Part 1
Refugees of an endless war

by Catherine Worth
photos by Shaune Friedman

illustrations by Francisco Letelier

Caught between los militares and los guerrilleros, Colombia's farmers escape to Ecuador, carrying nothing but their children


Always there is the wish to return.

That is the condition of all refugees.

Cecilia Borrano 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 didn’t do anything, they just scared us. They told us that they’d 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 Julia’s 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 wasn’t worried. “I just can’t take any more explosions in the yuca fields,” her man had said. “Don’t 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. He’d 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 they’d 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 can’t 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 don’t 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. We’ll never overcome our problems if the most powerful nation in the world won’t let us.”

Putumayan Exodus
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 it’s 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 won’t be persuaded toward one side or the other. They don’t 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 you’re 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 don’t 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 own livelihood.

“One doesn’t speak of illegal drugs in Putumayo, one speaks of crops,” said Borrano Guzmán. “It doesn’t matter what the campesino is growing, a campesino is someone who opens the earth, who farms, who knows his land. Most people don’t know what end the cocaine goes to, or how it affects Colombia’s relationship with the world. They’re just trying to get by.”

The campaign’s 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 region’s 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 don’t 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.”

Dire Circumstance

“It’s hard, you know, throwing away everything you’ve 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 Agrio’s provisional refugee camp with Cecilia Borrano Guzmán, the Guerrero family, shelter director Marta Robato and over a dozen other families. The shelter’s walls are decorated with peeling paintings of large red balloons and cartoon mice, a remnant of the building’s 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 shelter’s 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 refugee’s 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 they’ll arrive; luggage would only encumber them.

“We left at night because we wanted to be discreet,” Guerrero said. “You don’t always want everyone to know you’re leaving, you just have to walk out of the house like you’re going to visit the neighbors. My wife was sick but we couldn’t 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 you’re in San Miguel, you’ve 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 (Colombia’s 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 it’s really a demonstration of solidarity — people who have never met each other, don’t 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 Ecuador’s 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
It’s 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.

“That’s it, that’s 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 chingados Colombianos!”

Ecuadorians do not consider themselves unscathed by the recent influx of their neighbors. Escalating tensions have only heightened Ecuadorian fears that Colombia’s problems will soon become their own.

“We still don’t 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, who’s lived in narcotraffic’s violent culture. On the other hand, there’s 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 solidarity arises.… It’s heart-lifting to see that in the face of a reality that you can see, that you can touch, even prejudiced people respond.”

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 President’s 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 Tragedy.”

“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 America’s 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. didn’t consume it, would we produce it?”

The debate about continued aid will continue this spring, when the Bush administration presents a new proposal.

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 we’ve heard many families are already doing,” he said. “We’re 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