Colombians flee violence at home
Growing number of middle-class migrants living illegally in Miami
By YVES COLON
Herald Staff Writer
Amparo Caviedes thought the desperation in her voice would sway the
immigration judge. A deeply religious woman, she prayed he would grant her
asylum and not order her back to her native Colombia.
Her husband, a helicopter pilot and former high-ranking military officer,
by guerrillas, she told the judge. The downed helicopter was found with the flag of
the rebel National Liberation Army attached to it. One of her sons committed
suicide shortly after his father's death. Her oldest son was almost kidnapped and
killed the day of his brother's funeral.
Despite Caviedes' pleas, the judge turned down her appeal. She doesn't
what she will do now, but it is likely that she will remain in Miami and become
part of an underground economy that has sustained so many others like her.
Caviedes is one of what local Colombians describe as a growing number
people, mostly well-off and middle class, leaving their country for South Florida,
fleeing the cities and countryside where armed rebel groups like the National
Liberation Army and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas and
paramilitary outlaws carry out a terror campaign of murder, abduction and
According to the Free Country Foundation, a nonprofit group that aids
monitors kidnapping rates, 2,216 people were abducted in Colombia in 1998, up
from 1,693 people in 1997, 1,528 people in 1996 and 1,068 victims in 1995.
Unofficial numbers are much higher.
``It's very sad,'' Caviedes said last week, not a trace of anger in
her voice. ``We
can't live there. If we go back and get killed, will they know that I was telling the
truth? I won't go back.''
Every year, about 15,000 Colombians enter the United States legally.
perhaps a majority -- sneak into the country or overstay their visas.
This is not the first time that Colombians are running away from the
has engulfed their country over the past half century. Many of the new settlers in
Miami are children of an earlier wave who fled La Violencia in the late 1940s and
early 1950s, when an estimated 300,000 people died in a civil war.
Caviedes entered the United States in 1990 as a tourist and asked for
asylum for her family two years later -- a designation the Immigration and
Naturalization Service was historically most likely to grant to people fleeing
communist regimes. Others, like the Colombians, have an uphill battle.
In 1996, for example, 250 requests were filed by Colombians and 92 were
granted. In the past six years, 340 Colombians have been given political asylum.
``The individual applying for asylum has to demonstrate that he or she
has a well
-founded fear based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership
in a social group,'' said INS spokesman Dan Kane in Washington. ``Presenting a
generalized fear claim is not demonstrating a well-founded fear of persecution.''
That rules out people like the man who would give his name only as Echeverry.
He still has family back in Colombia, he says. He had to leave his auto-parts
business in Cali to a narcotrafficker who had agreed to buy it. After the ownership
transfer was done, the buyer refused to pay. Echeverry had to flee to Miami with
his family, he says.
`Seeing black and whites'
``His case is pretty typical,'' says Juan Carlos Zapata, an activist.
officials in this country are not seeing the shades of gray. They're just seeing the
black and whites.''
The organization called CASA, the Colombian American Service Association,
pressing to change that. Founded by Zapata, who mobilized a group of friends
into action, the organization is trying to make the 250,000-strong Colombia
community in South Florida into a political force.
On a recent Monday, CASA and U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart brought INS
employees and other immigration experts together for a forum on asylum. They
were expecting 200 people. Six hundred showed up.
``You mention immigration to a Colombian and they're there,'' said Patrick
an attorney on the board of CASA. ``That was in the morning on a workday.
Imagine how many would show up if this was held after work or on a weekend.
This is an important issue in our community.''
Diaz-Balart, who represents Southwest Miami-Dade, has taken the Colombians'
cause to Washington. On several occasions, he has asked INS Commissioner
Doris Meissner to review INS policies governing asylum and refugee admissions.
Congressional Research Service data shows that countries such as Egypt,
and Afghanistan are generating approval rates two and three times that of
Colombia, Diaz-Balart said.
Refugees fear persecution
He said many refugees from Colombia fear persecution -- not from the
democratically elected government, but from the guerrilla subversives.
Recently, a Louisiana judge expanded the definition of political groups
political asylum laws, which may allow individuals who cooperate with the
government against drug cartels to receive asylum in the United States.
The INS appealed that ruling.
``It's a first step in recognizing the problems that Colombians are
unique,'' Zapata says. ``You have the combination of communist guerrillas and
drug traffickers and they've co-mingled to create a force as strong as, if not
stronger than, the Colombian government.''
Zapata, who grew up in the United States, said politicians should start
attention to Colombians. Non-Cuban Hispanics have the highest percentage of
registered independents, Zapata said, with West Kendall, the Little Colombia of
the county, scoring the highest numbers.
Zapata is new to immigrant activism, but he's been paying dues for many
While in college at Florida International University, he drove cancer patients to
chemotherapy sessions for the American Cancer Society and organized a
collection campaign for the Miami Rescue Mission. He's worked on many political
campaigns, starting back in 1984 with the Reagan-Bush election, and has been
involved in local politics for more than a decade.
Attaining public office
Elected to the West Kendall Community Council in 1996, where he served
chairman, Zapata said he sought public office to show Colombians that it could be
done. He wants to create a framework that might raise someone like him to a
county leadership position, and beyond.
CASA member Gilda Rosenberg longs for her community to have more influence
in the political arena, where she says lack of representation is hurting
``If you make politicians feel for your cause, they'll let you know
where the funds
are,'' she said. ``If we want to help our community, everybody needs to stand out.''
``Cubans make their voices heard,'' says Zapata, whose business partners
fish importing and furniture manufacturing businesses are Cuban-Americans.
``We're getting left out of the process.''
But, he says, it's in the interest of Miami-Dade politicians to start
pay attention to
Colombians and other non-Cuban Hispanics -- as their numbers keep growing.
``The reason we don't get a lot of attention is because we don't make
felt,'' Zapata said. ``That's going to change now. We've been getting organized and
we've been getting mobilized. As other communities get together, we're going to
become a force.''
Some aspects of Colombia's impact on South Florida:
Tourists from Colombia spent $500 million in South Florida last year.
The country is Miami-Dade's third biggest trading partner,
coffee, electronics, clothing and gemstones.
A dozen Colombian banks have settled in the Brickell area
over the past
There are 160 flights to Colombia, including cargo, every
week from Miami