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IN late April, troops from the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) – the country's largest paramilitary group – entered a Wayuu village in the northeast. By the time they left, 12 people had been killed and 30 more ‘disappeared'.

A few weeks later the Colombian Government announced it had reached an agreement to advance a peace process with the outlawed rightwing faction responsible for the massacre and thousands more like it. Some see the peace talks as a chance to remove the bloodiest element from the conflict. For the Wayuu people and the thousands of other AUC victims, however, the Government is merely sowing seeds of impunity that will see the authors of some of Colombia's worst war crimes walk free.

Impunity casts a long shadow over this resource-rich and culturally diverse land, permeating almost all levels of the state. Human rights organizations say 90 per cent of political crimes go unpunished.

Paul Smith / [Panos](

The army and police openly co-operate with rightwing paramilitary groups in their dirty war to silence dissident voices, such as human rights activists, labour leaders and political opponents. Paramilitary groups campaigned for President Alvaro Uribe Vélez during the 2002 elections.

Uribe campaigned on a ‘take it to 'em' platform to defeat the leftist insurgents and restore order. His message resonated with many Colombians seeking relief from decades of war. Instead Uribe has escalated the violence and exacerbated an already grave human rights situation. His ‘Democratic Security' programme, for example, has granted the military a free hand to carry out mass arrests.

The guerrillas have blood on their hands, too. Each year the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller Army of National Liberation (ELN) kill hundreds of non-combatants, most in summary executions and bombings. They also kidnap thousands each year, mainly to extort money but also to barter for the release of captured comrades.

Caught between the warring camps is the civilian population: over 70 per cent of the war's 4,000 annual deaths are noncombatants, with indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians particularly vulnerable. This figure does not include the forcibly disappeared – few relatives dare to report the crime for fear of retaliation.

Estimates place the number of internally displaced people at two to three million, most of them funnelled into the poorest neighbourhoods of Colombia's big cities. The forced displacement often has economic motives. This was the case in the northwest province of Chocó in the late 1990s when joint military-paramilitary operations drove about 20,000 mostly indigenous and Afro-Colombians from their land, allowing logging companies to move in and harvest huge profits.

Other displacements result from foreign intervention. In 2000 the US insitituted Plan Colombia, a $1.3 billion military aid package to curb the country's infamous cocaine trade. It involves largescale fumigation operations, which destroy food crops as well as coca plantations, forcing small-scale farmers to flee their homesteads. The cocaine trade, meanwhile, continues to flourish.

Recent governments have often played into the hands of foreign interests, happily embracing the neoliberal model to the detriment of ordinary Colombians. Public banks, utilities and mining companies have been auctioned off to foreign investors. Mass layoffs have ensued, sending tens of thousands of public employees into the streets to peddle cheap goods or drive taxis.

Fact file

Leader President Alvaro Uribe Vélez
Economy Gross national income (GNI) per capita $1,830 (Venezuela $4,090, United States $35,060)
Monetary unit Colombian peso
Main exports Crude oil and derivatives, coffee, coal and clothing. Traditionally coffee has supplied half the hard-currency income but coffee prices have been disastrously low and the civil conflict has hit production. The US offer of tariff-free clothing exports to the Caribbean and Central America will hit Colombia – US textile firms may relocate and cost Colombia as many as 50,000 jobs.
People 43.5 million. People per square kilometre 42 (UK 248).
Health Infant mortality 19 per 1,000 live births (Venezuela 19, US 7). HIV prevalence rate (15-49 years) 0.4%.
Environment Coca has caused environmental damage, not only thanks to the defoliants sprayed to destroy it, but also because counter-narcotic operations have pushed growers further into the tropical rainforest, resulting in indiscriminate clear-cutting.
Culture Colombians are descended from Native Americans, Africans and Europeans: most people are of mixed race. The indigenous population is estimated at just one per cent, though they are spread between 27 of the country's 32 departments.
Religion 93 per cent are Catholic.
Language Spanish (official); there are dozens of indigenous languages including Wayuu, Camsá and Cuaiquer.

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution Abysmal. While the richest tenth garner nearly half of the income, the poorest tenth earns only one per cent.
Literacy Literacy is high, at 92%. Colombia's Escuela Nueva movement in rural areas is internationally admired but education has been hard hit by social spending cuts.
Life expectancy 72 years (Venezuela 74, US 77).
Freedom Free elections aside, true political freedom remains elusive. A few families tied to the political élite control most media outlets while journalists are targeted by armed groups.
Position of women While women from affluent backgrounds enjoy more economic opportunities, their marginalized counterparts continue to struggle.
Sexual minorities Homosexuality: Legal. Age of consent equal. Gays and transsexuals are sometimes targeted for ‘social cleansing'. Transgender: First country to restrict genital mutilation of intersex children before the age of consent.
New Internationalist assessment Repression has characterized Colombian politics throughout its history and this won't change soon under the sitting Government. President Uribe Vélez has embraced George W Bush's ‘War on Terror' and an increase in human rights violations. Those who denounce his policies are summarily branded as traitors, as last September when Vélez accused human rights organizations of acting as the political arm of the guerrillas.

New Internationalist issue 369 magazine cover This article is from the July 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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