there is the wish to return.
That is the condition of all refugees.
Guzmán read the writing on the wall long before she read it
on her front door. The unrest in La Dorada [Colombia] started one
day in September of 99 when los militares took over the pueblo,
she said. They came on a market day and they made the whole town
sit in the plaza. They didnt do anything, they just scared us. They
told us that theyd arrived and they were going to stay. Perhaps
this explains her lack of surprise a year and a half later when she found
a scrawled note on her door saying that she had two hours to leave La
Dorada if she wanted to leave alive. It was not signed. She fled.
La Señora Francisca told Julia Yomar Rodríguez that the
baby would wait an extra week to come, and la Señora never erred
in such matters. So on the cusp of the nine-month mark, the day Julias
papi came home from the fields and told the family that los militares
were on one side of their farm and los guerrilleros were on the other,
Julia wasnt worried. I just cant take any more explosions
in the yuca fields, her man had said. Dont worry, papi,
Julia assured him. The baby and I will make it to Ecuador just fine.
Juan Guerrero put up with the
noise in Putumayo longer than most. Hed been sticking it out to
see if the violence would ebb. Maybe he, his wife, and their eleven-year-old
daughter might be able to stay in this home theyd made just ten
months before. When they moved there, he worked on a small farm; their
first coca harvest was pretty good, which pleased him because he hoped
to send his daughter to los Estados Unidos with some family friends to
get an education. The fighting did not end, however, and the Guerrero
family decided to leave. The planes, the bombs, the helicopters,
the explosions, the shooting, Guerrero said later, and the
civilians there in the middle of all that. You can put up with the first
confrontation, and the second, and the third, but after a month, two months,
then you cant handle it any more. Everyone runs like rats.
The rats run to Lago Agrio, Ecuador, an acrid border town hardened from
decades of a tumultuous codependency with the oil industry that built
it. Guerrero, Rodríguez, and Borrano Guzmán are three of
an estimated thirty thousand Colombians who have fled south from the war-ridden
district of Putumayo in recent months, only the latest chapter of a war
that has forced over one million Colombians to seek refuge in other countries
in the last five years.
Ex-President Clinton signed the Putumayan exodus into inevitability last
July when he signed a bill allocating $1.3 billion in U.S. aid to Colombia
to help Colombia confront its current problems, while reducing the
supply of drugs coming to the United States to help both their
national interest and our own, according to the State Department.
Putumayans dont buy it.
The United States earmarked seventy-five percent of the allocated funds
to go directly to the Colombian military and police, which have spent
the last thirty-seven years attempting to quell insurrections by the indefatigable
Marxist guerrilla group FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia)
in Putumayo. FARC has been most active in southern Colombia, where six
districts produce 80% of all drug crops. Frequent violent skirmishes between
the Colombian military, their allied paramilitary forces and FARC had
already taken many lives and forced some frightened families out of the
area, but the spigot of refugees turned from trickle to deluge with the
promise of increased U.S. intervention.
It hurts us that the U.S. is always trying to manipulate our situation,
said Colombian Marta Robato, director of the provisional refugee camp
in Lago Agrio. We are poor countries, but we have so much human
and cultural affluence. Well never overcome our problems if the
most powerful nation in the world wont let us.
In an attempt to coerce peace talks with FARC in November of 1998, Colombian
President Andrés Pastrana declared Putumayo a temporarily demilitarized
zone. Peace talks have failed, but the status has officially stuck. Paramilitary
troops, unofficially allied with the Colombian government, have picked
up where the military has been absent, and their war with the rebel groups
has raged on.
According to the testimonies that they give when they register with
us, these people are leaving because they find themselves in the middle
of a shoot-out between the guerrillas and the paramilitary forces,
said Padre Edgar Pinos, the director of the United Nations-funded refugee
program in Lago Agrio. They leave because its just too dangerous
for civilians, and ever since September, the guerrilla has essentially
imposed an armed strike.
According to the Amnesty International Annual Human Rights Report for
2000, the right-wing paramilitary forces have caused civilians the most
strife, with action characterized by a succession of atrocities
against the civilian population during military offensives to expand territorial
control. The report states that paramilitary groups justify killing
civilians whom they suspect of collaborating with the guerrillas. Guerrillas
respond just as violently, killing those believed to assist the paramilitary
forces. Both groups have something to gain by defending cocaine-growing
civilians, because both are thought to fund themselves by taxing
the cocaine industry in Putumayo.
With such dangerous politics, Putumayans must stay neutral or be killed.
Your average campesino wont be persuaded toward one side or
the other. They dont want problems, they just want to get by,
said refugee Cecilia Borrano Guzmán. Campesinos are friendly
people, they share their things with each other. They will never ask who
are you? or what group do you belong to? Instead they
ask you how you are, or what youre doing today.
Ecuadorian officials in Lago Agrio also take care not to impinge on the
campesinos neutrality. We prefer not to ask refugees these
questions, precisely to avoid having to live the conflict here,
said Padre Pinos. And I think the general opinion of the Colombians
is that they dont have anything to do with this conflict. They see
themselves as victims of it instead. They want to be able to live in peace.
The prospect of the U.S.-funded cocaine eradication campaign spurred Putumayans
flight not only because it promised heightened violence between the guerrilla
and paramilitary troops, but also because the campaign will affect their
One doesnt speak of illegal drugs in Putumayo, one speaks
of crops, said Borrano Guzmán. It doesnt matter
what the campesino is growing, a campesino is someone who opens the earth,
who farms, who knows his land. Most people dont know what end the
cocaine goes to, or how it affects Colombias relationship with the
world. Theyre just trying to get by.
The campaigns push into southern Colombia depends primarily on fumigation,
using crop-duster planes to spray the coca crops with the herbicide glyphosate.
Environmentalists and human rights groups alike have criticized the fumigation
campaign as injurious to civilians and the environment, primarily because
anti-narcotic troops are notoriously inaccurate while fumigating, reportedly
spraying schools and sustenance crops alike. The herbicide glyphosate,
used in agriculture world-wide, kills whatever fauna it lands on and has
disputed affects on humans. Even those Putumayans not directly involved
with the regions cocaine industry fear that whatever the outcome
of the campaign, it could destroy their economic base.
Despite the grave conditions, the decision to up and leave is never easy.
Always there is the wish to return, said Padre Pinos. They
dont leave readily; instead, they wait until the situation is truly
difficult, and if the danger passes they will want to return. They really
love their land they love their rivers, their jungle, their few
things, their roots. They are here because they are forced to be here.
That is the condition of all refugees.
Its hard, you know, throwing away everything youve fought
for, said Julia Yomar Rodríguez, nursing her now month-old
baby. We came with absolutely nothing, nadita. Just the clothes
on our backs.
Rodríguez gave birth to her baby Ricardo just five days after arriving
in Ecuador, and they now share a room in Lago Agrios provisional
refugee camp with Cecilia Borrano Guzmán, the Guerrero family,
shelter director Marta Robato and over a dozen other families. The shelters
walls are decorated with peeling paintings of large red balloons and cartoon
mice, a remnant of the buildings last incarnation as a daycare center.
Rain is a blessing for the residents because it means they can lug up
water from the well in the side yard instead of hauling it from the river
below contaminated, of course, Robato said. The
radio said this morning that one hundred percent of the waterways in Lago
Agrio are contaminated because of oil explosions.
No water, clean or running, made it onto the make-shift constitution posted
on the shelters wall, listing the two rights the shelter residents
are entitled to: Derecho #1: The right to adequate food. Derecho #2: The
right to good hygiene, good recreation, good housing, to have your privacy
respected, to dialogue, to the telephone, to safety, to friendship, to
sleep well, to unity and to take care of each other like a family which
is what we are at the moment.
While their refugees self-declared rights are heartfelt, their luxuries
are sparse. Like Rodríguez, most refugees arrive in Ecuador carrying
nothing except their children. The decision to flee is usually made when
no other options remain lives are in danger. When they do finally
leave, refugees might be on foot; they might not know when or where theyll
arrive; luggage would only encumber them.
We left at night because we wanted to be discreet, Guerrero
said. You dont always want everyone to know youre leaving,
you just have to walk out of the house like youre going to visit
the neighbors. My wife was sick but we couldnt wait any longer.
He squatted down and drew a map in the dust with his finger. We
began walking south along the road toward the river, and we were picked
up by a truck full of other people heading down here too. We got to the
river and then we spent all night in a canoe. We floated all the way up
to San Miguel. Once youre in San Miguel, youve made it.
Not all Putumayans flee to Ecuador. The civilians in Northern Putumayo
head further north to safer regions within Colombia; the latest estimates
say that there are over two million internally-displaced Colombians (Colombias
population is around thirty-six million). However, paramilitary and rebel
forces have blocked nearly all major roads north through Putumayo, leaving
civilians in southern Putumayo to escape to Ecuador, returning to Colombia
on a safer route further west. Padre Pinos estimates that only around
fifteen percent of Putumayans who cross the border register as refugees;
the rest head directly west and re-enter Colombia immediately.
Most of those who do stay in Lago Agrio live with host families rather
than in the shelter. It happened spontaneously, families began volunteering
to receive refugees, explained Padre Pinos. Sometimes it was
due to family ties, other times due to business ties or coworkers, and
sometimes its really a demonstration of solidarity people
who have never met each other, dont have anything to link them,
yet they receive whole families into their homes.
The U.N.-funded refugee program, run by Padre Pinos, gives those who do
stay assistance and protection. Our program does everything from
assuring displaced Colombians a roof, food [and] health care, to offering
programs giving emotional support for the crisis, said Padre Pinos.
We put small children in school to try and integrate them into Ecuadors
education system, mostly to eliminate that feeling of isolation and rejection
and replace it with solidarity.
Statistics taken in January showed that 2,300 Colombians had registered
in Lago Agrio as refugees, a number that has been increasing by about
a hundred per week. Most of them stayed with families, while only seventy-seven
lived in the shelter.
A few refugees plan to stay in Lago Agrio and try to rebuild a life, but
the majority are anxious to return to their homeland. Colombia is
beautiful, said Guerrero, staring off to the north. It must
be one of the best countries in all the world.
His eleven-year-old daughter Irma nodded her head firmly. Yes,
she said. I want to go back to Colombia, to my home.
Politics of a Foreign War
Its well past dark and the bus haltingly winds its way through Amazonian
drizzle. Its passengers, mostly campesinos and oil workers, all asleep
or restlessly fidgeting after a ten-hour trip from Quito, are anxious
to get to Lago Agrio. The bus suddenly slows and the driver flips on his
high beams; an excited murmur spreads through the bus, and the passengers
on the left sit up and lean over to peer through the windows on the right.
Thats it, thats the bus that exploded yesterday. Nine
people died, said one oil worker, staring at the blackened skeleton,
the remains of a bus on the side of the road. He spits on the floor. Those
Ecuadorians do not consider themselves unscathed by the recent influx
of their neighbors. Escalating tensions have only heightened Ecuadorian
fears that Colombias problems will soon become their own.
We still dont know if the bus explosion was provoked by a
Colombian group or an Ecuadorian group, said Padre Pinos. There
have always been prejudices against the Colombians here in Ecuador. They
see the Colombian as a violent person, whos lived in narcotraffics
violent culture. On the other hand, theres this growing feeling
of solidarity and belonging, especially between the poor people. When
Ecuadorians see the real poverty the refugees come with without
clothes, without documentation, with nothing a strong feeling of
Its heart-lifting to see that in the face
of a reality that you can see, that you can touch, even prejudiced people
Both the prejudice and the solidarity only get stronger as the violence
in Colombia escalates and U.S. dollars begin to go to work. Before,
we always had normal relations with Colombia business relations,
social relations, work, friendship, explained Padre Pinos. All
of our problems began when they started implementing Plan Colombia.
United States government officials are far from unanimous in their attitude
toward the U.S. contribution to Plan Colombia. Although the aid package
originally proposed to Congress by the Clinton administration in
January of 2000 received bipartisan support, it took nearly six
months to move through Congress as it was debated and amended. Most of
the amendment attempts failed, including one that would have allocated
an additional $1.3 billion to fund domestic drug treatment programs. Another
would have lowered the amount of money going to the Colombian military
and raised the amount going to alternative agriculture programs. There
was even a proposal that would have eliminated all funding going to Colombia
and its neighbors.
Probably the most vocal opposition to the plan concerned the Colombian
history of human rights violations. Sam Farr (D-Ca), a member of the Appropriations
Committee of the House of Representatives, suggested three amendments
that would have added human rights conditions. According to the Center
for International Policy, these amendments were later shot down by then-Drug
Czar General Barry McCaffrey, who inaccurately argued that the amendments
would force Colombia to change its constitution and were therefore unenforceable.
Farr withdrew the amendments.
In the end, the bill was approved by both houses and ended up on the Presidents
desk with only a few amendments adding human rights stipulations. Clinton
waived these stipulations on the grounds that national security was at
stake, and signed the bill into law.
President George W. Bush has
expressed support of Plan Colombia, ignoring concerns that the civil war
in Colombia could escalate and a Vietnam-like situation could ensue, as
argues Ana Carrigan, author of The Palace of Justice: A Colombian
Washington insists, implausibly,
that American aid will be used only to help fight drugs, not the FARC
units protecting the drug trade, an escalation that could embroil American
troops in a guerrilla war, Carrigan wrote in a letter to the New
York Times. This plan based almost entirely on military strategies
could well lead to Americas next proxy war in Latin America.
The refugees seem to have few
questions about the role of the U.S. in their current circumstances. Almost
all of us, no matter how ignorant we may be, know that our problems begin
and end in the United States, said Borrano Guzmán. Decisions
made there affect all of us here in my country, Colombia, as well
as all of its neighbors.
Shelter director Robato expressed
her anger at what she sees as inexcusable manipulation of the coca issue.
I mean, if the U.S. didnt consume it, would we produce it?
The debate about continued
aid will continue this spring, when the Bush administration presents a
Padre Pinos expressed his hopes
that new aid will come in saner packages. We would like them to
look for alternatives, maybe a voluntary and manual elimination of the
coca, as weve heard many families are already doing, he said.
Were also hoping that decision makers feel pressure to detain
the plan, to look for alternatives, to defend the people, to defend the
Amazon, the lung of all of humanity. We all have a responsibility to defend
not only ourselves, but the whole world.
© 2001 El Andar Magazine