(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Hostility in US, Europe makes Mexico a new refugee destination of choice

    Aisha woke up bruised and disoriented in a hospital bed in Kinshasa. Her husband, a driver for a prominent opposition politician in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was dead. Her five children were missing. One thing was clear: She had to leave her home.

    On a cold November morning last year, Aisha set foot in an airport half a world away. Unable to understand the local language, she walked through immigration on a tourist visa, picked up her bags, and began her new life as an asylum seeker in Mexico.

    As the administration of US President Donald Trump tightens immigration policies and refugees crossing the Mediterranean face a backlash in Europe, a growing number of people like Aisha are looking elsewhere for safe haven.

    Mexico, traditionally an origin country for migrants or a transit stop on the treacherous Central American route to the United States, now finds itself as a destination for people fleeing violence and persecution in their homelands.

    But the swelling numbers have caught Mexico by surprise – and authorities are struggling to deal with the influx.

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    Woman pointing to a map of Africa
    Erika Piñeros/IRIN
    With the help of a map of Africa, Aisha explains the situation in Congo and the reason why she fled. She says she witnessed her husband’s killing and was then tortured and left for dead.

    ‘I chose Mexico’

    Aisha’s new home is an NGO-run safe house in Mexico City where dormitory rooms are filled with bunk beds and personal reminders of homes left behind – old photos, clothing, children’s toys.

    “I chose Mexico because human rights are respected here,” Aisha told IRIN. “It’s a country of migrants, and it doesn’t have political ties with my country.”

    Aisha is just one face of the shifting refugee trend in Mexico. According to the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance, or COMAR, which processes asylum applications, the country has seen a nearly 600 percent rise in asylum petitions over the last four years.

    In 2013, COMAR received about 1,300 requests for asylum. That jumped to almost 8,800 last year. Groups that work closely with asylum seekers in Mexico predict there could be 18,000 applications this year.

    The majority of applicants come from Central or South American nations. But many, like Aisha, are making the long journey from origin countries in Africa and the Middle East.

    Aaron Rodriguez works for the Scalabrinian Mission for Migrants and Refugees. His organisation used to mainly help migrants pushing north in search of better opportunities, but the last year has seen it take in asylum seekers from four continents, including people fleeing violence in countries like Congo, and Syria, even Ukraine.

    Rodriguez told IRIN that Mexico suddenly finds itself facing an unexpected problem: large numbers of migrants wanting to stay. “This new reality is taking us all by surprise,” he said.

    With traditional settlement nations in Europe and the United States building up barriers, more and more people are looking to Mexico as a destination.

    “When the great borders close… Mexico, every day, is recognised more as a destination country,” explained Rodriguez.

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    A boy plays at a shelter for migrants and refugees in Mexico City
    Erika Piñeros/IRIN
    A young boy from Congo plays at a shelter for migrants and refugees in Mexico City. Some refugee lawyers claim Mexican authorities systematically reject asylum petitions from people from Africa.

    This growing phenomenon has thrust the spotlight on Mexico’s undermanned refugee system, which migrant rights advocates like Rodriguez say is often unsympathetic and doesn’t want new asylum seekers.

    A report by US-based Human Rights First warned that COMAR was “exceedingly understaffed”. As protection applications surge, an asylum process that is meant to take 45 days now stretches on for months.

    Critics say its decisions can be flawed, unfair, and wildly inconsistent – the report cites the case of a Haitian man who was granted refugee status while his wife and children were denied.

    “Mexico,” the report concluded, “is far from a safe third country for refugees.”

    A lawyer who represents some 50 rejected applicants told IRIN there is a general consensus among refugee lawyers in Mexico that COMAR is systematically denying asylum claims made by African applicants.

    “It’s a constant negative response,” said the lawyer, who asked not to be named in order not to impact the cases of current clients. “No one has had a case [from Africa] that had been accepted right away.”

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    Aisha plays music on her phone
    Erika Piñeros/IRIN
    Aisha, 38, plays music on her phone. Her asylum petition was denied by COMAR, which she claims treated her like a criminal. She says the process was emotionally draining: “if I’m asking for their protection, how could they treat me in that way?”

    Aisha’s own application was rejected earlier this year. She told the Mexican authorities that she witnessed presidential guards in Congo murder her husband before they attacked her and left her for dead.

    Despite the scars Aisha bears as proof of the torture she endured, COMAR argued it was her husband who was a target, not her.

    “They interviewed me in the dark as if I were a criminal,” she remembered with frustration. She said the Mexican officials and interpreters didn’t understand her; they didn’t write down dates or relevant details; and she feels they laughed at her as she told her story.

    Thanks to her lawyer, Aisha’s case has been annulled and will be reopened. But the process has left her drained. Her morale is low.

    “They don’t realise my loss,” she said.

    A COMAR representative declined IRIN’s interview request. In a written response to questions, the agency said that keeping up with the “exponential” surge in asylum requests was “a constant challenge”, but noted that asylum recognition rates have climbed, from 37 percent in 2013 to 62 percent of decisions rendered last year.

    “Considerable efforts have been made in favour of extending the right for all people arriving in Mexico to request asylum,” the statement read.

    Separate paths

    Some new asylum seekers are choosing Mexico because it’s seen as a safer alternative to the perilous Mediterranean route to Europe, where more than 7,700 people have died over the last two years.

    Victor, a 26-year-old student from Cameroon’s anglophone region, fled to Mexico after he began giving statements to international media about the growing oppression in his home. He said his family paid a smuggler to take him to Mexico, fearing the government would punish his outspokenness. 

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    Victor walks through a park in Mexico City
    Erika Piñeros/IRIN
    Victor walks through a park near the shelter where he has stayed since his arrival in Mexico City. He says he wants to stay in Mexico, learn Spanish, and study.

    But his 20-year-old brother chose a riskier route. The last time they spoke online, he was in Libya, attempting to reach Europe via the Mediterranean.

    “I worry about him. I know that one is not an easy way; it’s rough,” Victor said. “I pray for him every day. My mum prays for all of us.”

    Victor’s asylum case is still pending after seven months. He told IRIN he’s treated differently in Mexico because of the colour of his skin but still feels fortunate to be here. “It is better than Africa,” he said.

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    Victor speaks with his sister on the phone
    Erika Piñeros/IRIN
    Victor, 26, talks to his sister. “Every time they call me, I tell them I’m fine. But if I told them I’m not, they would be sad”.

    *Names have been changed to protect identities.

    (TOP PHOTO: Aisha poses for a photo in one of the dresses she brought with her when she fled Congo. Erika Piñeros/IRIN)

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    Hostility in US, Europe makes Mexico a new refugee destination of choice
  • "Pistol plan" shows why peace celebrations in Colombia premature

    At a ceremony earlier this week, UN inspectors confirmed that more than 7,000 FARC rebels had turned over their weapons, marking the formal conclusion of a months-long disarmament process and another important milestone for the government’s historic peace agreement with Colombia’s largest guerrilla group. But the peace deal with the FARC has not brought an end to the country’s 53 years of armed conflict. Other armed groups remain active and may even be ramping up their use of violence to secure a similar deal with the government.

     

    It was a typically humid afternoon in Pie de Pepé when a gunshot pierced the calm of the tiny town in Colombia’s Baudó region near the Pacific coast. Edwin Jackson Mosquera fell to the ground on the dirt road he had been walking along to start his shift at the local police station.

     

    Police killings are nothing new in Colombia, where government security forces have been fighting an array of armed groups for decades. But the circumstances of the 8 May murder of Mosquera, a 29-year-old father of two, remain murky.

     

    Police quickly arrested the gunman, but they haven’t provided any information to Mosquera’s family about who was behind his death.

     

    “We want the truth,” said his aunt, Luz Dari. “And we want justice to be done. This case can’t go unpunished.”

     

    Paid killers

     

    While no one can be sure of the motive, and results of investigations are rarely conclusive, Mosquera’s killing came during a month of intensified attacks on Colombia’s security forces that have been orchestrated by the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s second largest armed group and other armed groups, including the Gaitanista Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AGC).

     

    A Defence Ministry internal document dated 9 May, which was leaked and published in the media, cited intercepted communications between the ELN and other “organised armed groups” in which they discussed a plan to target security forces by rewarding killers $700 per victim.

     

    By the end of May, at least 20 officers had been killed and 177 injured, according to the Defence Ministry’s figures. In comparison, five officers were killed and 67 injured in April.

     

    “The morale among us all is very low,” said a high-ranking policeman working in the Baudó region who did not want to be named.

     

    “It’s tough to hear people, even your own family, ask, ‘If they’re killing policemen, who are armed and know how to defend themselves, what chances do we have?’”

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    Erika Piñeros/IRIN
    Luz Dari cooks at her family's home in Tadó, Chocó. Her nephew, Edwin Jackson Mosquera, was assassinated on his way to work in Pie de Pepé

    The so-called “pistol plan” to step up attacks on security forces, and the violence that continues to terrorise and displace communities across the country, are widely seen as a tactic by illegal armed groups to pressure the government into making concessions during peace negotiations. Analysts and officials say the controversial agreement between the government and the FARC, has emboldened other groups, in particular the ELN.

     

    The ELN was behind a bomb that exploded in the heart of the capital, Bogota, killing a policeman and injuring another 23 officers and two civilians in February. And on 20 June, their fighters kidnapped (and later released) two Dutch journalists working in the northeastern province of Norte de Santander. The ELN is believed to have been responsible for numerous other kidnappings and attacks this year.

     

    “There is a long-standing belief in Colombia that if you are an illegal armed group without a particular ideology, fighting the state would be enough to pressure the government into entering a peace process,” said Kyle Johnson, an analyst for the International Crisis Group in Colombia.

     

    “Groups such as the ELN and the Gaitanista Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AGC) have increased their violence, looking to achieve stronger negotiating positions vis-à-vis the government.”

     

    Caught between armed groups

     

    The Baudó region of Chocó Department has long been contested by armed groups seeking to control drug smuggling routes to the coast. While Chocó is among the poorest parts of the country, assistance from the central government is limited, and this state negligence has allowed various illegal armed groups, including the FARC, to control the area for decades. Its inhabitants, mostly Afro-descendants and indigenous Emberas, have seen the upper hand in the conflict swing from one armed group to another.

     

    Currently, the ELN dominates the north of the region, while much of the south is controlled by the AGC.

     

    The AGC is partly comprised of former members of paramilitary groups that were disbanded during a peace process that wrapped up in 2006 and resulted in the demobilisation of more than 30,000 paramilitary members throughout the country.

     

    Like the current peace agreement with the FARC, the 2003 to 2006 peace process left out other armed groups and failed to stop a cycle of violence that largely revolves around the drug trade and continues to displace thousands of people every year.

     

    In early March, for example, over 700 villagers, including more than 340 children, fled fighting in the municipality of Alto Baudó in northern Chocó.

     

    A community member, who asked not to be named for security reasons, said he and others in the riverside village of Boca de León had heard gunshots in the distance. Shortly afterwards, rumours from Peñazul, a nearby village where the gunfight took place, reached them saying that the clash between ELN and AGC fighters was spreading up the river, closer to their villages.

     

    “They [the AGC] think that we’re with the guerrillas, because this has been an ELN zone,” said Ornelio Forastero, a local Embera leader. “So we were worried that if we bumped into them, they would just kill us.”

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    Erika Piñeros/IRIN
    Ornelio Forastero: “We heard loud explosions, gunshots. We got scared and ran away; we went up the river and camped on the riverbank for days.”

    The villagers travelled hours up-river to the municipality of Pie de Pató, where they stayed for some days before returning home.

     

    Such temporary displacements continue to be common in many places in Colombia, including in this remote and roadless region where drug production and trafficking is the main industry, alongside illegal logging and mining.

     

    Drug trade

     

    In Alto Baudó, the local people are victims of the drug trade, but they have also come to rely on it.

     

    Residents of Boca de León recalled that when men with guns began showing up in the region just over a decade ago, the offer of a new source of income was too good to turn down. Not only were they shown how to grow the coca plant, they were also trained on how to turn the coca leaves into paste.

     

    “We grew up with our parents planting corn and plantain, but we had a bad life,” said a community member, who declined to be named. He said the villagers preferred the illegal armed groups to the government because “at least they buy the ‘merchandise’ from us”.

     

    But the drug trade has left residents caught between the AGC and the ELN, according to a 7 June Human Rights Watch report that focused on Litoral de San Juan municipality, in the south of Chocó.

     

    “As they dispute control over the San Juan river, these two armed groups have displaced hundreds of families and forced many others to confine themselves to their immediate villages,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for HRW, in a statement.

     

    According to HRW, almost 3,000 people were displaced in 2016 in Litoral de San Juan, which has a total population of 15,000, while more than 1,300 people fled their homes in the first two months of 2017 alone. Other abuses included killings, assaults and the recruitment of children.

     

    The ELN rejected HRW’s findings and issued a statement blaming the AGC and the Colombian government.

     

    Peace talks

     

    The HRW report noted that the abuses continue even as the government and the ELN engage in peace talks launched in February in Quito, the capital of neighbouring Ecuador.

     

    Analysts argue that the ELN and other groups like the AGC have been closely watching the peace process between the government and the FARC, which concluded at the end of last year after initially being rejected in a nationwide referendum.

     

    Many are critical of what they view as concessions to the FARC, which has been found guilty of numerous atrocities. The peace deal makes it unlikely that FARC members will be charged for their crimes, while the government and the international community are funding programmes to reintegrate former fighters into civilian life through the provision of vocational training, education, and business grants.

     

    The ELN has been around almost as long as the FARC, and its members have committed similar crimes. Now, many observers believe the ELN wants to pressure the government into making a similar deal.

     

    Manuel Palacios is the ombudsman for Medio Baudó, the municipality in Chocó Department where Pie de Pepé sits, near the banks of the Baudó River.

     

    “They have seen the benefits they can get – release from prison, reduction of sentences, legal benefits, reintegration programmes, and all that,” he said. “It is an incentive to them.”

    (TOP PHOTO: An Embera girl waits for transportation next to a policeman at Puerto Meluk in Bajo Baudó. Erika Piñeros/IRIN)

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    "Pistol plan" shows why peace celebrations in Colombia premature
  • Inside Colombia's enduring kidnapping ordeal

    Late last year, Colombia’s Congress approved a revised peace deal with the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) that aims to end 52 years of conflict with the country's largest rebel group. But Colombia is far from peaceful. Other armed and criminal groups remain active, as well as some dissident factions of FARC, and kidnapping remains one of their weapons of choice.

    While Colombia may no longer be the kidnapping capital of the world – a title it earned in the 1990s – 188 people were abducted in 2016, according to the country’s counter-kidnapping agency, and many other cases go unreported. Families of kidnap victims complain that they receive little state support or media attention. One of the few efforts to shine a light on their suffering is a radio programme called “Voices of Kidnapping” that allows people to “speak” to loved ones who’ve been kidnapped. Creator and host of the programme Herbin Hoyos has been an advocate for kidnap victims and their families for over 22 years. In December, he joined the search for Rosalba Azira, a school teacher who was abducted in Cauca, in the south-west of the country.

    Inside Colombia's enduring kidnapping ordeal
  • Colombia’s coca growers fear new peace accord

    In the wake of the shock referendum result earlier this month that derailed the peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), city-dwelling Colombians are pressuring the government to salvage the deal. But coca leaf growers in rural areas whose livelihoods are threatened by plans to demobilise FARC are breathing a sigh of relief.

     

    “If the ‘yes’ had won, we’d be screwed by now,” Miguel, a cocalero (coca grower) from Tierralta in the northern department of Córdoba, told IRIN.

     

    Along with the food he grows for his family to eat, Miguel cultivates coca to make ends meet. His main buyers are the same FARC militants who would have to relocate to a designated ‘normalisation zone’ in the neighbouring village of Gallo if a new peace deal is reached. Not only would Miguel lose the market for his coca crop, but during the disarmament period the area would be awash with soldiers, police, and international observers who would be on the look-out for illicit activities.

     

    “We’re not criminals. We’re just campesinos trying to make a living,” insisted Jaime, another cocalero from the area, which has long been a conflict zone for warring leftist and right-wing armed groups.

     

    The FARC has sustained itself for years using profits from various illegal activities including kidnapping, extortion, and illegal mining. But by far their largest source of revenue has been the cocaine trade. According to an August article by InSight Crime, the FARC control up to 70 percent of coca crops in the country. The rebels trade coca base and export cocaine, earning an estimated $450 million a year, according to a recently published book by two Colombian journalists who investigated the FARC’s finances.

     

    One of the key elements of any new peace agreement will be a commitment by the FARC to break its links with all illegal activities, including drug trafficking. But few believe that a peace deal will end Colombia’s lucrative drug trade.

     

    Jaime commented that coca production might become difficult if the FARC demobilises, but that it would never stop. “There will always be another buyer, because when one [illegal group] leaves, another one arrives.”

     

    Crop substitution a hard sell

     

    Integral to Colombia’s attempts to combat the illicit drug trade since the early 1980s has been a system of crop substitution programmes. Launching a new initiative in 2015, President Juan Manuel Santos mentioned benefits such as financial and technical support to start growing legal crops, as well as new roads, schools, and health facilities for the communities involved. The government is seeking support from the international community to boost such programmes in the wake of a successful peace deal.

     

    Coca production has nevertheless been increasing in recent years. In 2015, land used for growing coca increased by nearly 40 percent according to the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC, double the area used for coca production in 2012 and 2013.

     

    Colombia’s post-conflict minister, Rafael Pardo, blamed climate change and the stronger dollar for the steep rise, but acknowledged that the government’s decision to reduce and eventually suspend aerial fumigation of illegal crops may also have played a role.

     

    Others suggest that the increase in coca production is the result of the FARC’s efforts to step up coca cultivation in order to obtain more benefits from eradication programmes during the post-conflict period.

     

    Almost two weeks after the plebiscite took place, government officials held a meeting in Tierralta about the crop-substitution programme with more than 60 community leaders and cocaleros.

     

    “Córdoba is the department in Colombia where illicit crops increased the second most last year. They grew by 143 percent!” said government official Rafael Muñoz to a mistrustful audience. “Is this something we can be proud of?”

     

    “They should have come a long time ago,” muttered Miguel. Others fired questions at the government officials: “Is my land suitable for the proposed crops? What if I don’t have land titles? How will we support ourselves until the trees bear fruit? What if production fails?”

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    Erika Piñeros/IRIN
    Community leaders and coca growers discuss their next steps after the government meeting

    Aquiles, a 41-year-old community leader from the region, said the government had broken its promises of bringing services like roads, health centres and solar panels before. “But it won’t happen this time. We’re organised now.”

     

    He pointed out that community members had repeatedly managed to stop manual eradication teams from entering the area.

     

    No alternatives

    Mario, 31, has been working in the coca trade since he was 14. He now manages a makeshift laboratory – a ‘caleta’ – where he and his younger brother, Juan, convert coca into coca paste by cutting up the coca leaves and mixing them with cement, ammonia and gasoline in metal drums.

     

    “I get 20,000 pesos ($6.50) per day, but we don’t work every day,” said Juan. His salary may be less than the minimum wage, but he told IRIN it was the only job he could get in this remote area.

     

    “With this, we can educate our children, buy them food and clothes, give them health, and there’s even a little bit left for us,” Mario explained, while his little girl played on the coca leaves.

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    Erika Piñeros/IRIN
    At a ‘caleta’ hidden in the bush near Tierralta, Mario and his brother Juan mix coca leaves with ammonia and cement, before filling metal drums with the mixture and then adding gasoline

    The cocaleros complain that the government is more concerned about ridding the area of coca than helping them find alternative livelihoods or delivering basic services such as healthcare and running water.  Despite the proximity of a large power plant, many villages in the area still don’t have electricity.

     

    Tierralta’s residents claim they started cultivating coca after the power plant built a dam in the early 1990s that flooded a 7,400-hectare area, engulfing their farms. Their houses had to be rebuilt uphill, away from the water.

     

    While they received some compensation, the money soon ran out. Their attempts to farm banana, corn, and the other crops they used to grow in the flatlands failed due to the poorer soil in the hills.

     

    Coca, on the other hand, grew well and could be harvested three or four times per year. Transportation to nearby buyers wasn’t a problem either.

     

    A 12.5-kilo bag of coca leaves can be sold to the nearest caleta for 25,000 pesos ($8.30). Once processed, a kilo of coca base sells for 100 times that amount to a middleman in the village who then sells it on to local guerrilla or paramilitary groups.

     

    By contrast, substitution crops such as cacao don’t bear fruit for the first three to five years and are expensive to transport to buyers because of the lack of roads in the region.

     

    Fuelling local economies

     

    It’s not only the cocaleros who are worried. In many of Colombia’s most remote areas, the coca business is fuelling almost the entire local economy.

     

    Drinking a beer in a crowded canteen in Tierralta, Carlos, who pilots a river boat, pointed to the other customers: “You see? There’s money flowing here right now.”

     

    Carlos is not directly involved in the coca business, but like many others in the region, he makes a living from those who are. Every day, along with the passengers he carries up and down the river, he brings the necessary supplies to grow and process coca. “What will happen to us if they go out of business?” he asked.

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    Erika Pineros/IRIN
    Supplies are unloaded for processing coca at a nearby farm

    The cocaleros know they don’t have much choice but to join the government’s programme, but they say they will fight to get the best possible deal for themselves and their families.

     

    Community leaders argue that cocaleros should be given fair compensation for their existing crops, and that the government must guarantee technical and financial support until substitution crops are successfully harvested and brought to market. They complain that until now, the government has provided only a start-up package and no follow-up support to growers who sign up for the programme.

     

    “We are tired of being tricked. They [the government] are the ones who don’t want to make things work, but they can,” said Aquiles.

     

    * Names have been changed to protect identities

     

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    Colombia’s coca growers fear new peace accord
  • What next for Colombia?

    Days after Colombia voted ‘no’ to the terms of a peace deal between the government and the FARC rebel group, the country is still struggling to come to terms with the unexpected result and what it means for the nation’s long and elusive search for peace.

     

    A ‘yes’ vote would have paved the way for an end to more than half a century of fighting between the government and the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

     

    The conflict with the FARC and other armed groups has claimed more than 260,000 lives, the majority of them civilians, and displaced nearly seven million people.

     

    But just over half (50.21 percent) of those who cast their ballots on Sunday voted ‘no’ to the question: “Do you support the final accord to end the conflict and build a stable and lasting peace?”

     

    In the hours following the announcement of the result, both the government and the FARC issued statements calling for calm and emphasising that a June ceasefire would remain in place.

     

    But on Monday, FARC chief Rodrigo Londoño, aka Timoleon or "Timochenko", insisted that the peace agreement signed on 26 September was legally binding, irrespective of the referendum result.

     

    Then, on Tuesday night, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that the ceasefire would end on 31 October.

     

    Londoño responded on Twitter: "And after that, the war continues?”

     

    That indeed is the question that now hangs over a country that had become increasingly polarised in the run-up to the plebiscite.

     

    Dual role

     

    The sense of division was not helped by conflicting messages around what Colombians were being asked to vote on. While President Santos campaigned for “Yes to peace”, the opposition’s slogan was “No to the accord”.

     

    Legally, the government was responsible for educating the public about the contents of the 297-page peace accord. And yet, Santos’s government was also behind the ‘yes’ campaign.

     

    “It wasn’t clear to voters what was instructive and what was the ‘yes’ campaign,” said Pedro Vaca, director for the Foundation for Freedom of the Press (FLIP).

     

    “It was very dirty. What we had was a political campaign, not an information campaign,” commented Rafael Batista, a local journalist.

     

    And yet, the government’s attempts both to educate the public and promote the ‘yes’ campaign, failed to reach the entire country.

    An extremely slim majority

    Erika Pineros/Miranda Grant/IRIN
    An extremely slim majority

     

    Deaf ears

     

    Refugees International conducted a fact-finding mission among people displaced by the civil war and found “large numbers of displaced people who at best were uninformed or, at worst, had fundamental misgivings on the accord’s provisions,” said Francisca Vigaud-Walsh, a senior advocate with the organisation.

     

    In Norte de Santander – a province that saw an overwhelming vote against the accord – Vigaud-Walsh noted that, “Nearly all Colombians we interviewed said that the peace deal would not improve their lives.

     

    “Peace agreement or not, they are currently experiencing increased threats from the ELN guerrilla group.”

     

    The National Liberation Party (ELN) was not a party to the peace deal.  

     

    Enthusiasm to get out and vote was low too. Historically, Colombia has a low voter turnout rate, but only 38 percent of registered voters participated in Sunday’s referendum. That’s the lowest turnout rate since 1994.

     

    In addition, despite the simple Yes/No option on the ballot, more than 250,000 votes were left blank or found to be invalid, the highest rate in over half a century.

     

    Part of the problem may have been the short timeframe that was allowed for new voters to register – just five weeks between the announcement of the plebiscite and voting day.

     

    In a country with one of the world’s highest displacement rates, an unknown number of those most affected by the conflict were left unable to cast their votes.

     

    Vigaud-Walsh of Refugees International said that many displaced people would have had to return to their places of origin in order to vote.

    “[That’s] a costly option for the vast majority, both in financial and security terms,” she told IRIN. “Their inability to vote may have been a factor in the outcome of the plebiscite.”

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    Erika Piñeros/IRIN
    Official wait at the voting station in Necoclí, Antioquía

    The devil was in the detail

     

    ‘No’ voters have been keen to make clear that they did not reject peace, but the terms of the accord which many felt gave too much away to the FARC in terms of amnesty for confessed war crimes and political power, among other issues.

     

    “I voted ‘no’,” said Ana, a 42-year-old nurse from Colombia’s northwestern Uraba region. “We all want peace, but not like this. Those accords were not transparent or fair,” she added, referring to the secretive nature of the initial peace talks between the government and the FARC, and the fact that the deal does not extend to all armed groups.

     

    Speaking at the World Economic Forum in June, President Santos warned that, should Colombians reject the peace deal, “we have ample information that the FARC are ready to go back to war, an urban war which would be even more destructive than the rural war.”

     

    Whether Santos was using scare tactics or genuinely feared a return to war is unclear.

     

    The leader of the opposition and the ‘no’ campaign, former president Alvaro Uribe, was due to meet with Santos on Wednesday to present his party’s demands for a renegotiated peace deal.

     

    “Our standards of justice, reparation, attention to victims and truth have to be higher,” said opposition spokesman and former vice-president Francisco Santos. “We will work with the government to be able to redirect this accord.”

     

    But the FARC may be unwilling to compromise on major sticking points for the Uribe camp, such as prison time for its leaders, payment of compensation to victims and those found guilty of crimes being barred from public office.

     

    An anonymous source, who is in regular contact with the FARC high command, told IRIN, “It’s clear [the FARC] are looking for other things. There’s a lot of economic interest there.

     

    “Colombians are too divided now, and the ones who will decide everything are the ones at the top, as always.”

     

    ep/ks/ag

    What next for Colombia?
  • Could Colombia's faltering reintegration programme doom the peace process?

    “They say crime doesn’t pay, but it really does in this country,” says Humberto Aguirre, a frustrated former fighter from the Bloque Centauros, one of Colombia’s many militant groups.

     

    Aguirre demobilised in 2005 during an earlier iteration of Colombia’s long and protracted peace process. He and his wife Shirley were among 30,000 members of the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) to hand over their weapons and return to civilian life.

     

    But a series of missteps by the government over the last decade means Aguirre and others feel let down, that promises made at the time have not been kept. With only a touch of sarcasm, Aguirre warns that if these mistakes aren’t rectified he will “probably go back to being a criminal”.

     

    Eleven years ago, Aguirre did not want to join a peace process he had no confidence in. But the order was given, so the couple signed up to a reintegration process that required, among other things, that they complete basic education and attend psychosocial sessions. In exchange, beneficiaries received cash to start a business – two million pesos ($660) for demobilised paramilitaries, eight million ($2,670) for guerrillas.

     

    This difference in benefits proved contentious among ex-AUC members because, as Shirley puts it, “how can there ever be peace when there is no equity even at the government level?”

     

    However, Joshua Mitrotti, director of the Colombian Agency for Reintegration (ACR), the government department tasked with helping former combatants return to civilian life, sees it differently. Those were “the rules of the game”, he says, and “at least they receive something”.

     

    New beginning

     

    Starting over was difficult for Humberto and Shirley, who lost their payout on a failed business venture. Against the odds and (in their words) “no thanks to the ACR programme”, the couple went on to set up a productive pineapple farm in Casanare, one of the country’s “zonas rojas” (danger zones).

     

    The farm, La Esperanza (The Hope), is now a cooperative of 100 families – roughly half are ex-paramilitaries and half ex-guerrillas. That mix shows that reconciliation, one of Colombia’s most pressing challenges, is possible. But getting there has meant relying more on personal experience than transitional justice theories.

     

    “Those who live it are those who enjoy it,” Shirley jokes.

     

    Now the director of Funcamipaz, a foundation that helps demobilised people to reintegrate, Shirley led the project, which brought together former combatants from both right- and left-wing groups. “We were all in the same bag,” she says.

    DoNotReuse_humberto_160211-7625.jpg

    Erika Piñeros/IRIN
    Shirley Aguirre waits with a fellow former combatant and her baby outside a local radio station where Humberto is giving an interview on the challenges of demobilising

    Initially, the cooperative consisted only of ex-paramilitaries who came together because of the rejection and stigmatisation they had experienced in their own communities. When Shirley first suggested inviting ex-guerrillas to join them, the idea was emphatically rejected. “But we made it through after a lot of work and several desensitising sessions,” she says with a smile.

     

    Men and women who used to be sworn enemies now work side by side on the cooperative: Aguirre from the AUC; Déiger López from FARC; and José del Cristo Rodriguez, a deserter from Aguirre’s paramilitary group.

     

    A decade ago Aguirre was ordered to find and kill Rodriguez. Today, they live under the same roof, united in their aspiration to build a better future for their families, a future they feel their previous “employers” took from them and that the reintegration process failed to restore.

    DoNotReuse_la_fortuna160108-6500.jpeg

    Erika Piñeros/IRIN
    Humberto Aguirre and José del Cristo Rodriguez play 'Fox and Hens' at the end of their working day

    Old struggles, vital lessons

     

    Challenges, of course, remain.

     

    The loan from the regional government that enabled the Aguirres to set up La Esperanza might soon be withdrawn. That would force them to sell their productive cooperative and put the futures of 100 families at risk. It has left a bitter taste in the mouths of the former combatants, who feel let down again.

     

    How, they ask, can millions of dollars be poured into a new peace process while the previous one is in such a fragile place?

     

    “I feel tricked, disillusioned by this process,” Aguirre says. “The day I demobilised, [the government] gave me a police clearance saying I had no problems at all. As I went to renew it, I found out that there were several pending processes against me, including an arrest warrant. The guy who was helping me told me: ‘Brother, you’d better take off and get lost because they’re gonna catch you.’ Why didn’t they tell me this when I surrendered my weapons?”

     

    That was in 2007 after both the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court overruled that those demobilised from paramilitary groups could be covered under the same law that had underpinned previous reintegration processes, and that granted amnesty to those who had been part of rebel groups. That ruling saw some former combatants take up arms again.

     

    The ACR’s Mitrotti agrees that errors have been made.

     

    “It’s an enormous mistake not to have stability in the policy framework,” he says. “Those who have been demobilised have certainly suffered from this. They are already a stigmatised population, and this legal instability plays against them and against the process of reintegration.”

     

    Mitrotti says it has made a complex situation even more fraught.

     

    “I help people to connect to a life project, and 10 years later they get sentences that bar them working for a decade,” he says, adding that the revised law leaves him no choice: he must fire any demobilised ex-combatants he has employed who are subsequently convicted.

     

    Thousands demobilised

     

    ACR figures show nearly 59,000 people have been demobilised since 2003. More than 49,000 have started the reintegration process, with around 13,700 finishing the programme. Another 17,000 are currently on the “route to reintegration”, which, according to the ACR website, takes around six years.

     

    Those numbers are encouraging, but Fabio, a demobilised FARC commander, says the dire conditions he encountered during his six-year reintegration meant he returned to combat twice in that time.

     

    “Being outside isn’t easy, and you’re out there on your own. At least there [with the guerrillas], you have a roof over your head and a plate of food. So when things got really bad I called a number and went back,” he says. “I still keep that number just in case.”

     

    Fabio feels that when he was captured and then given the option to either join the reintegration programme or remain in detention, “the government took advantage and humiliated us”.

     

    “We had to give in to their process,” he says. “I feel like I surrendered to that peace. I had to bend. I had no choice.”

    DoNotReuse_reintegration160131-7436.jpg

    Erika Piñeros/IRIN
    Fabio and his girlfriend Yisel. "I never had anything to do with the conflict in Colombia, until I met him. I've never had such a difficult relationship before, but I don't regret it," says Yisel

    The ACR’s Mitrotti says those who take up arms again will feel the full weight of the law.

     

    “People need to understand that once they leave a group, their worst option is to go back,” he says. “This is not a country for hampones,” he warns, using a derogatory term for criminals.

     

    Despite this, Fabio represents a success story for the ACR. Earlier this year, he completed his reintegration. While he waits for his start-up cash, he and his girlfriend are planning to set up a business crafting jewellery that uses the same knots and techniques they learned to make rifle slings when he was with the guerrillas.

     

    Reasons for hope

     

    Such startling scenarios are not uncommon in post-conflict Colombia.

     

    Daniel, 51, is a legal representative for victims of the conflict. But he was once a notorious commander of an elite FARC unit he was forcefully recruited into at the age of 16.

     

    Having been both victim and victimiser, Daniel has spent more than 16 years haggling with both the ACR and the Colombian Victims’ Unit over the need for more financial support to help ex-combatants and victims restart their lives. Like the others, he feels disenchanted by the failure of both government agencies and (particularly) the ACR to help demobilised fighters find jobs and housing.

     

    “When the government breaks its promises, it pushes people to join other illegal groups,” he says.

     

    A 2010 Human Rights Watch report documented how many demobilised ex-paramilitaries had gone on to form “successor groups” – criminal gangs that carried out “serious abuses against civilians”, including killings, rapes, threats, and extortion.

     

    Despite their criticism, the former militants recognise it is essential to have a government entity to help them start over. But they are emphatic that radical change is needed and that their experiences of demobilisation should be heard.

     

    Mitrotti says important lessons have been learnt in the ACR’s 13-year existence, but acknowledges: “the system is [still] not perfect”.

     

    Looking ahead

     

    The government reckons the new peace process with the FARC could see another 20,000 combatants demobilising after a final peace agreement is signed.

     

    The ACR’s role, again, will be crucial. Yet despite government assurances of its capacity to receive such numbers, those who demobilised during the previous peace process have their doubts.

     

    “This could be a very dangerous mistake,” says Déiger, a former FARC fighter. “If the demobilised don’t like it here [back in society], they will go back to being criminals – but this time more prepared and knowing the system better than before.”

     

    Having spent years first as a militant and then as director of Funcamipaz assisting other ex-combatants, Shirley Aguirre urges the government to do a better job this time around.

     

    “These guys already know how to make easy money. They've been there, they’ve done it, and they won’t wait to go back,” she says. “We need to provide better opportunities for them.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Humberto Aguirre, demobilised from the right-wing AUC paramilitary group, and former FARC guerrilla Déiger López, talk about future plans for La Fortuna, the farm that has given them a second chance. Erika Piñeros/IRIN)

    Could Colombia's faltering reintegration programme doom the peace process?

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