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COLOMBIA: New Breed of Paramilitaries Infiltrate Urban ‘Refuges’

Diana Cariboni

BOGOTÁ, Jun 27 2006 (IPS) - Legend has it that Ciudad Bolívar, a poor neighbourhood strung along the hills on the south side of the Colombian capital, is so called because independence hero Simón Bolívar briefly took refuge in the area after narrowly escaping an assassination attempt in 1828. Today, it is riddled with the concrete failure of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s push for paramilitary demobilisation.

Some eight ultra-right paramilitary groups are said to have a toehold in Ciudad Bolívar and neighbouring Altos de Cazucá (Cazucá Heights) in the municipality of Soacha.

At least three are offshoots of the bloc of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC- the paramilitary umbrella organisation) that was headed by drug lord Miguel Arroyave until his death in 2004 – likely at the hands of his own men. At the time he had been negotiating with the government as part of the disarmament process.

Ombudsman Roberto Sicard says there are three groups made up of former AUC members, from the Central-Santander Bloc and the Capital Bloc, in the slums of Altos de Cazucá, where 17,000 of the area’s 50,000 residents took refuge after being displaced by the civil war.

Sicard coordinates the United Nations-funded “House of Rights,” almost the only presence the state has in Altos de Cazucá, a marginalised zone where water runs only two hours a week.

Some sources report that the right-wing groups threaten and murder community leaders and activists, more or less force youth into “social cleansing” of suspected criminals (indeed, rampant unemployment provides little incentive for young people to refuse the opportunity for steady pay) and forcibly collect “taxes” from businesses and bus and taxi drivers.

The area is also ripe with cocaine labs – the fuel for the country’s long-running armed conflict.

Thrown into the mix, say these sources, are “pseudo-paramilitaries,” who operate as “subsidiaries” of the AUC or rent their criminal services to the highest bidder.

“In Colombia, I don’t think people kill for ideology – they kill for food or power,” Sicard told some 20 journalists from several South American countries who visited the area in mid-June.

In Ciudad Bolívar, the armed conflict is reflected in “the network of informants (who give information to the police and army), paramilitary control and the collection of ‘taxes’,” explained Michael Jordan, director of the Latin American regional office of Diakonia, a German non-governmental organisation that provides aid in disaster situations.

“Constant threats and selective killings” are the norm, and the situation does not involve classic military confrontation, Jordan said.

One 40-year-old man, the president of a town council in Cazucá who wished to remain anonymous, told IPS that he and 13 other community leaders have received death threats from illegal groups. “On May 30 they attacked me with knives and ordered me to leave the area.”

“People are scared. We thought carefully about whether we should file a joint complaint, but in the end we decided it was safer to do it individually,” he added.

“We don’t want to become victims of these organisations, which is why I decided to file a legal complaint,” said the former member of the now-defunct leftist Patriotic Union party, most of whose members were murdered.

He said they do not want to have anything to do with the politicians. “They hand out food for votes,” he maintained.

This month, several people spoke up to denounce murders and frequent disappearances on the southern outskirts of Bogotá. The bodies are not always recovered; nearby Rincón del Lago is believed to be the dumping ground of choice.

It is almost impossible to report attacks or crimes to the authorities. The closest police station is a 20-minute car ride away. But also, some sources say that lower-ranking police officials have ties to the criminal world.

The right-wing Uribe, whose term began in 2002 and who was reelected in late May, negotiated with the AUC a controversial demobilisation process under a legal framework that basically pardons most of the human rights abuses committed by the paramilitaries.

At their height, the groups were responsible for 80 percent of the country’s human rights violations, according to the United Nations.

Before the negotiations began, the paramilitaries numbered fewer than 5,000. Today, authorities talk of 32,000 demobilised members who are benefiting from different kinds of assistance aimed at their reinsertion into society, and approximately 17,000 surrendered weapons.

The press, analysts and human rights activists have already pointed to the emergence of a third generation of these illegal groups, who had well-documented ties to members of the armed forces.

Ciudad Bolívar and the neighbouring Altos de Cazucá provide squalid refuge to tens of thousands of campesinos fleeing the armed conflict. They have come to the capital from rural areas around the country, seeking government protection.

But they arrive only to discover the same threats they thought they were leaving behind. And having sacrificed their houses, land and livelihoods, the displaced families have the added burden of poverty in the cities.

According to 1993 figures, Ciudad Bolívar was home at that time to 713,000 people in 252 neighbourhoods. But more recent estimates say the number is now closer to one million residents. The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 100,000 of these are displaced persons.

On this day, Belfa Marín, 37, arrived with two of her children at the House of Rights, clearly upset. Sobbing tearlessly, she explained that the government had closed the local polyclinic. To date the facility had provided care for some 10,000 people, attending an average 1,050 patients per year.

The House of Rights provides legal assistance and education and health services, and organises productive projects for displaced persons.

Marín looked for paper to collect signatures to protest the polyclinic’s closure. “Why are they abandoning us? I trusted the doctors,” she said, outraged. Three years ago, she fled her small farm in Vista Hermosa, in the central department (province) of Meta, with her husband, three children, brother-in-law and a niece. That area is under the influence of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the biggest rebel group.

They first walked to San Juan de Arama, slightly to the north, only to stumble into paramilitary territory.

Marín won’t hear of returning, even though life in the city is miserable.

In decades gone by, Ciudad Bolívar and Altos de Cazucá were FARC territory, providing logistical support to the group. But paramilitaries, who grew in strength since the 1980s, have long since taken control of the area.

Some walls are scrawled with graffiti with slogans such as “AUC presentes” (The AUC are here.)

Almost all the houses are made of brick. Lower down on the hills of Ciudad Bolívar they even have small yards and the roads are paved, and water and electricity run steadily. The landscape deteriorates the higher one climbs. Sewage streams through open gutters on the sides of the streets, the houses become more squalid, and greenery basically disappears.

The more recent arrivals settle higher up the hill. The process for emergency state aid (approximately 200 dollars per month for up to six months) can take up to two months or more. So it is common to see recently displaced persons panhandling at stoplights. Germán Luna was there once. Now he is president of the displaced people’s association “Seeds of Hope,” a collective of 350 families.

Luna gathered some 50 mothers and their children together in a community soup kitchen in Santa Viviana, a neighbourhood in Ciudad Bolívar that has no water, power or telephone service. Today, there will be no lunch. But they have waited patiently to tell their stories to the visiting journalists.

Luna runs the “Little Moons of Love” kitchen. Using the rice, lentils, oil and “panela” bread donated by the World Food Programme through the Bogotá city government, they provide a daily meal to 417 children.

“We survive on charity,” says Luna. “There is no work here, and the state’s talk of resettlement means nothing. It’s not safe to return.” In September 2001, his wife and 17 others were killed in Montes de María, in the northeastern department of Sucre. Luna fled with his children, now seven and eight years old.

One of his children, smiling, approaches with a blank piece of paper, asking for my name and phone number. While writing, I say I live far away, in Uruguay. “It doesn’t matter. If you don’t mind, I could walk all the way there.”

When the journalists are about to leave, a young woman holding a feverish baby approaches. The mother asks for “an autograph” on the sole of the tiny, impeccably white shoe. “It’s for when she grows up, so I can tell her you all were here,” she says.

It can only be hoped that Colombia’s war will be over by then.

But “It will be a long time before we see the end of the conflict and the paramilitaries – killers who work alongside the security forces. They’ve changed their name over the years; before they were “sicarios” (hired killers), then the AUC – and now, we’ll just wait and see,” sighs Jordan.

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