Pubdate: Tue, 19 Dec 2000
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 2000 San Francisco Chronicle
Contact:  901 Mission St., San Francisco CA 94103
Author: Robert Collier
Bookmark: Reports about Colombia:


U.S.-funded Anti-Drug Campaign Is Forcing Thousands Of Peasants To Flee Or 
Join Rebels.

Across the cocaine heartland, there is fear and pain - with lots more on 
the way.

As the U.S.-backed anti-drug offensive called Plan Colombia gathers force 
in the coca-growing lowlands of southern Colombia, the hemisphere's worst 
refugee problem is about to grow dramatically.

In coming months, tens of thousands of coca farmers and other civilians are 
expected to flee the advance of army troops backed by attack helicopters 
and herbicide-spewing planes.

Many of the displaced people are likely to wind up in Florencia, a city of 
200,000 that is the biggest population center in the region.

These are the faces of Colombia's widening war:

Maria Fatima Cordoba, who lives with her family in a hillside shack, fled 
her coca farm after rightist paramilitaries killed several neighbors.

Another neighbor, Aurora Garcia, is on the run from leftist guerrillas, who 
killed her nephew.

And down the street, Robys Salas fled the government's fumigation planes, 
which killed his coca crops and, he says, caused his brother to die of 
chemical poisoning.

Different stories, different enemies, the same human cost.

"There will be many people displaced," said Jaime Gomez, regional director 
of the Solidarity Network, the government agency that helps people made 
homeless by the war. "How many thousands, we don't know. But it will be too 
many for us to handle."

Gomez's agency provides aid to 6,200 displaced in Caqueta province and 105, 
000 nationwide. But it is just a drop in the bucket.

International aid officials estimate the nation's real number of displaced 
people at about 1.5 million. In only the first six months of 2000, an 
estimated 134,000 Colombians were newly displaced, they say.

The influx of peasants on the run has swelled the slums of major cities 
such as Bogota, Medellin and Cali, where the unemployment rate is estimated 
at more than 25 percent, crime is rampant and guerrillas and organized 
crime gangs recruit heavily.

The $1.3 billion U.S. aid package for Plan Colombia includes $15 million to 
deal with the official prediction of 10,000 new refugees. But many experts 
say that estimate is far too low.

"One of the biggest challenges of Plan Colombia will be to deal with the 
sheer volume of displaced people, which is likely to be larger than 
anticipated," said Alfredo Rangel, a former presidential security adviser 
who now is a consultant for the Colombian military.

Under the plan, army troops are scheduled to start sweeping across Putumayo 
province next month, burning and fumigating all coca fields and fighting 
the main guerrilla organization, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia 

Caqueta province is next, followed by other coca-growing areas.

Civic officials in Putumayo and Caqueta say the two provinces' 250,000 
peasants - most of whom grow coca - will face a stark choice: either flee 
their homes as refugees or join the guerrillas.

"We are very worried that the conflict here will become uncontrollable," 
said Manuel Alzate, mayor of Puerto Asis, the largest town in Putumayo.

Gabriel Castaneda, president of the Caqueta Chamber of Commerce, said the 
region's economy will be hit hard.

"Plan Colombia may have a very negative effect," he said. "It will create a 
war, and despite all the money the government is promising, if it's 
anything like previous programs it won't reactivate the economy."

Increasingly, diplomats are worrying that the plan may have international 
ramifications, pushing refugees, guerrillas and drug traffickers across 
Colombia's border into neighboring nations.

International aid groups estimate that there are 80,000 to 105,000 
Colombian refugees in Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela, although these 
countries' governments have not granted them refugee status.

In the Ecuadoran border town of Lago Agrio, 1,700 Colombians have sought 
shelter since late September because of fighting between rightist 
paramilitaries and the FARC.

Hundreds more Colombians are crossing through Ecuador and re-entering 
Colombia in western Narino province, where drugs and guerrillas are still rare.

"This is just the beginning," said the Rev. Edgar Pinos, a Catholic priest 
in Lago Agrio who devotes much of his time to Colombia's displaced. "The 
worst is still to come - and the physical means to help these people won't 

The United Nations, along with Lago Agrio churches, has already started 
building a camp that by next year will have room for more than 5,000 
refugees. But Pinos and others say many more will flood into into the town 
once the military offensive starts in Putumayo.

Government officials in Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela have warned that the 
U.S. aid package, which includes $20 million of military and economic 
support for Ecuador, is dangerously insufficient for the anticipated influx 
of refugees. The Ecuadoran government alone is asking Washington for an 
additional $200 million over four years to buy helicopters and speedboats 
to patrol the porous Colombian border - where 4,500 army troops have 
already been dispatched - and provide education and health care.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has steadly criticized Plan Colombia as 
the "Vietnamization" of his neighbor's civil war. The Venezuelan army has 
refused to accept several recent waves of Colombian refugees fleeing the 
violence, forcing them to return home even when refugee organizations 
complained that they could be killed.

Colombian officials bristle at the criticism.

"Plan Colombia will help prevent the displacement of people, because it 
will provide the resources that didn't exist before," said Jaime Ruiz, a 
top adviser to President Andres Pastrana who is supervising the plan. Ruiz 
noted that Plan Colombia includes $30 million for crop substitution 
programs to wean farmers off coca.

But among those who already have been displaced by the fighting, many are 
skeptical about the anti-drug campaign.

In the shantytowns above Florencia, Orlando Guaca, president of the Caqueta 
Displaced People's Association, says past government promises of aid have 
been empty.

"We've received very little support from the government," he said. "All 
these people you see here - can they eat just the pretty words?"

Aurora Garcia, in her shack nearby, is less eloquent but speaks straight 
from her heart: "I'm scared. They say there will be a lot of war. What will 
happen to the people like me, in the middle of all those bullets?"

Chronicle Foreign Service correspondent Ruth Morris contributed to this report.
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