The people of Tierralta in northern Colombia thought that the worst was finally behind them. In the mid 1990s, the town had been a hotbed of paramilitary violence, causing droves of residents to repeatedly flee combat, threats, and indiscriminate killings. But a government-sponsored demobilization of paramilitary militias in 2004 was supposed to change all that.
A plaza in the Montevideo neighborhood of Tierralta. (By tierralta-cordoba.gov.co)
“We had to leave our lands because they were contaminated with paramilitaries," says one resident. "They are the reason we left the first time, and they are the reason we left the second time.” Those fleeing joined the ranks of Colombia's nearly four million internal refugees violently forced from their homes. But on the heels of the widely publicized demobilization of an estimated 30,000 paramilitaries—and after two displacements—many families returned with hope to Tierralta.
They began to re-establish themselves, believing the demobilization might finally bring some peace to their town. The renewed presence of small businesses, crops, and strong churches signaled a new sense of security and stability.
Azael Hernández returned in 2004 and established a modest convenience store. He became an active member of the Getsemani Protestant church and did his best to help his fellow displaced families trying to rebuild their lives. The community came to respect Azael as a strong community member.
Last June 15, the newfound stability of Tierralta was shattered when alleged members of a re-organized paramilitary group known as the "Black Eagles" kidnapped Azael. His disappearance led to an anguished eight-day search in which his family and church members unsuccessfully scoured the countryside for his body. The search team discovered a death-threat list circulating in the town with Azael Hernández's name and those of 11 other people. Issued by the Black Eagles, the list sent such panic throughout the community that by the end of the month, 27 families had fled Tierralta, many facing displacement for a third time.
"They had a list of 12 and it started with my husband. It was very hard on us to learn this," explains Azael's wife. "Now we are afraid everybody is at risk.” The mother of four presumes her husband was killed and his body thrown over a nearby hydroelectric dam.
The repeated exodus, violence, and frustrated return of Tierralta's residents encapsulates the experience of many of the Colombian conflict's internally displaced people (IDP). Already the world's second-largest humanitarian crisis, the situation is deteriorating with the resurgence of powerful paramilitary armies. Critics say government inaction has allowed the ascent of these violent groups.
Tierralta is in the northern department of Córdoba, a mostly flat expanse of cattle-covered ranches stretching to the Caribbean coast. Córdoba and other departments along the northern coast have become a center of operations for the Black Eagles and other resurgent paramilitary groups that emerged from the widely criticized government demobilization program. Although the government denies the existence of a paramilitary surge, Indepaz, and other human rights groups, estimates that at least 9,000 combatants make up 76 different paramilitary groups that operate in 25 of the nation's 32 departments.
One of the most tangible results of this renewed paramilitary presence is displacement. In the first half of this year, more than 250,000 people were displaced in Colombia. This is the highest rate of displacement the country has seen since 1985.
In Córdoba, the non-governmental Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) reports a total of 85,000 people displaced—an astounding 9,000 of these in the first six months of 2008 alone. CODHES cites the renewed paramilitary presence and the Colombian government's persistent inaction on displacement as two reasons for high levels of displacement in Córdoba. Although the displacement statistics in Córdoba are staggering, there are seven other departments in the country with much higher rates.
Although some paramilitary groups never demobilized in the first place, the new militias operate much like their predecessors. Their main source of income is the drug trade and they use this money to finance their armies, taking mass amounts of lands and innocent lives in the process. Anyone criticizing these activities can become a potential target of the groups—becoming what they call a "military objective."
Aerial vIew of the Sinú river in Córdoba department. (By tierralta-cordoba.gov.co)
Azael's disappearance was not the first or the last time paramilitaries acted against a so-called "military objective." Indeed, so far this year, seven other disappearances have been documented in Tierralta. The increasing violence resembles the selective assassinations that preceded the full onslaught of paramilitary violence in the late 1990s, when full-scale massacres and mass displacements reached their peak. Since harassment and persecution of a victim's family members often follows an assassination, the killings inevitably lead to more displacement.
For those lucky enough to escape disappearance or death, displacement usually becomes the only option. In March 2008, Black Eagle gunmen threatened another Tierralta community leader. He explains, “They came to my door around nine at night. They put a gun to my head, said they were from the Black Eagles." Like thousands of others in Córdoba, this man, his pregnant wife, and young daughter were forced to flee their home a week after the threat. "They said they would kill me."
Threats and killings by the Black Eagles are rarely—if ever—punished. The community identified and accused a Black Eagle member before the authorities as the man responsible for Azael's murder and accused him of collaborating with local police forces. When local and international organizations called on the Colombian government to investigate this connection, and hold those responsible for Azael's disappearance accountable, the government responded by transferring the entire police unit from Azael’s hamlet to another region.
The community says the government displays the same indifference regarding their plight as internally displaced people (IDPs). "Through all this time the government has not taken care of us," says one resident forced to leave Tierralta. "We have not received the attention we deserve." He further complains that Colombia's law governing the rights of IDPs is "beautifully written," but completely neglected in the case of Tierralta.
No End in Sight
When the 27 families were forced to leave their homes after Azael's murder, the local government provided them temporary shelter in a community schoolhouse. But Acción Social, the national agency charged with IDP assistance, failed to provide them with immediate emergency aid such as food rations and cooking kits, despite the families' organized and articulate demands for help. Instead, churches and non-governmental organizations provided them with minimal assistance during the first days of their displacement. Within weeks, they were forced to move again in search of shelter. The new shelter they have is inadequate. There is not enough space for people to sleep or room to hang hammocks, and it recently flooded after heavy rains.
Azael’s community and international organizations have informed the Colombian national government, the U.S. State Department, local officials, and Acción Social of Azael’s case and the massive displacement it spurred. They are demanding that his body be located and an immediate investigation into Azael’s disappearance as well as the prosecution of those responsible.
With their hopes for peace in Tierralta dashed for a third time, the displaced families are demanding that the government relocate them to lands they deem suitable for agriculture and, as victims of the conflict, give them the compensation they are entitled to under Colombian law. One of Azael’s in-laws, speaking from the schoolhouse that serves a temporary refugee shelter, explains, “We want for ourselves and for our children and friends to have enough land so that we're all able to support ourselves. All of that is guaranteed to us under the law. Now, as an old man, I don’t want just promises, we have been waiting too long. We want land.”
Meanwhile, the community's requests for government action have been largely ignored. To date, the community is unaware of any investigation into, or prosecution of police with ties to the Black Eagles or Azael’s disappearance, and no arrests have been made. The 27 displaced families have received no compensation for their losses—crops, homes, and businesses—and have been given no indication that they will be protected or resettled.
Unfortunately, the inadequacy of this response to displacement by the national authorities is the status quo throughout Colombia. In 2005, Colombia's highest court ruled that the government's failure to provide adequate assistance to the displaced was a clear violation of the country's constitution. Since displaced people make up nearly 10 percent of the Colombia's entire population, the consequences of these failed policies are widespread.
Azael’s wife sums up the hopelessness sometimes felt by many Colombian citizens who lost family members while being repeatedly forced from their homes: “We left our crops behind and all the work that my husband did—all that work to support his children. All is lost now because nobody can go back to our lands to harvest the crops we left behind. I have no security. I have no job. I do not know how I am going to survive.”
Annalise Romoser is Associate Director for Public Policy and Advocacy at Lutheran World Relief.