Cry of the Displaced

Cry of the Displaced
Posted by FoM on December 19, 2000 at 07:14:44 PT
By Robert Collier
Source: San Francisco Chronicle
Across the cocaine heartland, there is fear and pain - with lots more on the way. As the U.S.-backed anti-drug offensive called Plan Colombia gathers force in the coca-growing lowlands of southern Colombia, the hemisphere's worst refugee problem is about to grow dramatically. In coming months, tens of thousands of coca farmers and other civilians are expected to flee the advance of army troops backed by attack helicopters and herbicide-spewing planes. 
Many of the displaced people are likely to wind up in Florencia, a city of 200,000 that is the biggest population center in the region. These are the faces of Colombia's widening war: Maria Fatima Cordoba, who lives with her family in a hillside shack, fled her coca farm after rightist paramilitaries killed several neighbors. Another neighbor, Aurora Garcia, is on the run from leftist guerrillas, who killed her nephew. And down the street, Robys Salas fled the government's fumigation planes, which killed his coca crops and, he says, caused his brother to die of chemical poisoning. Different stories, different enemies, the same human cost. "There will be many people displaced," said Jaime Gomez, regional director of the Solidarity Network, the government agency that helps people made homeless by the war. "How many thousands, we don't know. But it will be too many for us to handle." Gomez's agency provides aid to 6,200 displaced in Caqueta province and 105, 000 nationwide. But it is just a drop in the bucket. International aid officials estimate the nation's real number of displaced people at about 1.5 million. In only the first six months of 2000, an estimated 134,000 Colombians were newly displaced, they say. The influx of peasants on the run has swelled the slums of major cities such as Bogota, Medellin and Cali, where the unemployment rate is estimated at more than 25 percent, crime is rampant and guerrillas and organized crime gangs recruit heavily. The $1.3 billion U.S. aid package for Plan Colombia includes $15 million to deal with the official prediction of 10,000 new refugees. But many experts say that estimate is far too low. "One of the biggest challenges of Plan Colombia will be to deal with the sheer volume of displaced people, which is likely to be larger than anticipated," said Alfredo Rangel, a former presidential security adviser who now is a consultant for the Colombian military. Under the plan, army troops are scheduled to start sweeping across Putumayo province next month, burning and fumigating all coca fields and fighting the main guerrilla organization, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Caqueta province is next, followed by other coca-growing areas. Civic officials in Putumayo and Caqueta say the two provinces' 250,000 peasants - most of whom grow coca - will face a stark choice: either flee their homes as refugees or join the guerrillas. "We are very worried that the conflict here will become uncontrollable," said Manuel Alzate, mayor of Puerto Asis, the largest town in Putumayo. Gabriel Castaneda, president of the Caqueta Chamber of Commerce, said the region's economy will be hit hard. "Plan Colombia may have a very negative effect," he said. "It will create a war, and despite all the money the government is promising, if it's anything like previous programs it won't reactivate the economy." Increasingly, diplomats are worrying that the plan may have international ramifications, pushing refugees, guerrillas and drug traffickers across Colombia's border into neighboring nations. International aid groups estimate that there are 80,000 to 105,000 Colombian refugees in Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela, although these countries' governments have not granted them refugee status. In the Ecuadoran border town of Lago Agrio, 1,700 Colombians have sought shelter since late September because of fighting between rightist paramilitaries and the FARC. Hundreds more Colombians are crossing through Ecuador and re-entering Colombia in western Narino province, where drugs and guerrillas are still rare. "This is just the beginning," said the Rev. Edgar Pinos, a Catholic priest in Lago Agrio who devotes much of his time to Colombia's displaced. "The worst is still to come - and the physical means to help these people won't exist." The United Nations, along with Lago Agrio churches, has already started building a camp that by next year will have room for more than 5,000 refugees. But Pinos and others say many more will flood into into the town once the military offensive starts in Putumayo. Government officials in Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela have warned that the U.S. aid package, which includes $20 million of military and economic support for Ecuador, is dangerously insufficient for the anticipated influx of refugees. The Ecuadoran government alone is asking Washington for an additional $200 million over four years to buy helicopters and speedboats to patrol the porous Colombian border - where 4,500 army troops have already been dispatched - and provide education and health care. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has steadly criticized Plan Colombia as the "Vietnamization" of his neighbor's civil war. The Venezuelan army has refused to accept several recent waves of Colombian refugees fleeing the violence, forcing them to return home even when refugee organizations complained that they could be killed. Colombian officials bristle at the criticism. "Plan Colombia will help prevent the displacement of people, because it will provide the resources that didn't exist before," said Jaime Ruiz, a top adviser to President Andres Pastrana who is supervising the plan. Ruiz noted that Plan Colombia includes $30 million for crop substitution programs to wean farmers off coca. But among those who already have been displaced by the fighting, many are skeptical about the anti-drug campaign. In the shantytowns above Florencia, Orlando Guaca, president of the Caqueta Displaced People's Association, says past government promises of aid have been empty. "We've received very little support from the government," he said. "All these people you see here - can they eat just the pretty words?" Aurora Garcia, in her shack nearby, is less eloquent but speaks straight from her heart: "I'm scared. They say there will be a lot of war. What will happen to the people like me, in the middle of all those bullets?" Note: U.S.-funded anti-drug campaign is forcing thousands of peasants to flee or join rebels.E-mail Robert Collier at: rcollier Chronicle Foreign Service correspondent Ruth Morris contributed to this report. Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)Author: Robert CollierPublished: Tuesday, December 19, 2000 Copyright: 2000 San Francisco ChronicleContact: chronletters Website: Related Articles By Robert CollierParamilitaries Keep Nation in State of Terror' Grip Tightens of Coca Money Hard for Farmers to Resist War in the Jungle Articles - Colombia 
Home Comment Email Register Recent Comments Help

Post Comment

Name: Optional Password: 
Comment: [Please refrain from using profanity in your message]
Link URL: 
Link Title: