Rosalba Duran and her family of 11 live in a single-room hut on a patch of government-owned land on the outskirts of El Tarra in the northern province of Norte de Santander, Colombia.
Eight months ago, she had a house in town and her husband a job at a nearby fish farm. But the home in which they had lived for 25 years was next to an army checkpoint that had come under repeated fire by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) guerillas.
The Durans felt they had no choice but to move to this miserable stretch of mosquito-infested land, without running water, miles from the nearest schools. They are officially part of the roughly 5 million, or one in 10 Colombians, displaced by the conflict waged by the Farc, its revolutionary cousin, the National Liberation Army (ELN), and successive governments since 1964, originally over land reform and social justice.
Norte de Santander, bordering Venezuela, forms part of a corridor of instability stretching across the mountainous northern part of the country to the province of Choco on the Pacific coast.
The prominent graffiti extolling the Farc and ELN throughout these Andean towns, even a banner across the road in one setting the speed limit and levying a fine on those that disobey, underlines this is a contested region, despite ongoing peace talks in Cuba between the Farc and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos.
The mayor of El Tarra, Jota Mario Arenas, is honest about the difficulties he faces in trying to walk the line between the guerillas and the country’s capital, Bogotá, in a town in which the insurgents wield tremendous influence. Central government feels distant here, soldiers nervously patrol the streets, potential targets for the mines and improvised explosive devices increasingly employed by the Farc and ELN. The only doctor at the health post quit recently – the rumour was that he had been threatened.
Clashes over coca eradication
Since June, the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander has been in turmoil, with clashes between farmers and the army over the government’s periodic coca eradication programme. Farmers say it will deprive them of a livelihood, as no alternative crops are established before the coca is uprooted, while the government accuses the Farc of provoking the unrest and a strategy of confinement – the closure of roads in the area that locks up local communities, affecting their access to supplies.
“I do what I can,” Arenas told IRIN. But it was clear his political survival depends on not rocking the boat in what has historically been a major coca-growing region, where smuggling – petrol from Venezuela included – is routine, a vacuna or unofficial tax, is added to virtually every purchase, and the state struggles to provide services, security and the opportunities that would allow young men to resist taking sides in the conflict.
But it was to the local authorities that the Duran family turned to for help. Although land was provided, it was only 200 metres from an oil pipeline that the guerillas had tried three times to blow up. When IRIN visited, the Durans had received two payments, amounting to $1,100 (£725), and were expecting a third and final instalment from the Victims’ Support Unit. “This is not enough for so many,” Rosalba said.
According to the government’s figures, Colombia has 4.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), based on monitoring that started in 2000. NGOs, which begin their count from 1985, put the number at 5.7 million.
For the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha), the significant point is that the numbers are increasing. “There were more people displaced in the first quarter of this year than over the same period last year. Although they’re talking peace in Havana, there are still growing numbers of IDPs, more people affected by mines than in Afghanistan, and a reduction in humanitarian funding,” Ocha’s head of office, Gerard Gómez, told IRIN.
The IDP system
Colombia’s IDP policy looks progressive, strengthened by Santos and key court rulings. It recognises their rights, including to emergency assistance, social support and land restitution. “Unfortunately many of these rights are routinely violated,” assistant director for policy at the Jesuit Refugee Service/USA Mary Small wrote. “In general, programmes for IDPs do not cover all IDPs, are uneven in quality, end too soon and are underfunded.”
“They are great laws, but the problem is implementation,” Gabriel Rojas of the NGO CODHES (in Spanish) said. How IDPs are registered – and the trust required in the authorities to include your name – is one area. Until a constitutional court verdict earlier this year, the law did not recognise the casualties of the expanding violence of the rightwing former paramilitaries known as Bacrim, which will increase the demands and costs of the programme.
The shortfalls of the system also include a crisis of protection, where IDPs pushing for rights to land restitution have been attacked, especially by paramilitaries in league with the new landowners; bureaucratic undercapacity worsened by the tangle of the various programmes; and the basic problem of implementing care and support in the middle of a conflict where the government has incomplete control of the country.
Military pressure has pushed the Farc and ELN into hard-to-reach areas like El Tarra, or along the underdeveloped Pacific coast, and an eastern axis covering Arauca, Casanare, Vichada, Meta and Guaviare. Many of these disputed regions are drug-producing, mineral-rich or straddle lucrative smuggling routes. It is terrain shared with the Bacrim, elements of the former death squads, which, after demobilisation in the mid-2000s, re-emerged as rich, networked and ever-ruthless mafias. Along with the guerillas, they have a mutual interest in maintaining the state at arms length and their stake in the illicit economy.
“For the overlapping armed groups of guerillas, neo-paramilitaries, narco-traffickers, and organised crime, the war has splintered into a fight for control of land for large-scale agriculture and ranching, the drug trade, illegal mining and, at the Venezuelan border, the movement of gasoline,” Small said. “As the war has become de-ideologised, all armed groups rely on the strategic use of terror to control communities and silence opposition.”
African-Colombians, indigenes most affected
The violence employed by the guerillas, Bacrim and the military gives Colombia the world’s largest population of IDPs. It is to a great extent a rural crisis, in which African-Colombians and indigenous people are disproportionately affected. Although constituting just 14% of society, they comprised an estimated 83% of those driven from their homes in 2010, according to a Global Humanitarian Assistance report (pdf).
The majority of displacements involve a steady trickle of individuals or families moving to the cities. But major upheavals – of 50 or more people – are on the rise. Notorious gangs like Los Urabeños and Los Rastrojos were responsible for the majority of these displacements in 2011, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
Intra-urban displacement is also a growing phenomenon, with vulnerable IDPs shuttling between poor and unsafe neighbourhoods controlled by drug-dealing gangs. “They don’t want to leave the cities because at least they have access to services,” Rojas said.
In the remote ore-rich regions, gold, coltan and tungsten is replacing coca as the main revenue generator for armed groups, with only an estimated 14% of the gold produced in Colombia mined legally, according to Ocha. Communities farming the land are in the way, so large-scale forced dispossession is occurring. It can be at the barrel of a gun, a coerced sale at rock-bottom prices or a land grab legalised by a crooked notary.
Colombia’s long history of strong regions, weak central government and astonishing levels of violence by various groups of armed young men, suggests the crisis may not end with the formal demobilisation of the Farc, should the Havana talks reach a settlement.
Colombia is a middle-income country and in many respects has the trappings of a modern economy. But, according to Gómez: “In a country where you have [lucrative] drugs, gold and extortion, you might get a peace agreement today, but in the coming years there could well still be violence.”
• This article was amended on 14 August 2013. In the original, the writer referred to Mary Small as a Central America migration researcher. This has now been corrected. The quote from Small in paragraph 12 has also been amended.