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.

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