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Run off their land

Farmers displaced by war and ignored by politicians are searching for a new life in Bogota's slums.

But even Colombian officials admit that they’re disappointed in the recent rise in IDPs.

“We’ve been stuck in our efforts to reduce the levels of displacement,” said Armando Escobar, who heads IDP programs for the government’s social welfare agency. “It’s worse than what we had been expecting two, three or four years ago.”

Analysts attribute the rising number of IDPs to the formation of new paramilitary groups. But unlike the ideologically-driven, right-wing militias of the past that targeted Marxist guerrillas and their civilian supporters, these new armed groups are focused on making money.

Government officials say there may be as many as 82 so-called “emerging armed groups,” which often clash with guerrillas and with each other for control of land that can be used for growing coca — the raw material for cocaine — or for smuggling narcotics.

In addition, there have been widespread accusations that these groups work in cahoots with legitimate businesses to take control of large swaths of land to mine gold and to produce palm oil for Colombia’s booming biofuels industry. “Today’s paramilitaries are closely tied to economic interests,” said Jorge Rojas, who heads the human rights group Codhes. “In almost every case where there is a big palm oil development, there is widespread forced displacement.”

One of the newly displaced is Maria Elvia Mendez, who lives in a rundown building housing IDPs in downtown Bogota. She used to live on a coffee farm in the southern state of Huila but then gunmen threatened to kill her so she fled to Bogota in March.

“I don’t think that the levels of violence have gone down,” she said. “If that was true, we could live on our land in peace. But there is still a lot of fighting going on.”

The Colombian government has set up temporary shelters and provides food, health care, education and small monthly stipends to displaced people. But it also claims that many poor Colombians register as displaced to scam the government out of benefits. Escobar, who runs the displacement programs, claims that two of every three registered displaced people in Bogota are frauds.

But Verney, the U.N. spokeswoman, says the number of displaced people has probably been underestimated because many people who lose their land live too far from government offices to seek help.

Only about 10 percent of displaced Colombians have managed to returned to their homes. Part of the problem is that many small farmers lack titles to their land.

“Once they are forced to go," Verney said, "it is extremely difficult for them afterwards to be able to go back or to hope to get any kind of reparations."