insecurity, a burden on the local infrastructure, and so on.

[20] Beginning with the now almost legendary experience of La India in the Magdalena Medio, there have been innumerable civil initiatives in Urabá, Chocó, and other regions to establish local spaces for neutrality. In La India in 1987, the Carare Peasants Association managed for three years to carry out a very difficult peace project, maintaining an equal distance from the various poles of conflict (guerilla-army-narcoparamilitary), and generating development projects for the region; an endeavor that won it the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Recently, an indigenous group in Antioquia and Chocó, the Embera, also issued a public manifesto adopting an active neutral stance. Furthermore, under the name “communities of peace” the CINEP aids the return of the displaced to Riosucio-Pavarandó. The viability and impact of these initiatives requires careful analysis, much more so since the perspective of peace is Colombia's top priority at the present moment.

[21] Informe No. 14 of CODHES informa reported 93,072 new displaced persons during that trimester.

[22] Alejandro Reyes, “Violencia y Desplazamiento forzoso en Colombia” (n.p.) attempts a regional typology, without, unfortunately, clearly specifying his classification criteria, other than distinguishing between small and large property and mentioning land conflicts. See also CODHES, Alerta Temprana, Informe No. 1, May 7, 1998 and CODHES informa, Boletín No. 11, July 15, 1998.

[23] Cf. Echandía and Cubides, Documentos de Trabajo No. 1 and 8, respectively, op. cit. Note that in the period referred to by the Episcopal Conference (1985-1994) the first two departments on the expulsion list are Antioquia and Santander, which in turn also occupy the first two places in terms of guerrilla and paramilitary presence.

[24] In a previous work I noted some discrepancies between the studies on displacement and those on the displaced, and noted the need to integrate these analytical viewpoints. It is clear that population expulsion carries with it the destruction or deterioration of the social fabric or of the neighborhood and locality as the existential reference points of households and individuals. Until now we have observed the phenomenon as of household surveys, and paid less attention to studies on the impact of demographic, economic, political, and communal factors on localities and neighborhoods. However, for the purposes of this work, the household is a good reference unit. Cf. Desplazamiento en Colombia: perspectivas de género, Revista FORO, No. 34, June 1998, Bogotá.

[25] It is important to post a methodological warning of the risks of making inferences, extrapolations, or other similar forms of generalization about supposedly homogenous populations as of quantitatively, regionally or temporally limited samples. An additional warning relates to how, frequently, an overbearing militaristic standpoint (a perspective which is incompatible with principles of neutrality, or perceptions of nuances and complexities, one in which there can only be friends or enemies) creates another dichotomy that posits a categorical distinction between the unarmed population and the armed groups. The opposite is true; it is the difficult coexistence in a common space that shapes the framework of the relationships held by the civilian population with the armed groups. It is fear and an imbalance of power that forces the civilian population to operate in borderline situations, so that, in order to survive under such conditions, strategies of silence, mimicry and accommodation to distinctive demands of loyalty and exclusivity are indispensable. At the same time, the legitimate and real currents of sympathy (with one or the other of the armies) among certain segments of the population cannot be ignored.

[26] The strategies for satisfying the needs of the family can sponsor rituals and feminine practices that are very therapeutic, individually and collectively. Take for example the case of the “Olla Comunitaria” (Communal Pot) in Montería, which people elsewhere have attempted to replicate. Some very poor women decided to combine their very scarce food supplies to make a collective meal, that they cooked daily. This project was successful at several levels. Apart from satisfying an economic need, this nexus of solidarity and sociability was extremely meaningful in enhancing the women’s visibility and self-esteem, first in their homes, then in the neighborhood, and finally throughout the urban milieu. The effects on this empowerment of the women are evident, but as an indigenous leader told me “….for the men there is no communal pot.”

[27] Cf. Alvarez et al. Desplazamiento forzoso y reubicación: un estudio de caso, Procuraduría General de la Nación, Procuraduría delegada para la defense del menor y la familia, Instituto de Estudios del Ministerio Público, Bogotá, 1998.

[28] For example, a focal group developed in Bogotá with twelve young people (12-16 years old) who had been displaced from various regions both close and far from Bogotá, and with a displacement time between 2 to 25 months, found that only two of them had no previous work experience, several combined school and work (in a relatively continuous manner) and three had given up school completely.

[29] Camilo Echandía, in his analysis of the ELN, associates the exploitation of natural resources with a rapid and widespread labor-force immigration, and with its expanding influence on people with frustrated labor expectations and dissatisfaction with the companies that operate in these regions.

[30] In these cases there are two major sources of undercounting for the participation of women and children in the labor force. One is related to domestic work (which, as it is well known, is only considered as work when it is domestic service). The second is unpaid agricultural labor which is not part of the monetary economy and, therefore, is not considered employment.

[31] Domestic employment constitutes an area of female labor which is equivalent to male labor in the construction industry. Both represent the lowest occupational level, with a very limited and unstable income, but with a further disadvantage for women in terms of labor rights. Normally it means day work, in different homes, with below the minimum legal wage and without any employment benefits (paid vacations, severance pay, Christmas bonuses, which, in all, amount to 2 ½ additional monthly salaries per year).

[32] The paternalistic management of humanitarian aid, something which is unfortunately very common and whose antecedents are inscribed in the traditional politics of clientelism, tends to prolong dependency, to numb the search for autonomy and to reinforce the propensity of a begging culture.

[33] This defensive and suspicious individualism is not limited to the displaced population and does not seem to be a product of displacement. Affiliation to extradomestic organizations is very low among Colombians, and so it was for the displaced in the places from which they came. Paradoxically, among the poor segments of the Colombian society lack of affiliation coexists with solidarity bonds, manifest in the common sayings “the poor help the poor.”

[34] At different times and under diverse circumstances, public policy has operated with an implicit definition of the displaced as peasant or rural and, consequently, has targeted voluntary return to the places of origin, or resettlement at equivalent sites, as its primary goals. But it is clear that, as long as there is no advance in the peace process and no clarification of the path toward coexistence and security, the first alternative is nonexistent for the majority of the displaced, and the second is virtually impossible if all of them are to be resettled. The cases of Pavarandó (Chocó) and La Miel (Tolima) are paradigmatic of the experiences of return and resettlement, and of the enormous political, economic, institutional and technical difficulties and costs involved. As was mentioned above, in Pavarandó there were two experiences with divergent results. The first was a process of return under the proposal of “Communities of Peace,” and towards the recovery of the right to not be a displaced person, which involved the support of the Jesuit NGO, CINEP, and the capabilities to construct this community. This project was backed by France through a Human Rights Prize, funding, and a solidarity plan of sister communities between Chocó and France. The second was a process of resettlement which was initially under the auspices of the Presidential Advisory Board and later discontinued because of the transition from one administration to another. Consequently, its results have been highly unsatisfactory, and its chances of survival extremely low. In the case of La Miel, the government acquired two panela (crude sugar) haciendas in Tolima to resettle 70 of the 280 families displaced from the Hacienda Bella Cruz in the Department of César. The number of errors and the overly-high costs of this project are a clear-cut example of how a process of state intervention should not be carried out. On the other hand, in the case of Bogotá there seems to have been a significant tendency to return to the place of origin or to resettle in nearby communities as of personal initiatives motivated by the impossibility of guaranteeing subsistence and of tolerating the insecurity of the capital.

[35] There is already broad discussion regarding female-headed homes, particularly within the framework of what is termed the “feminization of power,” but in respect to the phenomenon of male and female widowhood, academic interest is just beginning to stir. The “widows of violence" have had, as a result of political violence (in particular that which targeted the Unión Patriótica and that which ensued from the terrorism of the narcotics traffickers), some public and organizational visibility in previous years. Cf. Nora Segura Escobar. Mujer y narcotráfico, consideraciones sobre un problema no considerado, Revista FORO, No. 14, April 1991, Bogotá. Another interesting angle is that of single-parent households where a man is the head of household since they somehow seem to correspond to a symmetrical formation with those headed by women. Nora Segura et al. La mujer desplazada y la violencia, Informe de investigación, Consejería Presidencial para los Derechos Humanos, Bogotá, 1996.

Translation MMMoreno

©2017 Mama Coca. Please share our information and help us to make it known by quoting Mama Coca.