Colombiaís Fugitives From Woe
Millions in recent years have fled the violence in their war-torn nation.
The rich relocate to places like Miami and Madrid. For the
poor, internal exile and misery are the norm.
By T. CHRISTIAN MILLER, Times Staff Writer
CAZUCA, Colombia--In this slum outside Bogota, Jose Donato lives in a tin
shack overlooking a quarry that spews dust on his
home all day like a light, poisonous rain.
Fifteen hundred miles away, Fernando Gonzalez Pacheco, one of Colombiaís most beloved talk show hosts, sleeps safe at night
in a Miami condo complex with a pool and tennis courts.
These men are the two faces of Colombiaís growing refugee crisis, a national disaster that has forced millions from their homes as
violence escalates with the infusion of U.S. aid to the drug war.
For the rural poor, flight means a squalid respite in the shantytowns that ring the cities of this nation already torn apart by guerrilla
war. For the rich and the middle class, it is a plane trip to Miami or Madrid, where growing numbers of Colombians have created a
community in exile populated by industrialists and politicians, actors and businesspeople.
The exodus, the hemisphereís largest, has rent the country in many ways. But perhaps most destructive is this: Rather than
creating a shared feeling of loss among a far-flung people, Colombiaís crisis has instead deepened the divisions in an already divided
In doing so, this flight of more than 2 million people since 1995--a figure that amounts to one of every 20 Colombians--has
intensified the sense of a society without common ground. And it has worsened the chances for peace, with the countryís best and
brightest abroad and its poorest and most miserable remaining as recruitment fodder for gangs, guerrillas and death squads.
"Itís one of the greatest tragedies of the current Colombian situation. Nobody is in the boat rowing together," said Bruce Bagley,
a University of Miami professor who is an expert on Colombia. "There is no solidarity in Colombia."
The massive dislocation has also had a devastating effect on the economy. Unemployment has soared to almost 20% as the rural
poor cram into already crowded cities in search of nonexistent jobs amid a severe economic downturn. Meanwhile, the rich and the
middle class flee with their bankbooks, resulting in the loss of more than $2 billion a year in capital, according to some estimates.
The dislocation is worst in the countryside, where entire villages have fled the violence of Colombiaís mind-boggling array of
armed groups. Leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups and narco-traffickers routinely attack civilians, either to seize territory
or to clear more land to grow coca plants, according to human rights organizations.
Donato and his family of five are a case in point.
Three years ago, Donato got word that his name was on a list of men slated for execution. He was targeted, he thinks--by either
narco-traffickers or local rebels who tax cocaine production--because he quit his job as a fumigator at a cocaine plantation to
participate in a government program designed to encourage legal farming. The same day, he packed up his family and headed for
Bogota, the capital.
Like thousands of other refugees, the family ended up in Cazuca, a ramshackle collection of tin shacks and dirt roads slouching
toward Bogota. Poverty, crime and despair have made the slum an urban wasteland.
The hills of Cazuca are barren, speckled only with the blue plastic sheets that serve as shelter for thousands. Through the middle
runs a dirty stream, the runoff from the quarry that belches dust all day. For the women, the stream serves as a laundermat. For the
children, it is the community pool.
Once in Cazuca, Donato pieced together a house of corrugated tin and plastic sheets. A government official visited him once, he
says, and offered to help the family out. He never saw the man again.
Now, Donato spends his days worrying about how to feed his family. He looks for work but hasnít been able to find any. He
reads the Bible and has faith in God. But not the government.
"They promised to help us, but they didnít," he said. "Everything we have, someone else has given to us."
Paramilitaries, Rebels Troll for Fighters
The violence in the countryside has created hundreds of thousands of people like Donato with little sense that the government can
protect them from violence or help once they have escaped it.
As a consequence, they become disconnected and disgruntled, turning into candidates for the paramilitary groups and guerrillas
who troll such slums, according to refugee experts.
"There is no concept now of one country, of a united nation," said Libardo Sarmiento, a political scientist affiliated with the
National University. "There is a real Balkanization."
Worse, the government seems to return the apathy of the displaced with indifference of its own. Even now, a debate rages
between President Andres Pastranaís office, which estimates that last year there were no more than 180,000 internal refugees, and
local churches and charities, which put the figure at more than 317,000.
Government aid programs exist to help retrain and reeducate refugees. But they are too filled with red tape and too short on
resources to do much good, critics say.
"The government buries its head like an ostrich," said Jorge Rojas, director of the Consultancy for Human Rights and the
Displaced, one of the countryís most respected nongovernmental organizations. "This is a country where insecurity, fear and the
absence of opportunity are determining our pace of development."
A refugee crisis is nothing new for Colombia. For a country that has suffered more than 50 years of on-and-off conflict, people
fleeing their homes is standard.
In the 1940s and 1950s, for instance, when the country was convulsed by a civil war in which victorious soldiers played soccer
with the decapitated heads of slain opponents, more than 12% of the population is estimated to have been displaced.
What makes this particular exodus so much more damaging to the body politic is that is comes during the middle of the worst
economic slump Colombia has suffered in decades. With no jobs, many of the displaced resort to common crime--further increasing
"Youíre talking about a total break in the fabric of society," Rojas said. "The displaced have lost their ability to participate in
political life, they have lost their homes, they have lost their culture, their social standing, everything."
With the rich and the middle class, Colombia confronts a different problem, but one just as damaging to the countryís social
fabric. Although solid numbers are difficult to come by, some observers estimate that as many as 200,000 people--in a nation of 40
million--leave the country each year and donít return, with the vast majority headed for the United States.
One of those was Pacheco, who appeared on the first talk show in Colombia nearly 40 years ago and has reigned as king of
Colombian television ever since. His Bogota office is plastered with photos of the VIPS he has interviewed over the years, a
pictographic record of Colombiaís sad and violent past.
One portrait shows Pacheco with a well-known political satirist who was later gunned down in a Bogota street. Another shows a
news anchor who fled the country after death threats. Still another features Pacheco with a former president subsequently accused of
running a political campaign financed by narco-traffickers.
Pacheco decided to leave after one of his cousins was kidnapped. Like hundreds of thousands of other Colombians, he moved
to Miami, where he rented a small house in a neighborhood filled with his countrymen.
There, in one of Americaís most dangerous cities, Pacheco felt safe at last. But he realized that he was missing out on the daily
rub and grind of life in Bogota.
Country Hurt in Numerous Ways
"This is my home. This is my country. I want to die here," Pacheco said during one of his frequent visits to his office in Bogota. "I
just hope itís a natural death."
The absence of hundreds of thousand of people like Pacheco hurts the country in numerous ways, according to economists and
First, there is the flight of capital, when those who leave take money and reinvest it in newfound homelands. The economy loses a
potential employer or consumer. And the government loses tax revenue that could go to social investment.
Then there is the perception of insecurity. If the government canít protect its top citizens, whom can it protect? After his
retirement, the head of the national police force had to move his family to the United States to seek protection from the hundreds of
drug dealers he had helped to put in prison.
But most serious is the departure of so-called human capital--the loss of intellectuals who could work toward solving the
countryís numerous economic, social and political problems. Death threats have resulted in the evacuation of academic departments
at top universities. The opinion pages of leading newspapers are filled with columns from journalists and politicians who now live
"With this exodus, you have a diaspora of the intelligentsia that loses contact with the situation," said Francisco Santos, one of the
nationís top journalists, who himself had to flee after receiving threats. "Youíre losing people who might provide different ideas,
different types of solutions in the peace process."
For many Colombians, the departure of the middle class is one of the most worrisome features of the current crisis. Colombia has
long had a large middle class, which is part of the reason the countryís political and economic history is more stable than that of most
other countries in the region.
Guerrillas Kept Asking for More
One of those who has fled is Maria Nelly Valencia, who ran a small shop in the western city of Cali that sold supplies for
photocopying machines. Guerrillas forced her to pay extortion money but repeatedly asked for more. One day, a group of them tried
to kidnap her as she left her store. She escaped in her car but decided it was time to leave. She left behind her grown children, who
couldnít afford to leave.
Now running a flower shop in Miami, Valencia says she doesnít have much desire to go back. During an interview in Miami at
the Colombian American Service Assn., a center for Colombian immigrants, she spoke carefully about her new home and the
country she left behind.
"Itís safe here. I can walk in the streets. There is a lot of opportunity," Valencia said. "Itís not like Colombia."
The departure of the middle class only exacerbates a growing gap between the rich and the poor, experts say. And that presages
"If the middle class leave the country at the rate they are now, you might as well turn out the light in Colombia," said Michael
Shifter, a Colombia expert with Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.
For Maria Dilia Obando, the light has already gone out. Another resident of the Cazuca slum, Obando washes clothes in a
55-gallon drum for a living. Her husband scavenges for lemons in dumpsters behind markets in Bogota, hoping to sell them in the
The family members fled their home after a band of masked men came to the door and told them to leave. They thought that
maybe Cazuca would provide more opportunity, a safer place to live. Instead, things have only gotten worse. And there is no end in
"Our life was much better before," Obando said. "Now, itís so hard. And there is nobody to help."