The Only Risk is Wanting to Stay

Colombian militias are clearing civilians out of the countryside and into gang-controlled slums, to the benefit of foreign corporations. Is this really the ideal free trade partner for Canada?
Photograph by Thomas DworzakPhotograph by Thomas DworzakPhotograph by Thomas DworzakAll photos taken in Medellin on February 23, 2011Carlos Mario Muñoz holding pictures of murdered relatives

Related Link: “All for Uno” — Arno Kopecky’s investigation of union formation in colombia
The warning, when there is one, often comes in writing: a note slipped under the door, or sent to your cellphone, or scrawled on the wall in black paint. Other times, the delivery is personal: a man intercepts your daily walk to the farm, or five of them burst into your living room. They might come during supper or just before dawn; they might wear street clothes, camouflage, uniforms, or masks. Whatever the method, the message is always the same: leave now, or we’ll kill you.

More than two million Colombians, mostly farmers, have received this message over the past eight years, pushing the number of internally displaced citizens in the country to as high as five million. Only Sudan has more. The forced marches playing out across the countryside lend a uniquely Colombian irony to the ministry of tourism’s new slogan: “The only risk is wanting to stay.” With Colombia’s decades-old civil conflict finally winding down, the ministry can point to statistics showing car bombs, kidnappings, and murders at their lowest ebb in a generation, but the trends haven’t trickled down to the country’s catastrophic accumulation of desplazados (displaced people).

A recent survey by Colombia’s constitutional court found that 37 percent of the displaced blamed paramilitaries for their situation, the most often-cited cause. These private militias began appearing in the 1980s, raised by wealthy landowners to protect their holdings. At first, the government collaborated with the soldiers, as a way of buttressing its overextended army. This allowed the militias to grow in strength and organization, though, and by the 1990s they were taking over the drug and extortion trades. They were also clearing campesinos off their land, opening enormous territories to development for their own benefit and that of a central government hungry for foreign investment.

In 2006, the “parapolítica” scandal broke, exposing the extent to which former president Álvaro Uribe’s government was colluding with the militias. One-third of Colombia’s politicians, including several members of Uribe’s inner circle, have since been indicted or investigated for links to the groups. Uribe himself slipped the noose, accepting a post at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, when his second term ended last summer. Meanwhile, the paramilitaries’ work goes on.

Lay a map of the country’s natural resources over one of its abandoned farms, and their motives become clear. As one expert was quoted as saying in a foreign government report, “Colombian regions that are rich in minerals and oil… are the source of 87 percent of forced displacements, 82 percent of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, and 83 percent of assassinations of trade union leaders in the country.”

The government in question was Canada’s, the report delivered by the standing committee on international trade. It landed in 2008, just as debate over the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CCFTA) was heating up. Like other investigations before and since, it made clear that many of the opportunities for foreign investment in Colombia were being underwritten by government-abetted atrocities. “Given the violent way commerce is undertaken, profit is extracted, and exports are generated,” our parliamentarians heard, “Canadian investment in trade would be complicit in that violence.”

Paramilitary violence in Colombia has opened an area larger than Costa Rica to investment; much of this newly productive land lies in Antioquia, the industrial heartland in the northwestern Andes, renowned for its perfect weather and the fierce business instincts of its inhabitants. With its gold-stuffed mountains and a subtropical climate ideal for coca and African palm, Antioquia generates 15 percent of the country’s GDP, and roughly the same proportion of its desplazados. They come without pause to the department’s capital, Medellin, day after week after year: 8,900 in 2004; 17,000 in 2006; 27,000 in 2009; and over 30,000 in 2010.

Part of Medellin’s magic is how it has managed to absorb more than 200,000 traumatized paupers — one-tenth of its population — without anyone really noticing. “You can walk today in Medellin’s downtown, and it’s full of people,” beamed Liberal MP Mario Silva after a visit in 2008. “[That] wasn’t the case ten years ago.” Indeed, his trip came at the end of a two-decade decline in homicide rates, which transformed Medellin from the most dangerous city on earth in the early 1990s (when the reign of the drug lord Pablo Escobar saw some 6,000 murders a year) to the “city of eternal spring” one sees today: a modern metropolis of skyscrapers towering over leafy boulevards plied by fleets of shining, reliable taxis. Small wonder Colombian officials felt confident bringing Silva and other parliamentarians here. But the trip’s itinerary shielded the Canadian visitors from the seething comunas that surround Medellin’s prosperous valley floor. There, too, is Medellin. It is the Medellin of the desplazados, those legions driven from the countryside at gunpoint, only to find their troubles have just begun.

Iarrived in the city on a lukewarm night at the end of June, soon after the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement had passed through Parliament. Life magazine described Medellin as Colombia’s “capitalist paradise” back in 1947, and the tag still holds even though the factories of a half century ago have been replaced by banks and shopping malls. The city’s water, electricity, and transit systems are all profitable, and its medical industry draws elites from around the world for procedures from breast implants to heart surgery. During my three-month stay, I beheld fashion shows and flower festivals, a metro that runs with Nordic precision, the inevitable salsa clubs, and an international poetry slam that drew thousands beneath a driving equatorial rain. Escobar’s Medellin had been reduced to $10 tours of his former haunts and his grave.

And yet it was but a ten-minute walk from my lightly guarded apartment complex in the San Diego district to the Exposiciones metro station, and from there another ten-minute ride over the city’s rooftops to Comuna 13, one of the most lethal neighbourhoods in Latin America. Twenty minutes from San Diego to Comuna 13. It was a frequent topic of conversation, even among paisas (as Antioquians call themselves), how the city was two in one — turn a corner, and you could confront another reality.

The first people to take me to Comuna 13 were Carlos Mario Muñoz and his wife, Luz Marie Duarte, both desplazados and former residents. They were fourteen and eight, respectively, when their families were forced to move to the city. After they met and married, they found their own flat in Comuna 13, eventually moving three more times because violence had engulfed their lives. On the second occasion, an army raid in 2002, soldiers mistook Carlos for a rebel and struck him behind his left ear with a rifle butt, permanently damaging his hearing. The first thing I learned about him was to walk on his right side.

In 1998, he was elected as an unofficial representative of Medellin’s desplazados, and he has won re-election every four years since. He had an inexhaustible supply of stories, which he deployed in dense, rapid Spanish, illustrated with pantomime. Over the course of a conversation, his eternally stubbled face would contort with Shakespearean emotion while Luz Marie, a sweet indígena from the Caribbean coast, rolled her eyes and slapped his arm whenever he went too far.

We met on the cement platform of the Santo Domingo station downtown. I was surprised to see they’d brought four of their five children with them; the eldest of the pack, Yasira, was five. The kids played around our legs as we boarded the train, showing none of the nervousness I felt about entering what several people had described to me as a war zone. When we disembarked at Comuna 13, Luz Marie handed me her baby. I carried the infant up a maze of uneven concrete stairs, narrow alleys, and kiosks, past mothers combing their daughters’ hair and viejos playing dominoes.

Finally, we reached the house where the remnants of Luz Marie’s family still lived — her mother, one brother, an indistinguishable gaggle of cousins and aunts, and her grandpa. Her father had been the brood’s first casualty, shot and killed in 1993 by paramilitaries that had ordered him to leave his farm in Apartadó, nine hours to the north. A few months after that, the same men shot her mother in the stomach; she survived, but the family fled to Medellin, settling in the house where we now stood. It was one of an endless succession of identical shacks woven into the steep hillside like swallows’ nests — its cinder-block exterior, its chipped cement patio festooned with clothesline. As in all the rest, portraits of Jesus and Mary and family members living and dead adorned the drab walls inside.
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2 comment(s)

leo May 27, 2011 08:16 EST

This is indeed Colombia, and this article depicts how countries like this one make its wealth from stealing the powerless ones... This is your heritage from England that did the same more than once.

Roger LangenMay 27, 2011 08:17 EST

I've been to Colombia three times. It makes me ashamed to call myself a Canadian. My last visit was to see Liliany Obando, a prisoner of conscience at Buen Pastor, Colombia's main prison for women. Three years now without evidence being produced to convict her; she is charged with "rebellion." Her crime? Calling attention to the same problem discussed in this article.

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