Out of Sight

A new publicity campaign called Colombia is Passion hopes to soothe travelers with an unlikely promise: "Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay." A couple of months ago, the Huffington Post ran a travel piece that cheerily declared Bogotá "a safe, under-the-radar gem with plenty of nifty surprises." In the north of the city, young urban professionals now hop from bar to designer bar, from one Asian fusion restaurant to another, and all without bodyguards or armored cars. This is no longer the anarchic Bogotá of News of a Kidnapping, Gabriel García Márquez's nonfiction account of a string of high-profile abductions orchestrated by Pablo Escobar in 1990. No longer are the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC—rattling at the city's gates. These days, in Colombia's rainy, high-up, perpetually autumnal capital, you could easily forget there is a war in this country.

Every day, backpackers arrive at one of the half-dozen hostels opened in the past few years in La Candelaria, the city's historical center, where weedy stalks sprout from the red-tile roofs of brightly painted, graffiti-tagged colonial buildings, and which García Márquez described, just a decade ago, as "a good place to get killed." At the western end of the neighborhood lies the presidential palace, guarded by boy-faced soldiers wearing ceremonial dress and toting modern assault rifles; a couple of blocks away is the Palace of Justice, which shows few signs that it was shot up and razed, in 1985, in a battle between the armed forces and the urban guerrilla group M-19. To the east is the dark green finger of the Andes that closes the city in on one side. And from some of La Candelaria's hilly, uneven streets, you can make out the sea of slums spreading endlessly to the south.

Slums look pretty similar everywhere in Latin America—cinder blocks, corrugated tin, winding dirt roads that one resident apologetically described to me as "labyrinthine." In Rio de Janeiro, they are a part of the everyday landscape, etched into the hills surrounding even the wealthiest neighborhoods. Here in Bogotá, though, they are mostly out of sight—and nowhere, certainly, near the agreeable route of tourists. But it is in the slums that Colombia's hopeful new narrative falls apart.

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Dozens of families arrive in Bogotá every day, on the run from violence and death threats from right-wing paramilitary groups and left-wing guerrillas in small towns scattered throughout the country. In Colombia they are known as desplazados, literally "the displaced." Though statistics vary dramatically, according to Marie-Hélène Verney, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, out of a total population of forty-four million people, three million have been displaced by the internal conflict. Most who come to Bogotá end up in the suburb of Soacha or in Ciudad Bolívar, a sprawling district where precarious shacks creep up barren hills nearly as far as the eye can see. According to Germán Ávila, the director of the National Foundation for Popular Housing (Fenavip), there are about a million people living in Ciudad Bolívar; Bogotá has close to eight million people in total.

Recently I visited Potosí, one of the many neighborhoods that have haphazardly emerged there over the past couple of decades, with a Fenavip architect named Alberto Jiménez. Jiménez directed our taxi driver off the southbound highway and through a convoluted network of bumpy, dusty roads as he told me about his foundation's efforts to build and fix up the homes of Colombia's poor. Most are slapped together by their own inhabitants, or by local builders with little formal expertise, on terrain that is often unsuitable for permanent structures. Roofs leak; walls collapse. The bathrooms are a disgrace.

When the taxi came to a stop, we got out at the foot of a steep hill and began to walk up. I was soon out of breath—certain parts of Ciudad Bolívar are as much as two thousand feet higher than Bogotá proper, which is eighty-five hundred feet above sea level I looked around: some rusty corrugated-tin roofs were held down with stones; water tanks perched dangerously on others; there were heaps of garbage here and there along the road. Many children and older women walked about, but few young men. At one point, the employees of a local daycare invited us in for guava juice. "When you come here, you see it's not all violence, youth gangs," Jiménez said. Later, though, he admitted that in a nearby neighborhood, just four days earlier, he and his team had been held up at gunpoint.

Unesco awarded Bogotá the Cities for Peace Prize for 2002 to 2003, praising its development of "a true urban conviviability." In Ciudad Bolívar, however, state presence remains minimal. Basic services such as power and water have been slow to arrive, and only a few paved streets link the district to Bogotá's humming center. Paramilitary groups operate freely, extorting money from local businesses and trafficking cocaine. Often the state's only representative here is the police, but they are generally seen as antagonists; experts I spoke to believe that they carry out extrajudicial executions and kidnappings on a regular basis. (The armed forces are also responsible for many deaths, and the bodies are often carted off to other parts of the country and registered as combat kills, as the New York Times reported last month.) Dora Inés Zárate Ramírez, a middle-aged woman whose home Fenavip helped to fix up, told me, "Here it's being flooded with drugs, but the police let themselves be bribed." She went on, "What's missing here is jobs, schools, not police."

Zárate is a brash, stocky, cheerful woman. She wore heart-shaped earrings and her bedroom was chaotically plastered with giant hearts and garish posters. She first arrived in Ciudad Bolívar at the age of five, when her father was murdered by left-wing guerrillas in the nearby town of San Juan de Rio Seco. When she was a teenager, she told me, she was abducted by a member of the police, tied up and handcuffed in his house, and raped repeatedly over a period of months; her first son was born as a result. Another of her sons—sixteen years old at the time—was shot in the head several years ago by police officers who suspected him of the murder of two other neighborhood kids. Miraculously, the bullet passed near his temple and through his eye, and he lived. (Four years later he died of cancer; Zárate lacks proof, but suspects it was the gunshot wound that caused it.)

More recently, the police have raided her house on the grounds that a youth organization she heads is actually an armed gang. Still, Zárate is optimistic. Because of the help of Fenavip, water no longer pours into her bedroom when it rains. The walls are solid. Her kitchen has a modern stove and oven. "Life is hard," she says, "but now I'm like a queen, after all these nightmares."

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Desplazados are mostly tucked away in marginal areas like Zárate's, but many are just under the surface of Bogotá's normal life. Recently I visited the downtown neighborhood of Santa Fe, which was declared a "zone of tolerance" six years ago, meaning that prostitution is decriminalized there and, according to local news reports, drug addiction is rampant. It also means that rent is cheap. On a quiet, potholed street, a Franciscan monk named Leovigildo Castillo has turned a humble three-story apartment complex into a boardinghouse for recently arrived desplazados. I met him in his dim, musty office on the top floor, where an old computer wheezed on a solitary desk.

Castillo, an indigenous Colombian, is twenty-four years old and originally from Coveñas, a small town on the northern coast not far from Cartagena. He has an adolescent, almost androgynous face, dark skin, and long, silky black hair. He is small—he seems to swim in his brown Franciscan robe—but his hands are huge, as though they belonged to another body. As we talked, he often flashed a resigned or ironic smile. He smiled as he told me that he too had been displaced, twice, and that four members of his family had been murdered by paramilitaries. He began working to help desplazados eight years ago, at the age of sixteen.

The boardinghouse receives between fifty and one hundred and fifty people per month, a large portion of them indigenous. On average they stay between one and four weeks, while Castillo and three other volunteers help them register to receive the first three months of emergency aid that is legally guaranteed for the displaced, a process that often takes up to sixty days. (Colombia's Constitutional Court has mandated that the government continue delivering aid until the victim is able to sustain himself, but in practice this does not occur, and only forty to fifty percent of those registered have received aid at all, according to two experts I spoke to.) Because a majority of those who arrive at the boardinghouse were originally small farmers, finding them work in the city is hard; some end up in restaurant kitchens and private gardens, but most never get a job. Discrimination is another obstacle: "People see the desplazados as lesser," Castillo told me, echoing the complaints of other desplazados I spoke to. After the emergency aid runs out, they usually end up on the street. Three-quarters of registered desplazados are indigent, according to the Constitutional Court, and only two percent are above the poverty line.

Clara, a light-skinned, middle-aged woman with a heavily lined face, spoke to me while carrying her fourteen-month-old daughter and occasionally grabbing hold of the child's plastic rattle when she could not speak over the noise. She and her family—her husband and four other kids—have been living at the boardinghouse for five months. They were forced to leave their home in Pitalito, a midsized city halfway between Bogotá and the Ecuadorean border, after her husband identified a high-ranking member of the FARC—Colombia's oldest and largest insurgency—to the authorities. Clara and her family assumed they were safe once in Bogotá but, somehow, the FARC discovered where they were; fifteen days after their arrival they began to receive death threats, and since then they have essentially not left the premises.

According to Juan Munévar, an analyst on Latin America for International Crisis Group, death threats against desplazados are on the rise, and the protection programs that do exist are poorly developed and underfunded. Illegal armed groups act under the radar even in big cities, and as a result many people are displaced repeatedly. "I distract myself helping out in the kitchen, my husband helps out with the cleaning," Clara told me, "but we're bored." She went on, "My husband had a bakery, lots of friends, we all helped out there… Here we can't do anything." I asked her if she was afraid. "You don't think about it," she said.

At one point during my interview with Castillo, as he told me about the testimonies he heard nearly every day in a little room next to his office—where "people cry, they jump, they scream"—he seemed to lose his composure for a moment. Living with them, he said, and hearing their stories every day, "sometimes I think, 'Can I have another job, another way of life?'" But then he stopped abruptly, smiled, and offered to show me around—the communal kitchen, the spare rooms with their narrow bunk beds, the poster of John Paul II looking over four kids sprawled together on a couch, quietly watching TV.

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In the patio of an upscale restaurant in the north of Bogotá, I sat down with an expert who has worked on the issue for years both with the UN and the Colombian state. (He agreed to speak to me on condition of anonymity because his critiques of the government could endanger his job.) According to him, the situation of desplazados has improved dramatically with the passage of the first law for victims in 1997. Before that, there was essentially no official support; now, at least, they are entitled to modest benefits once they register with the state. Still, depending on the city, anywhere from twenty-five to seventy-five percent of victims do not register. In part this is because of poor access to information; many also fear that by identifying their perpetrators—key to the declaration they must give as part of the registration process—they will expose themselves to retaliation. What is more, the expert said, especially under Álvaro Uribe, who has been president since 2002, the government has acted only begrudgingly, in response to domestic and international pressure. It is an attitude shared even by those who work for Acción Social, the government agency whose job, ostensibly, is to coordinate help for the displaced.

Without exception, desplazados I spoke to were resentful of their treatment by the state. A recent column in El Tiempo, Colombia's largest daily newspaper, alleged that Acción Social's employees "think they are passing out alms and treat the victims as such—as beggars who are a nuisance." Virgelina Chará, a displaced Afro-Colombian who runs a foundation for other displaced women, told me that "when it comes to saying no, they're effective. When it comes to helping you, they're not." The government expert, for his part, noticed a "frank aversion" toward desplazados in his dealings with the agency, a common perception among NGO and government employees I spoke to. This has much to do with the pressures of the Constitutional Court, which in 2004 declared that the state's response to the situation of victims was not only grossly insufficient; it was unconstitutional. Since then the court has been instrumental in advancing the rights of the displaced through writs that compel the government to meet, within a limited time frame, concrete goals in terms of its budget and how effectively it is assisting victims—and through issuing fines when agencies like Acción Social fail to meet them. These pressures have led to an adversarial relationship not just with the court but with the people Acción Social is supposed to be helping; within the agency, the expert said, "they see the displaced as their enemy." More than once they have asked him, "Whose side are you on, ours or the desplazados'?"

Relations between the government and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which has a significant presence in Colombia, are no better. The more the UN pushes the government to help desplazados, the expert told me, the more Acción Social "sees them as the devil." The problem, he said, echoing others I spoke to in the human rights community, is that the state sees no real difference in priority between the poor and the displaced; Acción Social's broad official mandate to assist "vulnerable populations" blurs the distinction between the two. The government has insisted that providing reparation to victims of the internal conflict, rather than an obligation, is an act of "solidarity"—or in other words, charity. In deliberations over a proposed new victims' law, it has vehemently opposed the inclusion of any language that could imply state responsibility, because to do so would essentially be to admit that victims have the right to be provided for until they are once again in a position to provide for themselves, as the Constitutional Court has declared. (The question of responsibility is an especially touchy subject, given the military's history of collaboration with paramilitaries.) The extent of the government's goodwill is such that only a tiny percentage of desplazados have received aid in the form of the work training and housing subsidies that the court maintains to be their right.

President Uribe's true priority has been fighting the war, rather than attending to the war's victims; far more resources have gone to routing the FARC and demobilizing the paramilitaries, which were created by Colombia's rich landowners starting in the 1970s. Intended as a bulwark against the guerrillas who ruled the countryside, by the 1990s these right-wing groups had evolved into criminal gangs that supported themselves through extortion and alliances with drug traffickers and politicians. (According to Human Rights Watch, more than sixty congressmen are under investigation for such links, most of them part of president Uribe's coalition; more than thirty are now in prison.) In 1997 they united under the banner of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Under the Justice and Peace Law, passed three years ago, members of the AUC could turn themselves in and confess to their crimes in return for reduced sentences, and by the fall of 2006 the government was able to declare that more than thirty thousand of them—in theory, the vast majority—had been demobilized. Since that time, however, as Amnesty International and other organizations have noted, new paramilitary groups have surfaced that are often composed of many of the same members, and often operate in the very same areas.

Now they are more diffuse and use different names: the Black Eagles, the New Generation. But their fight with the FARC over territorial control—cocaine trafficking routes, extortion targets—is the same. Anyone suspected of collaborating with the enemy is a potential target, and as before, it is the unarmed inhabitants of small towns throughout Colombia who pay the price: forced recruitment, torture, death threats, massacres. Last year, according to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement, a Colombian NGO, more than three hundred thousand people were forced to flee their homes, eighty thousand more than in 2006. Meanwhile, demobilized paramilitaries are eligible for a reinsertion program that rewards them—in return for studying and attending free therapy and work-training sessions—with a monthly stipend nearly twice that promised as emergency food aid to a displaced family of five. (Most desplazados do not receive any other kind of emergency aid, and only very rarely does the aid extend beyond three months.) Even if a former AUC commander confesses to murdering one hundred people, under the Justice and Peace Law, he will not serve a sentence longer than eight years.

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Friday afternoons in La Candelaria look like a smiling fire drill. Loud university students clog up the narrow sidewalks and file into bars. Businessmen walk patiently behind them, on their way home or to other bars in the north. Twentysomething travelers three months into trips around the world merely sit and enjoy the spectacle, since every day, in essence, is the weekend for them. In the plaza of El Chorro de Quevedo, where it is believed Bogotá was founded, storytellers tell slapstick tales in a recessed nook and dreadlocked hippies sell cheaply made handicrafts on little blankets. Fastened to narrow balconies hanging over the surrounding streets are oxidized bronze sculptures of men and women in mid-stride or mid-gesture, representing folk tales from La Candelaria's past.

There are other ghosts in La Candelaria. Some of the displaced, looking jaded or bewildered or both, their gait mismatched to Bogotá's pace, briefly end up here before continuing on to the dusty hills of Ciudad Bolívar. Others sell candies and cigarettes and gum from mobile stands or lope along the street at night in search of recycleables, big black plastic bags slung over their shoulders. On the run from the violence in their home towns, they are on the run here even when standing still. To achieve a modicum of success, and rise above everyday subsistence as Bogotá rises around them, means that old paramilitary groups with new names will come asking for their cut. To be young and male in the slums means that, to the police and the armed forces, you are expendable. Being a mother means seeing your children hungry—a quarter of displaced children suffer from malnutrition. Even as the desplazados lodge petition after petition with a government occupied with fighting the war, they discover that the war is here in Bogotá, too.

One evening in La Candelaria, outside of a cocktail bar playing house music and overflowing with British backpackers, I spoke to Carlos Alberto Pérez Sanabria, a forty-six-year-old father of three who was begging on the street. He had on a worn but clean suit and stood very straight. About a year ago, he was forced to flee Saravena, next to the Venezuelan border, when the FARC discovered he maintained a credit account for three police officers at his dry-goods store. One night a note was slipped under his door notifying him that his presence was "neither suitable nor desirable for the proper development of the town," and that he had twenty-four hours to leave. He knew his rights—he was clearly well-educated—and once in Bogotá, he registered as a desplazado, though after nearly a year he has yet to receive three full months of emergency aid. He was furious that while he could not get a job, there were former paramilitaries being cared for by the state; until recently, the budget for demobilization and reinsertion programs, directly benefiting fewer than fifty thousand people, was greater than that for the displaced, who number three million. "The government helps the victimizer more than the victim," Pérez told me. "I haven't even got all of what it's my right to get."

Photograph: Alexander Cuadros