BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The number of Colombians forced to flee their homes to escape fighting between warring factions fell by 32 percent from 2012 to 2013, the government said, in a country with one of the world’s largest internally displaced populations.
A report by the government’s victims unit, which registers and provides compensation for Colombia’s war victims, said 142,181 Colombians were forcibly displaced from their homes in 2013 - 64,323 people fewer than in the previous year.
Half a century of war - between government troops, rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and right-wing paramilitaries, who were initially created to fight leftist rebels but later heavily involved in the cocaine trade - has left more than 200,000 civilians dead and uprooted nearly 5.4 million Colombians, latest government figures show.
“The main causes of forced displacement are death threats... targeted killings, forced disappearances, multiple murders and the recruitment and risk of recruitment of boys and girls,” the government report said.
The Colombian government and guerillas from the FARC, the country’s largest rebel group, have been engaged in peace talks since November 2012 in a bid to end the war.
Earlier this week, Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos announced the government has begun exploratory peace talks with the country’s smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN) just days before voters go to the polls in one of the tightest presidential election races in decades.
But neither the government nor ELN and FARC rebels have declared a permanent ceasefire since peace talks began.
The report noted the government has kept up its military offensive against both guerrilla groups. This in turn means Colombians continue to be driven from their homes to escape the fighting despite peace efforts. On average nearly 12,000 Colombians are forced to flee their homes every month, government figures show.
Displacement is particularly high among indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities living in Colombia’s southern provinces of Narino and Cauca, the report said.
In these rebel strongholds, guerrilla groups fight for control of fields of coca – the raw ingredient used to make cocaine - and their stake in lucrative illegal gold mining operations, the report said.
“One of the factors that influences forced displacement involves tactics used by illegal armed groups to take over areas rich in natural resources and mining, as well as regions where there are crops and big development projects,” the report said.
CRIMINAL URBAN GANGS
The report noted that drug gangs linked to former fighters from outlawed paramilitary groups are also causing families to uproot as they vie over drug smuggling routes and extortion rackets in Colombia’s big cities.
Thousands of former paramilitary fighters have formed themselves into new drug gangs, known as BACRIM, which the government now regards as Colombia's biggest security threat.
Turf wars between rival BACRIM gangs - such as the Urabenos and Empresa, who operate along Colombia’s Pacific Coast and in its northern provinces - are driving families from their homes, the report said. Families flee to avoid their children being recruited into gangs or because they refuse or cannot pay extortion payments demanded by criminal gangs.
“An atmosphere of terror is noticeable among the population as a result of murders taking place, and because of the presence of collaborators and members of the Rastrojos, who are there, in particular, to expand micro-drug trafficking,” the report said.