Displacement Rising as Colombia’s Conflict Moves Into New Phase

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Monitoring groups say displacement in Colombia is once again rising, a trend likely linked to clashes between armed groups positioning themselves to capitalize on criminal opportunities created by the expected demobilization of the country’s biggest guerrilla force.

At least 225,842 people in 961 municipalities were forcibly displaced from their homes during 2015 — a 10 percent increase from the 204,832 victims recorded in 2014, according to a report by the Human Rights and Displacement Consultancy (Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento – CODHES) and the Pluralistic Network for the Construction of Sumak Kawsay Territories (Red Pluriversitaria para la Construcción de Territorios Sumak Kawsay) that was accessed by El Espectador.

Women, Afro-descendants and indigenous people were disproportionately affected, accounting for 53, 17 and 6 percent, respectively, of the total. More than a third of the displaced were children. The figures take the total number of displaced in Colombia to 7,345,023, according to the report, giving the country one of the largest displaced populations in the world.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Displacement

The report urges that action be taken in the departments of Norte de Santander (especially the Catatumbo sub-region), Nariño, Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Chocó, Putumayo, Caquetá, Arauca, Chocó (Darién sub-region), Córdoba (south) and Antioquia (Urabá and Bajo Cauca sub-regions).

One of the causes of displacement cited by the report is the expansion of “post-demobilization paramilitary groups” (also known as “bandas criminales” or BACRIM) into areas controlled by guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). The FARC is preparing to demobilize after nearly four years of peace negotiations, potentially leaving the lucrative criminal interests they use to finance their insurgency up for grabs. 

The report also blames neo-paramilitaries attempting to exert social control and continued guerrilla activity for the ongoing displacement. It considers factors unrelated to the conflict as well, such as land grabs for agricultural and by extractive industries.

Despite the rise over the last year, Colombia’s 2015 displacement figures remain low compared to the peaks experienced during the Andrés Pastrana (1998 – 2002) and Álvaro Uribe (2002 – 2010) administrations, which saw the implementation of both Plan Colombia and the “democratic security” policy.

The CODHES data differs from statistics generated by the government’s Victims Unit, which recorded more than a 40 percent decrease in “expelled” persons between 2014 and 2015. The discrepancy is because the Victims Unit only records people who register as displaced, while CODHES also attempts to account for the significant proportion of displaced persons who do not formally register.

InSight Crime Analysis

While internal displacement in Colombia has long been linked to the country’s civil conflict, organized crime is playing an increasingly important role in the current dynamic. As the report notes, one of the main factors driving displacement is the struggle between armed groups looking to take control of FARC strongholds ahead of a likely peace deal between the guerrillas and the government (see map below).

16-06-10-Colombia-Clashes

The departments of Chocó and Antioquia — both of which have increasing coca crop cultivations, big illegal mining sectors and strategic drug trafficking routes — have been especially affected. Between January and May 2016, 40 percent of Colombia’s displaced were expelled from these two departments, according to government figures.

In the Bajo Cauca sub-region of Antioquia, the FARC’s 18th and 36th Fronts struck a fleeting pact with the most powerful of Colombia’s BACRIM, the Urabeños, to control gold mining, drug trafficking and extortion, according to the government’s Early Alert System (Sistema de Alertas Tempranas – SAT). After this agreement broke down, hostilities erupted between the Urabeños and both the FARC and the smaller guerrilla group the National Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación – ELN), causing hundreds of people to flee their homes. The ELN and FARC have now reportedly joined forces to push the Urabeños out of the region.

The conflict in Chocó and other Pacific departments, meanwhile, is closely related to drug trafficking routes. Security operations on the Caribbean coast have been pushing the Urabeños out from their primary trafficking routes and into the Pacific region, where they transport drugs along rivers to the open seas. This has meant moving into areas historically controlled by the FARC and ELN, resulting in clashes with both guerrilla groups and the mass displacement of locals. 

SEE ALSO: FARC News and Profile

Another area at risk of suffering similar troubles is the Norte de Santander department, where multiple armed actors have a stake in the booming drug trade. There are indications that the ELN and the small criminalized guerrilla group the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) are repositioning themselves in the region to fill the power vacuum set to be left by the FARC demobilization, according to the SAT.

Further north, the Córdoba department has seen clashes as the FARC and the Urabeños dispute control of the drug trade, according to the Early Alert System. The SAT report also noted disputes between former paramilitary organizations over the drug industry in Meta department, where the FARC still have a presence.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of FARC Peace

However, the conflict footing between the guerrillas and the Urabeños is far from a universal phenomenon. In the northern department of Bolivar a different dynamic can be seen with the Urabeños forging an alliance with the FARC to manage lucrative criminal economies while clashing with the ELN over territory, the SAT reports.

The numerous alliances and confrontations taking place across Colombia provide an insight into the potential instability of the country’s underworld following a peace deal with the guerrillas. As the ongoing displacement illustrates, this period of readjustment is likely to bring new violence. While Colombia may be entering the final days of its civil conflict, the country will likely face new, unpredictable and volatile criminal conflicts in the years to come.

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