New waves of displacement

As the Colombian army steps up its offensive against paramilitaries and guerrillas, more and more people are getting pushed off their land. Some have headed for other parts of Colombia while others have fled the country. GlobalPost looks at the issue from the Venezuelan and Colombian sides of the border.

SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela — Carlos Gonzalez still bears the scars of captivity at the hands of Colombian paramilitaries.

A left eyebrow disfigured by a rifle butt and the imprints of chains around his wrists are visible reminders of the 28 days he spent imprisoned in a hut in the hills above Cali, Colombia, awaiting execution.

Today, he lives in Venezuela, after a four-year journey spent fleeing his captors’ vengeance.

His kidnapping occurred at the height of the three-pronged war between the Colombian government, left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries.

The Colombian government claims to have made large strides in recent years in its war against the armed groups. But the flow of Colombian refugees across the border is actually increasing, according to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which analysts said suggests that an end to the war is not as close as Bogota claims.

The Colombian army is pushing paramilitaries and guerrillas into new areas, creating waves of displacement as these groups attempt to take control of the new zones. Many of those fleeing choose Venezuela because its laws are some of the most favorable in Latin America for refugees. Yet many still struggle to obtain services to which they are entitled. UNHCR estimates that there are about 200,000 Colombian refugees currently in Venezuela. Some, like Gonzalez, have successfully applied for asylum, but many live unregistered on the porous 1,300-mile border between Colombia and Venezuela, often exploited by farm and mine managers or, if they have a business, "taxed" by paramilitary and guerrilla groups that have spilled over from Colombia.

A math and science teacher from the Valle del Cauca in southwestern Colombia, Gonzalez became involved in a human rights group in his district. After a massacre by the Calima Block paramilitaries at Alto Naya in April 2001, in which between 90 and 120 Paez Indians and Afro-Colombians were killed, Gonzalez’s human rights group proved the army had been complicit, particularly the commander of a local brigade who later fled and formed his own paramilitary block. Gonzalez asked to have his name changed for this article.

The commander’s new block took Gonzalez captive and he was "tried" and sentenced to death. “They told me how I was going to die,” he said. “They said ‘you're going to kneel and on your knees we're going to shoot you and then we will open you belly and throw you in the river so that your family won't even have your body.’”

But by chance a woman who had been kidnapped for extortion was being held in the same camp and when police swooped to rescue her he kicked and screamed from his makeshift prison until they found him too. He was placed in a witness protection program and moved with his family to Bogota. But there, too, the paramilitaries tracked him down and when armed men began to appear at his sons’ school, he decided even a metropolis as large as Bogota could no longer hide him.

In 2005, he and his family fled to Venezuela.

UNHCR estimates between 130 and 140 people a month pass through its San Cristobal office, up from 2007 and 2008, said Enrique Valles, head of the Tachira office.

Since Alvaro Uribe won the Colombian presidency in 2002 with a mandate to defeat the guerrillas, the Colombian army has scored significant victories. Murder and kidnapping rates in the main urban areas have fallen significantly. In 2008, Uribe’s government chalked up three crushing blows against the main guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC): the bombardment of a FARC camp just inside the Ecuadorian border that resulted in the death of the guerrillas’ spokesperson Raul Reyes, the death of their iconic leader Manuel Marulanda in March and the audacious rescue of Ingrid Betancourt who had been campaigning for the presidency when she was kidnapped in 2002. Those victories had many pronouncing FARC a spent force.

But in reality, rather than bringing an end to the 50-year conflict, the army’s efforts have simply shifted the nature of the war in a new direction. Larger groups such as the United Self-Defence Forces (AUC) have fragmented into smaller collectives that now run the drug trade from the void left by the dismantling of the drug cartels in the 1990s.

“Some people in the Colombian government like to say that they are in the home stretch and that they are entering a post-conflict phase but the conflict is evolving,” said Adam Isacson, director of programs at the Center for International Policies.

As new conflicts arise, such as the massacre of 18 members of the Awa indigenous group in Narino last February, neighboring countries see a surge in refugees coming across their borders. A refugee law passed in 2003 in Venezuela created a national commission that registers and approves asylum petitions.

But registration has been slow. To date, about 15,000 asylum seekers have been registered in six years, a small fraction of those who have crossed the border, and about two-thirds of the claims have yet to be decided on, said CONARE’s president Ricardo Rincon, who says he has just six lawyers at his disposal. Rincon said that the commission has to be cautious because of Colombian and Peruvian mafia groups operating in people trafficking, while the global recession had also affected his access to funds.

The relative newness of the refugee law has resulted in a paucity of knowledge among Venezuelans and refugees alike about their rights. Asylum seekers have struggled to obtain credit loans and bank accounts to which they are entitled, while UNHCR has also learned of irregularities at the border where members of the National Guard have been reported to be demanding payments of up to $400 from asylum seekers for permission to enter Venezuela.

“It may well be that that is happening but if the refugee doesn't report the name and surname of the citizen who is doing that, how can we react?” Rincon said.

Gonzalez said he has rebuilt his life in Venezuela. His children are all in school and he gets by with casual labor in the construction industry. He has a new circle of friends and his family does its best to help other new arrivals fleeing Colombia’s troubles.

But he rarely talks about his experiences and suffers from vertigo and a fear of enclosed spaces — the mental scars, he said, of his time in captivity.