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New waves of displacement

Colombia's offensive against armed groups has increased the flow of refugees across the Venezuela border.

Ebi, who crossed to Venezuela from Colombia, shaves newly arrived Nelson while his father Alfonso looks on in the border town of El Nula, 600 miles from Caracas, Dec. 9, 2004. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

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.