By Frank Jack Daniel
SOACHA, Colombia, June 10 (Reuters) – Spread along a muddy ridge at the edge of Bogota and populated by villagers fleeing violence, the fast-growing Altos de Cazuca slum reflects many of the problems Colombia’s next leader must tackle.
A short distance away, northern Bogota feels as slick and as safe as some European cities. But out here, where hutch-like red cinder-block houses sit on squatted land and unpaved roads turn to rivers when it rains, dozens of penniless people arrive each week escaping rebels, militias and the army.
In better times, Hernando Trujillo had a small, successful business shipping vegetables from the countryside to Bogota. Now, forced from his land by rebel threats in 2007, he lives in a dirt-floored shack and depends on scarce government handouts.
“It’s better to leave in a hurry than leave your family buried,” said Trujillo, 53, who left his home region of Tolima when guerrillas demanded he provide them with food.
Colombia is Latin America’s third most populous country and at least 3 million of its 45 million inhabitants have been forcibly displaced in a one of the world’s oldest conflicts.
Colombians choose a new president on June 20. President Alvaro Uribe leaves office still popular for his U.S.-backed war on leftist rebels, but voters are demanding their next leader narrow the Andean nation’s social divide.
While Uribe has overseen a fivefold increase in investment and rapid economic growth during his two terms, U.N. data shows income inequality grew between 2002 and 2008.
Even his likely successor and political heir, former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, says not enough has reached the poor — who often bear the brunt of the fading war.
TREATED LIKE BEGGARS
“We are treated like beggars, when they find out you are a displaced person nobody will give you work,” Trujillo said at Rights House, a government project to help the displaced.
He is one of thousands of villagers fleeing rural areas each year who end up on the edges of Colombia’s cities, jobless and often without skills to prosper in an urban environment.
Soacha, the municipality where Altos de Cazuca is located, grew by a third to 450,000 habitants between 2004 and 2008, according to municipal data.
Close to 80 percent of the families in Altos de Cazuca are unwilling city dwellers, part of a wave of forced displacements that have increased in the last few years.
“If I could go back I would,” said Alicia Nieto, who fled her farm along with 40 family members after people dressed as guerrillas killed her aunts, severely beat her father and demanded teenage family relatives join their ranks.
Colombia’s 12 percent unemployment is one of the highest in the Americas. Forced displacement exacerbates the problem.
“This continuous influx of people — often with little skills to survive in urban settings — puts enormous strain on cities,” said Francesca Fontanini, spokeswoman for the United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR in Colombia.
RISE OF MILITIAS
Colombia is one of the countries with the highest number of citizens classed as internally displaced, ahead of Iraq, according to the United Nations. The government puts the figure at some 3.3 million, other groups say as many as 5 million.
While Colombia is a more peaceful country, with much lower murder rates than when Uribe took office in 2002, the number of people driven from their land each year has risen since 2004.
In 2008, the government added 300,000 people to the list, up from 230,000 four years earlier.
Some Colombians say many who claim to be displaced are just economic migrants seeking government assistance in the city.
Rights groups point out conditions in the slums are often worse than in the countryside and that the government’s assistance programs for displaced people reach only a fraction of the people recognized as eligible.
New York-based Human Rights Watch blames the increase on the growing strength of militias and gangs who replaced a partially demobilized right wing paramilitary network.
“The rise of the groups has coincided with a significant increase in the national rates of internal displacement from 2004 at least through 2007,” the group said in a report this year (http://www.hrw.org/node/88060)
One of Uribe’s most notable successes was convincing the AUC militia, responsible for many of the worst atrocities in decades of conflict, to lay down their weapons. But Human Rights Watch says some of the groups have returned with new names.
Santos looks certain to become the next president, but only after he refocused his campaign from security to job creation.
Many of the displaced, including Trujillo, are among the majority of Colombians who support Uribe and Santos for clamping down on rebels like the FARC guerrillas.
But others living in the Altos de Cazuca slum, where AUC graffiti is still daubed on a wall, are less positive.
“Uribe brought security to the main highways, and tourists can go from city to city, sure — but the countryside is still a red zone,” said Jose Aicardo, 53, who worked as a teacher, then traded coffee before fleeing armed groups in 2002. (Editing by Mohammad Zargham)