Colombians Flee Guerrillas, Gangs, Government, and Death Squads

EDITH and Jose were living their dreams on a plantain farm in Meta Province that had fruit trees and a brook. They were so prosperous, they even had hired hands.

Then a Colombian Army patrol stopped Jose one day and asked why he had so much food. He replied that it was for his workers, but the captain accused him of buying it for Colombian Marxist guerrillas and said he would be shot.

The couple fled to Bogota, an eight-hour drive to the north, where he worked tending lawns. Last July, five masked men showed up at their home, asked for Jose by name, and machine-gunned him in his bed.

''They left three children without a daddy, and me all by myself,'' says Edith, who now sustains her family on a waitress's salary. (Her last name has been withheld to protect her.)

The war between the guerrillas and government soldiers has forced hundred of thousands of Colombians to flee their homes in the last decade, creating one of Latin America's most dramatic refugee problems. Edith and her family are among some 600,000 ''displaced persons'' in Colombia's population of 37 million, according to a study released in February by the Colombian Bishops' Conference.

That figure could be closer to a million, says Carlos Ruiz of the Latin American Institute for Alternative Legal Services here. ''People escape by night and live clandestinely, making an accurate count impossible,'' he says.

While Colombia has 0.6 percent of the world's population, it accounts for 2.3 percent of the world's 25 million displaced persons, according to the United Nations. ''Colombia is one of the countries we're worried about,'' says Francis Dengs, the UN assistant to the secretary general on refugees, who visited here last year.

Colombia's displaced do not draw worldwide attention because they usually move one family at a time and do not occupy large refugee camps, such as in Rwanda. While refugees in Central America are concentrated in one place and are the product of a civil war, Colombia suffers only sporadic fighting.

Colombia has the oldest guerrilla army in the hemisphere and one of the most brutal armies. Three-quarters of the displaced persons interviewed for the bishops' study said they were driven away by guerrillas, police, the Army, or its paramilitary death squads.

The death squads, supplied by the armed forces, murder activists such as union leaders or even groups that lobby for an improved road into their village, according to the Colombian Social Assistance Association here, which provides aid and assistance to the displaced.

Colombians suffered 3,528 serious violations of human rights, such as those committed by the armed forces in 1994, according to the Jesuit human rights group, Cinep. ''Displacement assures a homogeneity of thought rather than ethnicity,'' says Jesuit priest Javier Giraldo.

The Colombian murder rate is nine times higher than in the United States, which has the highest rate in the industrialized world. Colombia has some 28,000 murders per year, while Britain, which has twice the population, has only 700, according to the British Home Office.

Many Colombians flee after witnessing human rights abuses. Perpetrators have been known to travel hundreds of miles to kill those who might testify against them.

COCAINE traffickers, emerald miners, land speculators, and others are also forcing peasants from their land and into the cities at an ever-increasing rate, says Claudia Clavijo, who wrote the bishops' report. Ms. Clavijo works with displaced persons at the Social Solidarity Network here.

Colombian drug traffickers have taken some 12 million acres from peasants to expand their ''gentleman'' farms or to plant illicit crops, according to Alejandro Reyes, a researcher in the Political Studies Institute at the National University here.

Sometimes speculators drive peasants off the land and then sell it to multinationals planning to mine the countryside. As peasants flee, the local economy collapses, causing more to leave.

Colombian government statistics show that 97 percent of the human rights abuses that drive the displacement go unpunished. Such a high degree of impunity only promotes further human rights abuses. ''The justice system just doesn't work,'' says Gen. Hugo Martinez, commander of Colombia's Division of Judicial Police here.

Ten months after Jose was murdered, no arrests have been made. Edith, like most displaced persons, is afraid to go home. The bank is foreclosing on the mortgage, and the farm lies fallow.

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