For ten days in late April, interactive billboards reading, “Colombia is the Answer” lit up New York’s Times Square. In an effort to attract foreign investment and tourism, the Andean nation showcased a variety of travel destinations amid 5,000 flowers and performances by both Latin Grammy winner Fonseca and the Queen of the 2013 Barranquilla Carnival.
Yet only the morning after the launch of Colombia’s latest international marketing strategy concluded, it was awarded the dubious distinction for the highest number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the world, beating out war-torn Syria, Sudan and Somalia. The Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) reported 4.9-5.5 million Colombian IDPs and 230,000 displaced in 2012 alone, the total making up 10.3-11.6 percent of the country’s population.
What’s in a name?
If the Santos administration’s latest bid to rebrand Colombia’s image clashes with the daily reality for millions suffering through the nation’s internal armed conflict, so too does the 600,000-large discrepancy in Colombian IDP estimates reveal a fundamental disagreement between the government and civil society organizations on how to interpret an often invisible war. Caught between the tension of fact and fiction are the conflict’s victims, whose opportunities for reparations may hang upon the interpretation of what constitutes an “armed actor” in Colombia’s civil war.
In June 2011, Santos signed the Victims and Land Restitution Law, an ambitious legislation that seeks to return stolen and abandoned land to Colombians displaced by the armed conflict, and to provide reparations such as financial compensation to victims of human rights violations and infractions of international humanitarian law. Article 3 of the Victims Law specifically rules out legal recourse for those persons whose rights have been infringed due to “acts of common delinquency.”
The recent IDMC report based its lower bound figures for displaced Colombians on government statistics, and higher bound on findings from the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), the main civil society organization monitoring displacement in Colombia. Sebastián Albuja, the IDMC Department Head for Africa and the Americas, explained that on one hand cumulative government statistics underreport the number of victims due to the short timespan of its registry, which did not begin until 2000, as well as a large backlog in registration requests as of 2012 given the passage of the Victims Law only one year prior.
The essential explanation for government under-registration of Colombian IDPs, however, is politics. The government currently refuses to identify the heirs of right-wing paramilitary organizations as anything but “criminal bands,” or Spanish acronym BACRIM, and thus excludes BACRIM violence from the armed conflict and the victims from subsequent reparations programs.
The rocky legacy of demobilization
Between 2003 and 2006, under former President Uribe, thousands of members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a violent network of right-wing paramilitary groups, supposedly demobilized under the controversial Justice and Peace Law. From their ashes rose 33 splinter groups that today have consolidated to form only a handful of BACRIM officially recognized by the current Santos administration, such as “Los Urabeños” or “Los Rastrojos.”
BACRIM are rightly contrasted with former groups of the AUC umbrella, and should not necessarily be referred to as “neo-paramilitaries” or “narco-paramilitaries” as is common among NGOs in Colombia. They espouse less political rhetoric than their predecessors, and sometimes collude with leftist guerillas in drug trafficking. However, to associate them only with organized crime also ignores similarities to former paramilitary groups, such as the locations of territorial strongholds and a modus operandi that includes strict social control, targeted killings of community leaders, and corrupt links with regional and political elite as well as security forces.
As it stands, Article 3 of the Victims Law would seem to preclude victims of BACRIM violence from receiving the legislation’s benefits, despite the fact that the latest IDMC report confirmed that for the last three years, “post-demobilization armed groups caused the highest number of mass displacements.” As Mr. Albuja points out, “the deeper question is why the government did not include victims of BACRIM violence via Article 3.”
While President Uribe largely downplayed their growth in light of his AUC demobilization, President Santos has identified the BACRIM as the number one threat to citizen security. Still, he will continue to sell the notion that Colombians live in a post-conflict society in order to facilitate the ongoing peace process with the FARC in Cuba.
More than common criminals
Yet a March 2012 ruling by the Constitutional Court may allow the Santos administration to have its cake and those affected by the BACRIM to eat it too. It argued that victims of actions by armed actors that “keep a close or sufficient relation” to the armed conflict should be covered by the law. As Christian Voelkel, the Colombia and Andes Analyst for International Crisis Group, noted, “It’s not politically feasible to recognize BACRIM as part of the armed conflict, but from our point of view the Court has opened up a sufficient legal window to alleviate the issue.”
Moreover, big names such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are also pressuring the Colombian government to provide victims of BACRIM violence with full benefits. With the publication of Colombia’s annual Activities Report in April 2013, Director Jordi Raich expressed his support for equal reparations, stating, “The suffering of people affected by displacement, murder and disappearance is the same, regardless of the underlying cause. That’s why it makes no sense to draw a distinction between the victims.”
Colombia’s Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is reportedly pressing the Santos administration on the issue as well. As Mr. Voelkel said, “The momentum is clearly shifting in the right direction now to help victims of BACRIM violence.” With high levels of foreign investment, security gains, and real efforts to close wide disparities in income and land tenure, Colombia is right to portray a new face at home and abroad.
Yet the collision of the Santos administration’s new image branding campaign and the latest IDMC report reveals that the improvements are only superficial for millions of Colombians. Moreover, the Victims Law at its very best would not solve the root causes of inequality and violence in Colombia. Given the widespread displacement of indigenous and peasant communities by the BACRIM, a successful peace process with the FARC might have little effect on the sheer number of Colombian IDPs.
On the heels of the IDMC report came the story of an assassination attempt on a senior investigative reporter covering a story on prisons in Tolima for Colombian weekly Semana, thus raising questions not just about the nation’s violence, but also about the danger in simply covering the issue.