Colombia's Five Million Internal Refugees Lost In Criminal No-Man's Land

Colombia is a paradox, with rising economic growth concentrated in urban areas and apparent progress in fighting both leftist guerillas and drug cartels. But there's a dirty little secret that won't go away: more internally displaced peo

An anti-FARC rally in Medellin in 2008 (medea material)
An anti-FARC rally in Medellin in 2008 (medea material)
Pierre Hazan

MONTERIA - Two fans are blasting away in the offices of the Corsoc social development association. The heat is moist, and our clothes are steeped in humidity. We are in Monteria, in the State of Cordoba, 90 minutes away by plane from the Colombian capital Bogota. It is a world away.

In this world, conventional justice has no place and the State institutions barely function. It is also a place where the earth is ripe with riches - gold, nickel, oil, coal and, of course, coca.

But these resources are hoarded by the strongest: those who speak with weapons. This is the kingdom of drug traffickers and other "Bacrim," the name given to criminal groups here. They are often demobilized paramilitaries who quickly switch over to drug trafficking, in addition to the Marxist FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia) and ELN (National Liberation Army) guerillas.

It's been two years since the representatives of internal refugees - driven from their lands by one of these armed groups - last met in this office. It's too visible, and therefore too dangerous. Their predecessors were assassinated. But today some of them insisted on this meeting with three passing Swiss diplomats to try to alert the world to their plight.

Mô Bleeker is one of these diplomats. She is the special envoy from the Swiss Federal Foreign Affairs Department (DFAE) in charge of a special task force for the "treatment of the past and atrocity prevention." She and the others have come to see for themselves the situation and to evaluate how Switzerland might continue to help broker a negotiated solution. This is a key moment: on June 29 2011, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos passed a law for the "victims and the return of land."

A conflict focused on land

In Colombia, which has never had any agrarian reform, land is at the heart of the conflict. By compensating for or returning 3 to 6.5 million hectares of land stolen by armed groups to millions of displaced peasants, the government in Bogota is trying to cut the grass under the FARC's feet and to launch a political process that could lead to peace. The difficulties and risks are enormous: can the authorities protect those who are claiming their lands? Won't the law be subverted to legalize stolen land?

On that day in Monteria, the overview that the dozen leaders of displaced populations give to the Swiss diplomats is gloomy. "The armed groups don't hesitate to kill us to take our lands. Pressing charges only increases the danger. Here, most judges and policemen are terrorized, when they're not in cahoots with the "Bacrim," says Josué, the chieftain of the indigenous Suni people (his name was modified). "The government in Bogota doesn't hear us. It will listen to you: tell them about our plight. The State has to intervene. We will not move any more: we live here or we die here."

The other leaders tell similar stories about a population stuck in the crossfire of armed groups that battle each other to control resources, when they are not collaborating to split the profitable drug market. The leaders say the UN, Switzerland and other governments have to take them out of their dangerous isolation.

Far from Bogota's interests and the capital's media attention, these populations are paying a heavy price: Colombia holds the sad record for the largest number of internal refugees in the world. Since 1985, over 5 million people were forced to flee their homes, if which 80% are women and children.

His finger on the map, another leader gives a quick overview of the situation: "Here, in the south of Cordoba State, drug traffickers are growing 4,000 hectares of coca. Here, you can see the roads that lead to the Atlantic coast where the drugs are exported. Here, the little green triangles represent "Bacrim" base camps, and farther away, the guerilla, but it is relatively weak here."

This is the paradox of Colombia: on the one hand, there are entire regions without any rule of law inhabited by half of the population. And, on the other hand, a 6% economic growth rate that attracts multinational companies, skilled workers, functioning institutions in urban centers and a large market for exported goods.

Writing history in the present

In this country torn by war for 60 years and 20 times the size of Switzerland, what can Swiss diplomacy do? Because of its good relations with the Colombian government and its links with civil society, the government in Bogota asked for help setting up instruments for transitional justice in 2007. In 2010, Swiss diplomacy presided over the G-24 in Bogota, an institution that determines the general orientations of institutional backers and that is devoted to peace in Colombia. It now leads a G-24 sub-group on human rights.

But one of the DFAE's niche expertise areas is the "treatment of the past." It actively supports the Colombian Historical Memory Group (GMH) and presides its International Consulting Council. The GMH's mandate is to write the history of crimes during a conflict that is still on going. The ambition is to create a favorable environment for negotiations. History is thus written not after the establishment of peace, but before, to facilitate it.

This Swiss contribution is in line with its soft power: traditional pragmatism combined with a strong expertise in specific domains, and without the interests and resources of a great power.

In its 11 reports, the GMH has denounced those responsible for massacres and other serious human rights violations: security forces, paramilitaries, guerillas, drug traffickers and "Bacrim." In its first report, the GMH singled out the army and the police for actively collaborating with paramilitaries and the Cali cartel in the Trujillo massacre, where 300 civilians were assassinated in the 1990s.

It's a way for the GMH to show its independence, to remind security forces that they are accountable for their acts and to show those who feel excluded that armed struggle isn't the only path for change. Gonzalo Sanchez, president of the GMH, says: "Memory is an instrument for the transformation of victims into citizens. It is a way to support their rights."

The political equation in Colombia is still complicated. Between the FARC guerilla and a very powerful ultra-right, challenges are enormous. But at the very least, the political climate now seems auspicious for progress: the Santos government recognized the existence of an internal armed conflict, something its predecessor had always refused to do.

The era of former president Alvaro Uribe is over. He had accused Genevan professor Jean-Pierre Gontard - who was trying to help free FARC hostages - of "managing terrorist organization funds." These were baseless accusations, and, today it is the administration Uribe that is the target of a complaint for crimes against humanity because of its alleged links with the paramilitaries. American authorities have accused Uribe's chief of security, General Mauricio Santoyo Velasco, of complicity with paramilitary leaders and of cocaine trafficking with the infamous Medellin cartel.

Read more from Le Temps in French.

Photo - Media material

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"The Truest Hypocrisy" - The Russia-NATO Clash Seen From Moscow

Russia has decided to cut off relations with the Western military alliance. But Moscow says it was NATO who really wanted the break based on its own internal rationale.

NATO chief Stoltenberg and Russian Foregin Minister Lavrov

Russian Foreign Ministry/TASS via ZUMA
Pavel Tarasenko and Sergei Strokan

MOSCOW — The Russian Foreign Ministry's announcement that the country's permanent representation to NATO would be shut down for an indefinite period is a major development. But from Moscow's viewpoint, there was little alternative.

These measures were taken in response to the decision of NATO on Oct. 6 to cut the number of personnel allowed in the Russian mission to the Western alliance by half. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the removal of accreditations was from eight employees of the Russian mission to NATO who were identified as undeclared employees of Russian intelligence." We have seen an increase in Russian malicious activity for some time now," Stoltenberg said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry called NATO's expulsion of Russian personnel a "ridiculous stunt," and Stoltenberg's words "the truest hypocrisy."

In announcing the complete shutdown in diplomacy between Moscow and NATO, the Russian Foreign Ministry added: "The 'Russian threat' is being hyped in strengthen the alliance's internal unity and create the appearance of its 'relevance' in modern geopolitical conditions."

The number of Russian diplomatic missions in Brussels has been reduced twice unilaterally by NATO in 2015 and 2018 - after the alliance's decision of April 1, 2014 to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between Russia and NATO in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea. Diplomats' access to the alliance headquarters and communications with its international secretariat was restricted, military contacts have frozen.

Yet the new closure of all diplomatic contacts is a perilous new low. Kommersant sources said that the changes will affect the military liaison mission of the North Atlantic alliance in Moscow, aimed at promoting the expansion of the dialogue between Russia and NATO. However, in recent years there has been no de facto cooperation. And now, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has announced, the activities of the military liaison mission will be suspended. The accreditation of its personnel will be canceled on November 1.

NATO told RIA Novosti news service on Monday that it regretted Moscow's move. Meanwhile, among Western countries, Germany was the first to respond. "It would complicate the already difficult situation in which we are now and prolong the "ice age," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.

"Lavrov said on Monday, commenting on the present and future of relations between Moscow and the North Atlantic Alliance, "If this is the case, then we see no great need to continue pretending that any changes will be possible in the foreseeable future because NATO has already announced that such changes are impossible.

The suspension of activities of the Russian Permanent Mission to NATO, as well as the military liaison and information mission in Russia, means that Moscow and Brussels have decided to "draw a final line under the partnership relations of previous decades," explained Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, "These relations began to form in the 1990s, opening channels for cooperation between the sides … but they have continued to steadily deteriorate over recent years."

Kortunov believes the current rupture was promoted by Brussels. "A new strategy for NATO is being prepared, which will be adopted at the next summit of the alliance, and the previous partnership with Russia does not fit into its concept anymore."

The existence and expansion of NATO after the end of the Cold War was the main reason for the destruction of the whole complex of relations between Russia and the West. Today, Russia is paying particular attention to marking red lines related to the further steps of Ukraine's integration into NATO. Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov previously stated this, warning that in response to the alliance's activity in the Ukrainian direction, Moscow would take "active steps" to ensure its security.

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