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Colombia displacement - BRI

Updated: Thu, 29 Aug 2013

In DetailBack to top

Thousands die and tens of thousands are displaced every year by a conflict that started in the mid-1960s as a Marxist-inspired uprising about inequality, land redistribution and poverty. It has gradually turned into a seemingly interminable war that has disrupted life in rural villages and remote indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, creating urban slums.

The main players are left-wing guerrillas funded by drug trafficking and illegal mining, an army bent on cracking down on rebels and their supporters, drug traffickers using jungle cover beyond the reach of overstretched security forces, and successor groups to right-wing paramilitaries who have morphed into sophisticated organized crime networks.

The paramilitary groups were originally formed to protect landowners from the rebels. The majority had demobilised by 2006, but new bands emerged, made up of the remaining paramilitary fighters, those who had disarmed but then returned to violence, and drug traffickers.

A hefty portion of Colombian cocaine ends up on the streets of the United States, and Washington gives strong backing to Colombia's war on drugs – called Plan Colombia – fuelling controversy among rights activists and environmentalists.

Although Colombian villagers want to remain neutral, they are sometimes forced to provide food, lodging and information to armed groups.

At the height of the right-wing paramilitaries' power in the 1980s and 1990s, villagers forced to help guerrillas were labelled collaborators by paramilitary fighters and were often massacred.

The 1960s uprising began just as Colombia was recovering from a civil war that killed 300,000 people between 1948 and 1957.

The victims of violenceBack to top

It is hard to pin down exactly how many people have fled rural violence or been forced off their land by encroaching drug production and armed groups, because many of the displaced are undocumented, living with relatives or melting into shanty-towns on the edge of Colombia's cities.

The government estimates that nearly 5 million Colombians have been displaced since 1985. The vast majority are in Colombia, which has one of the largest number of internally displaced people in the world, and about 400,000 have fled abroad, according to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).

Those most affected live in remote, rural areas along the Pacific coast, in central Colombia, and the regions bordering Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador.

Most Colombians who have fled to neighbouring countries are in Ecuador, with some in Venezuela, Brazil, Costa Rica and Panama.

Human rights organisations say Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples – among the poorest sectors of Colombian society – are disproportionately affected by displacement, with tens of thousands driven from their homes each year by murder, sexual violence and general violence.

The vast majority of the displaced are women and children.

Many have fled their homes to stop their children being recruited by armed groups and criminal gangs. Thousands of children have been recruited, a few by paramilitaries but most by the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

More than 5,000 former child soldiers have entered government-run foster homes and reintegration programmes since 1999, according to Colombia’s state child protection agency, but many others are still in armed groups.

Children as young as 10 have been used as informants or to transport arms, before being trained as fighters. There have also been reports of girls being raped and subjected to forced abortion, according to UNHCR.

Some of the children are recruited from schools. Some are enticed by money and others are forcibly recruited. FARC rebels have killed fighters, including children, who have tried to escape.

The government's war on drugs and a stepped-up military offensive against the rebels has shifted the conflict to more remote jungle regions – concentrated along border areas and southern provinces – so the plight of those who bear the brunt of the violence has become almost invisible.

Drug traffickers and armed groups take cover in Colombia's vast jungles, endangering a number of small, isolated indigenous peoples whose traditional way of life revolves around rivers and the forest, and rarely brings them into contact with outsiders.

Rebel groups have forced some tribes to grow coca for them, or forced them off their ancestral lands at gunpoint. Other tribes have been caught up in crossfire between different armed groups, or have chosen to flee their homes rather than fall under their control and risk their children being recruited into rebel ranks.

Indigenous peoples make up just 3 percent of the population, but live in most of the country's 32 provinces.  In 2011, UNHCR launched a campaign to protect 35 tribes, saying that the Nukak-Maku, Guayaberos, Hitnu and Sicuani tribes were in critical danger.

Civilians in the countryside suffer a heavy toll from landmines, giving Colombia one of the world's highest landmine casualty rates.

About 200,000 Colombians, most of them civilians, have been killed in the conflict, according to a 2013 report by the National Centre for Historical Memory, a government-funded research centre. 

The bloodiest period was during the height of paramilitary violence, between 1985 and 2002. Paramilitary groups were responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses, including massacres and gang rapes.

Armed groupsBack to top

Marxist rebels began fighting to overthrow the Colombian government in the mid-1960s, pushing for fairer and more equal land distribution. While the guerrillas have changed considerably since then, the inequalities that originally fuelled revolt and attracted people to the cause remain much the same.

The country's elite is drawn primarily from descendants of the Spanish, and most of the land is controlled by a few families and powerful business leaders. People of mixed heritage – indigenous, African and European – tend to be less well off and live below the national poverty line, according to U.N. Development Programme figures. Around 30 percent of Colombians live in poverty, according to government figures.

Despite the inequalities in land and wealth distribution, the guerrillas command very little popular support, especially in urban Colombia where most of the population lives. Their tactics – which include besieging towns, attacking oil and electricity infrastructure and, to a much lesser extent, kidnap – have alienated the majority.

FARC is the largest guerrilla organisation, and wields considerable influence in the south and east, in jungle border regions and drug trafficking routes along the Pacific coast.

Many youngsters in rural areas, where unemployment is high, are lured to join FARC's ranks every year.

But U.S.-sponsored military crackdowns since the early 2000s have significantly weakened FARC. Thousands have deserted, prompted by military pressure and government rewards, and many of the group's top commanders have been killed.

FARC's fighting force has nearly halved to about 8,000 in the past decade, and it has been forced into more isolated mountain and jungle regions. But it can still wreak havoc, launching military offensives and dealing heavy blows to state security forces.

FARC started as a group of Marxist revolutionaries in 1964, but became heavily involved in the drugs trade to fund its activities and grew fat on cocaine money in the 1990s. The rebels have built up ties with drug gangs in some parts of the country and fought for control over key routes in others.

FARC has also obtained funds from kidnappings for ransom, but the number of abductions has plummeted. According to government figures, 305 people were taken hostage in 2012, compared with 3,572 people in 2000.

In the late 1990s FARC held peace talks with the government of former President Andres Pastrana, who agreed in 1998 to pull troops out of a jungle area the size of Switzerland, but FARC used the demilitarised zone to regroup and rearm. Pastrana broke off the talks in 2002, and ordered the rebels out of the zone.

The group's lack of commitment to peace boosted public support for a purely military solution promoted by President Alvaro Uribe, who was voted into power in 2002.

Both Uribe and President Juan Manuel Santos – who succeeded Uribe in 2010 – called for a ceasefire and said peace talks could not take place until the rebels released all hostages, stopped recruiting child soldiers, ended drug trafficking and stopped their attacks.

Peace talks began in November 2012 without any of these criteria being met. Santos said there would be no ceasefire by government troops until a deal was signed, and has rejected FARC’s call for a bilateral truce. So, despite the talks in Havana, the violence continues.

The two sides reached a partial historic agreement on agrarian reform in May 2013, addressing one of the main issues that led FARC to launch its insurgency in the 1960s. The agreement, which includes the development of rural areas and providing land and subsidies to  people living there, will only take effect if an overall peace deal is signed.  

Santos has said he wants any peace deal put to a public referendum.

The first time FARC released high-profile kidnap victims was in early 2008 after Venezuelan-brokered deals.

Ingrid Betancourt, captured while campaigning to be president in 2002, was freed by the Colombian military in July 2008, along with 14 others. This deprived the rebels of one of their main bargaining chips for obtaining the release of jailed rebels.

FARC has freed other hostages since then and, in February 2012, said it intended to abandon the practice of ransom kidnappings.

It did not say what it would do with the hundreds of civilians it was already holding, and did not say it would stop the political kidnappings it uses to put pressure on the government.

The second main left-wing rebel group is the 3,000-strong National Liberation Army (ELN). It is much smaller than FARC, and uses drug trafficking to raise funds.

Santos said in August 2013 he was ready to start peace talks with the group, which has expressed an interest in seeking a peace deal similar to the one being discussed with FARC.

Its strongholds are primarily in northeastern Colombia near the Venezuelan border. It has attacked oil installations in the past, but these attacks have decreased significantly in recent years, as have the number of kidnappings.

The ELN was formed by radical students and Catholic priests inspired by the Cuban revolution, and was heavily influenced by Maoist ideologies and Liberation Theology, a radical form of Latin American Catholicism which flourished in the 1960s but was heavily suppressed throughout the continent.

In December 2009, the two left-wing groups announced they would stop fighting each other and focus on attacking government forces. But the two groups do still sometimes fight each other. 

In the mid-1960s, and again in the 1980s, landowners set up vigilante groups to protect themselves and their property from the ELN and FARC. These evolved into brutal paramilitary organisations with their own hierarchical structures, and also became heavily involved in the lucrative drugs trade.

Each paramilitary group controlled a different area or province, and their bases were in northern and central Colombia.

In 1997, the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) was formed as a loose confederation of paramilitary groups, responsible for widespread human rights abuses.

In recent years, links between the paramilitaries and politicians, government officials and military officers have emerged. In 2006, the so-called "para-politics" scandal was first exposed by a local NGO, the national press, and former congressman Gustavo Petro who is now mayor of the capital Bogota.

In 2008, 14 former paramilitary warlords were extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges, where they testified against military officers and politicians who had collaborated with them and upheld their cause, which was to eliminate the rebels.

The AUC called a unilateral ceasefire in December 2002, and the head of each paramilitary group decided if, when and where their fighters would demobilise. They began disarming in 2003, and completed the process in 2006.

But their influence continues, and new groups have cropped up all over the country, taking over the criminal networks previously run by the AUC leadership, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a 2012 report.

The successor groups, known as Bacrim groups, are made up of paramilitary fighters who never demobilised, those who disarmed but then rejoined the conflict, drug traffickers and other criminals.

They regularly carry out massacres, killings, forced displacement, rape and extortion, and number about 5,700, HRW said in its World Report 2012. They are actively recruiting new members. 

DemobilisationBack to top

Alvaro Uribe came to power in 2002 on a pledge to wipe out the insurgency. He launched the U.S.-backed "Patriot Plan" in 2004 in a renewed crackdown on guerrillas and an attempt to break FARC's strength in southern Colombia.

Uribe also promoted new legislation – the Justice and Peace Law – which came into force in July 2005, providing the legal framework for the demobilisation of combatants, help for them to make the transition to civilian life, and compensation for victims of war crimes.

The government promised combatants freedom in civilian life or reduced jail sentences for crimes such as murder and massacres, in return for confessions and the return of illegal goods, including land and property.

The government's main aim with the law was to demobilise paramilitaries – about 30,000 handed in their arms – but it also applies to rebel groups.

Despite this effort, the United Nations and many analysts say it did not end the influence of paramilitary groups or dismantle their criminal and cocaine-smuggling operations.

Experts say that a key problem with the demobilisation process is that the government failed to provide enough jobs and training for ex-fighters, and some of them rejoined the conflict.

The law also provides compensation for victims of war crimes, and led to the formation of Justice and Peace Units overseen by the Attorney General's office to try ex-militia members.

Semi-secret connections between the paramilitaries and the political establishment and armed forces were thrust into the limelight when former militia leaders gave evidence about their high-profile friends. Dozens of lawmakers and elected officials, including local governors and mayors, have been imprisoned for conspiring with paramilitary groups.

A separate National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation was established to uncover the truth regarding the death and disappearance of paramilitary victims, find ways for reparation and pave the way for national reconciliation.

The Catholic Church has independently compiled a confidential database of human rights violations. And the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is helping put together databases of missing people, which it estimates number about 50,000.

Rights activists say the law is weak and does not provide enough incentive for ex-combatants to confess. Few victims have received reparations and few paramilitary chiefs have been sentenced for war crimes.

But, however flawed, most observers say the law is better than nothing.

President Santos has pushed through major reforms to address some of the structural issues of the long war.

The June 2011 Victims' Rights and Land Restitution Law promises to compensate more than 3 million victims of violence. They will receive access to healthcare and recovery of their lands taken by illegal armed groups, as well as monetary compensation. So far, judges have ordered the return of tens of thousands of hectares of land under the law.

The government hopes the move will boost agriculture and ensure once idle lands are cultivated again and allow displaced families to return to their lands.

The 2012 Legal Framework for Peace will regulate the punishment of war crimes and reparations for victims if guerrilla groups sign peace deals.

It has been strongly criticised by the opposition and human rights groups who say it allows guerrillas responsible for horrific war crimes to benefit from soft prison sentences or escape prosecution altogether.

Only members of FARC and ELN stand to benefit from the law. It excludes criminals involved with drug cartels or former paramilitary groups.

Drugs and the United StatesBack to top

Colombia has been an important drug producer since the late 1970s, handling about 90 percent of the cocaine that ends up in North America, according to the 2011 International Narcotics Control Board report, as well as a significant amount of heroine.

Indigenous communities in Colombia and neighbouring Bolivia and Peru have grown coca for centuries. The coca leaves have some cultural significance, and they are chewed as a stimulant that dulls hunger, altitude sickness and decreases fatigue.

But most of Colombia's production is now linked to the cocaine industry. Coca is grown and processed in clandestine jungle hideouts where environmentalists say toxic waste is dumped into the ground and pollutes water sources. Once it is on the way to becoming crack or cocaine, it is a far more potent drug and makes larger profits.

Drug traffickers are active in the areas bordering Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador, and have no scruples about throwing villagers off their land in order to turn it into new drug sites.

Colombian drug cartels play a big role in the whole chain of production from growth to distribution, although Mexican drug cartels now control many distribution routes from Colombia to Central America and then into the United States.

Much of the trade is believed to be controlled by FARC and paramilitary successor groups.

FARC controls more than 60 percent of the trade, Colombia’s police chief said in April 2013. FARC says it cultivates coca, but it has strongly rejected accusations that it trades with overseas buyers or arranges shipment of cocaine to the United States and Europe.

Since the armed groups get their income from drugs, they are not very dependent on popular support, and have little to gain from giving up their lucrative business.

The United States, which says Colombia is also a source of heroin, has weighed in heavily on the war on drugs, giving Colombia billions of dollars in aid since 2000. But critics say the U.S. assistance beefs up military operations which often have repressive effects for civilians.

A campaign to eradicate coca crops by aerial-spraying of heavy-duty chemicals has had mixed results. The U.S. government says sprayed areas rarely come under cultivation the following year, but its own research shows that drug traffickers are constantly expanding into new zones, cutting down forests and displacing communities as they go.

The United Nations says drug traffickers have also expanded in Bolivia and Peru, where coca production has risen.

Aid agencies and environmentalists are concerned about the impact of spraying on non-drug crops and on people who live in the areas, which include national parks.

President Santos and other South American leaders have called for a rethink of the global fight against drugs.

In May 2012, Colombian lawmakers passed the first draft of a bill that would decriminalise the cultivation of coca and marijuana, but still make trafficking illegal.

Those supporting the bill say it would lower the price of coca by flooding the market and creating incentives for farmers to grow legal crops.

The Colombian government, however, has said the law would violate the country's commitments to international narcotics treaties.

Some experts say farmers would find it extremely hard to switch to other crops in some places because FARC has threatened farmers who want to give up. And the difficulty of transporting produce to market on jungle and mountain roads is a major challenge to farmers who want to grow legal crops.

Violent crimeBack to top

Violence plagues Colombians from all walks of life.

Although violent crime, including kidnapping and murder, has fallen considerably since the early 2000s, it has not ended. Murder rates have declined from 21,451 murders in 2003 to 13,616 in 2012, according to government figures.

The most vulnerable to violent crime are young men aged 17 to 25, and much of the violent crime in Colombia's main cities involves drug turf wars in impoverished neighbourhoods.

Many of the kidnap targets are fairly wealthy, since Colombia is a middle-income country with a growing middle class and an elite living in luxury with armed guards in gated neighbourhoods. Foreign oil workers and business leaders are also targets.

Human rights defenders and trade unionists are often threatened and attacked, Human Rights Watch says.

More than 2,900 trade union leaders have been assassinated since 1986, according to Colombia’s National Labor School.

It is a risky country to be a journalist, too, with reporters frequently targeted and sometimes murdered for exposing corruption, human rights issues and abuses of power.

Colombia has lived through periods of intense violence virtually since independence from Spain in 1819. The country's two main political parties – the Liberals and the Conservatives – were involved in bloody conflicts after their formation in the mid-19th century, even though their ideologies were almost indistinguishable.

Around 120,000 people died in "The War of a Thousand Days" between 1899 and 1903, and 300,000 people were killed in another period of civil conflict between 1948 and 1957.

After this, the two parties agreed to alternate power to end the battles and banned all other parties. The country now has a democratic system, but some analysts argue that Colombia has never known real democracy or the rule of law, and that is one reason why it is so hard to achieve peace.

LinksBack to top

The BBC country profile includes profiles of armed groups.

The Centre for Research and Popular Education (Centro de investigaciones y Educacion Popular CINEP) is a think tank which tracks human rights violations. Its website, in Spanish, includes a round-up of the latest news and reports from rural areas.

The Colombian government's Presidential Human Rights Programme compiles data on kidnappings, murders and massacres. It's in Spanish, but its statistics lists are fairly easy to navigate even with rudimentary vocabulary.

Colombian think tank Fundacion Seguridad y Democracia - Security and Democracy Foundation - in Spanish, compiles data on urban safety levels, as well as deaths in combat, and looks at trends over the past few years.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre collates displacement estimates from a range of sources, and publishes its own analytical reports.

Belgian think tank International Crisis Group offers in-depth reports on the demobilisation process and the role of drugs in the conflict.

The U.S.-based Center for International Policy has useful reports on U.S. policy in Colombia.

The U.N. Refugee Agency, UNHCR, has a page on Colombia.

U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs offers a plethora of reports, maps and links to organisations working in Colombia, in Spanish.

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime regularly reports on trends in coca cultivation in the Andes.

It's a bit hard to find relevant information on the website of the U.S. Office of national Drug Control Policy but if you dig deep you can find the official U.S. line on the efficiency of aerial coca crop eradication, and estimates of drug harvests and the size of South American lands being used for cultivation.

TimelineBack to top

1948-1957 - Civil war kills 250,000 to 300,000 people

1949 - Galeras volcano kills 1,000 people

1958 - Civil war ended by a pact between rival political parties - Conservatives and Liberals - to alternate power

1964 - Left-wing guerrilla organisation Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) forms

1965 - National Liberation Army (ELN) formed by radical priests and students

1967 - Gabriel Garcia Marquez publishes epic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, one of the seminal works of Latin American magical realism

1971 - Another left-wing guerrilla organisation, M-19, emerges

1982 - Gabriel Garcia Marquez wins Nobel Prize for Literature

1985 - About 22,000 people die when Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupts

1993 - Pablo Escobar, notorious leader of the infamous Medellin-based drugs cartel, killed trying to escape arrest

1989 - M-19 becomes legal political party

1999 - About 1,200 people killed by earthquake in town of Armenia

1999 - President Andres Pastrana Arango launches Plan Colombia, to eradicate drug production with U.S. financial and military assistance


Presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt taken hostage, later becomes a symbol of political kidnappings

President Alvaro Uribe takes office

2003 - Paramilitaries in United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) start demobilising

2004 - Law changed to permit presidential re-election


Jul - Justice and Peace Law comes into force, providing for demobilisation of combatants, help for them to make the transition to civilian life, and compensation for victims of war crimes

Dec - Exploratory peace talks in Havana between the ELN and the government


Feb - More ELN-government talks, but don't agree anything except to talk again

Apr - Last of AUC hand in arms

May - Uribe re-elected

Nov - More ELN-government talks in Havana

Nov - Scandal erupts close to President Pastrana when eight lawmakers and a former security police chief arrested on charges they colluded with paramilitaries


July - Government releases dozens of jailed FARC prisoners, hoping it will lead to hostage releases. FARC continues to say it will only free hostages if government pulls back troops and establishes a demilitarised zone Massive protests in Bogota against kidnappings and conflict


Jan - FARC rebels free two women hostages after mediation by Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez, raising hopes for dozens of other captives

Feb - FARC frees four more hostages after Venezuelan mediation

Mar - Short-lived diplomatic crisis between Colombia and its regional neighbours - Ecuador and Venezuela in particular - after Colombian raid on Ecuadorean territory which kills FARC's number two man, Raul Reyes. Rebels say Reyes had been influential in mediation to free more hostages

Jul - Ingrid Betancourt and other hostages freed by Colombian troops


Feb - FARC frees six high-profile hostages

Mar - FARC frees Swede Erik Roland Larsson. Uribe offers the group peace talks if it halts "criminal activities" and declares a cease-fire

Jul-Aug - Colombia and accuses Venezuela of supplying arms to FARC. Venezuela withdraws ambassador from Bogota and accuses Colombia of a military incursion into its territory

Oct - Bogota allows U.S. to use Colombian military bases in its war against drugs

Nov - Venezuela orders 15,000 troops to Colombian border Former army general Jaime Humberto Uscategui is jailed for his role in massacre of civilians by right-wing paramilitaries

Dec - FARC and ELN announce end to armed clashes between them, and say will unite against government. FARC kill governor of Caqueta state


Feb - Constitutional court blocks a referendum which could have led to Uribe running for third term

Mar - Legislative elections

Apr - FARC calls for renewed hostages-for-prisoners talks

May - Juan Manuel Santos wins presidential elections. About 350,000 troops deployed amid fears of FARC attacks, but government says election day is calm

Jul - New Congress sworn in

Venezuela cuts diplomatic ties with Colombia after being accused of harbouring FARC rebels

Aug - Santos takes over as president. Colombia and Venezuela restore diplomatic ties

The Constitutional Court suspends an agreement allowing the United States use of military bases in Colombia


Feb - The U.N. Office of the High commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) says massacres by paramilitary successor groups rose 40 percent in 2010.

Jun - Victims' Rights and Land Restitution Law comes into effect, that aims to compensate more than 3 million victims of violence

Jul – The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says coca cultivation in Colombia fell 15 percent between 2009 and 2010

Sep - Supreme Court sentences former director of presidential security under Uribe, Jorge Noguera, to 25 years' prison for collaboration with paramilitary leaders

Oct – Violence mars build up to municipal and departmental elections. Dozens of candidates are killed and many abandon campaigns because of threats. Former left-wing rebel Gustavo Petro is elected mayor of Bogota

Santos dissolves the domestic intelligence service

U.S. Congress passes U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement

Nov – FARC commander-in-chief Guillermo Leon Saenz is killed in a military attack

Dec - Country-wide protests against FARC

Jan - Colombia’s historic victims’ law, which offers up to $12,000 compensation to victims and families of those who have died in the violence inflicted by all sides in the conflict, comes into effect

Feb - FARC says it will free all military, police hostages and abandon ransom kidnappings

Apr - FARC releases last ten military/police hostages. Santos says release important but FARC needs to free all remaining civilian hostages. FARC leader "Timochenko" says willing to discuss peace

Jun - Congress passes the Legal Framework for Peace amendment to the constitution, laying the foundation for peace talks with FARC. It is strongly criticised by opposition and human rights groups who say it will allow guerrillas responsible for horrific abuses to go scot-free

Nov - Peace talks between the government and FARC begin. FARC announces a unilateral ceasefire, which ends in Jan. 2013


May - The government and FARC reach an historic agreement on agrarian reform, to be implemented if an overall peace deal is agreed

Jul - The political party linked to FARC, called the Patriotic Union, regains its legal status.

A government-funded report says more than 220,000 people have been killed in the conflict since 1958, most of them civilians

Aug - Santos says he is ready to start peace talks with the ELN

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