Guest Post: Colombia's Displaced

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Group of internally displaced Colombians protest at the entrance of AG headquarters in Bogota (Jose Gomez/Courtesy Reuters).

Group of internally displaced Colombians protest at the entrance of AG headquarters in Bogota (Jose Gomez/Courtesy Reuters).

This is a guest post by Stephanie Leutert, a research associate here at the Council on Foreign Relations who works with me in the Latin America program.

The best known Colombian security story is that of declining violence. Indeed its homicide rate dropped from near 80 homicides per 100,000 in 1990 to 32 per 100,000 in 2010 lower than its eastern neighbor Venezuela, or the notoriously violent Central American countries to the north. In fact, Colombian police now share best practices and security advice with their Honduran and El Salvadoran counterparts, and are training twelve thousand Mexican officers.

A new report by Colombian nonprofit CODHES shows, however, that these security statistics are incomplete. The number of people displaced by violence has not fallen in tandem with murders. CODHES estimates that some 260,000 Colombians were forced from their homes in 2011 (an average of seven hundred displacements a day). By comparison, 280,000 Colombians were displaced in 1999, when the murder rate was closer to 75 per 100,000.

Estimates of the total number of Colombians displaced by violence in the past seventeen years range from 3.6 to 5.4 million (more than Sudan, Iraq, or Somalia). Approximately five hundred thousand of these Colombians have flooded across Colombia’s borders with Ecuador, Venezuela, and Panama. Most are driven out by organized crime, paramilitaries, or the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) rebel group.

Since taking office, President Juan Santos has actively supported Colombia’s displaced, pushing through land-restitution policies and even joining a displaced farmer’s protest. But concrete results have been painfully slow. Many rural areas of Colombia don’t have land-ownership records, making claims hard to verify.

And many displaced land-owners fear coming forward, with good reason. Threats are common, and some twenty land-rights leaders have been murdered in the past two years. Among those living abroad, polls show that Colombian refugees are afraid of returning home due to continuing security problems. Though homicides have turned the corner, ongoing displacement and intimidation still threaten Colombia’s security.

Published in conjunction with Latin America’s Moment at the Council on Foreign Relations.