June 30, 2005

Mafia-style crime plagues Colombia’s war refugees

By Hugh Bronstein

BARRANQUILLA, Colombia (Reuters) - Hundreds of Colombiansarrive every week in cities along the Caribbean coast likeBarranquilla, pushed north by this country's cocaine-fueledguerrilla war.

Left vulnerable by a government too weak to protect them,displaced families are greeted by poverty and growingexploitation that the United Nations says is compounding theworld's worst ongoing humanitarian crisis outside Africa.

Illegal paramilitary militias, formed in the 1980s bylandowners trying to protect their property from Marxistrebels, have discovered how easy it is to earn 20 percent onone-month loans to the growing number of displaced peopledesperate to get back on their feet.

"It's expensive, but what else can I do," a 39-year-oldwomen living in Soledad, a dusty Barranquilla suburb, toldReuters, asking not to be named.

She recently borrowed 50,000 pesos (about $21) from men shedescribed as "mafia backed by the paramilitaries" to buy fruitto peddle on the street.

She hopes to earn enough to repay the loan and feed herfive children. In the likely event she has no money left to buymore fruit to sell, she'll have to go back for another loan.

"It's like a trap," she said. "They say they won't acceptlate payments. We know that's a threat."

Others in and around Barranquilla say they've seen theconsequences of default. Killings are not uncommon. Thetriggermen are the same youths who cruise the streets onmotorbikes making daily collections on behalf of their loanshark bosses.

The country's police force is too small to stop thislargely unreported crime wave, which targets what the U.N.estimates are Colombia's more than 2 million internallydisplaced people.

They have fled their homes in the countryside and areconcentrated in the North but have congregated in most ofColombia's cities, including the capital Bogota.


Paramilitary leaders are in talks with the government aimedat ending their armed struggle against the guerrillas. Whilethey may turn in their uniforms as part of a deal, manyColombians fear they will live on as organized crime.

"The paramilitaries are using these loans to infiltrateColombian society from the bottom," said Mauricio Romero, apolitical analyst at Bogota's Rosario University.

"The objective of this is to build political power, likethe Italian Mafia grew powerful in the United States from abase in the poor neighborhoods of New York City," he said. "Iexpect that at election time next year a great many of theseloans will be forgiven if the people who owe the money agree tovote for paramilitary-backed candidates."

The militias, guilty of many of the worst atrocities of thewar, have increased their influence by helping governors,mayors and legislators get elected, Romero said.

The paramilitaries say 35 percent of Congress is friendlyto their cause, while many refugees are left defenseless.

"The police themselves rat on you," one displaced manliving in Barranquilla said. "They get paid to point out who'spressing charges against 'paras' or organized crime. You haveto keep your mouth shut because you have a family, someone whois going to miss you."

A National Police spokesman called this accusation falseand said authorities have increased arrests of paramilitariesas part of an all-out effort against organized crime.

The government is spending more than ever on refugeeprograms but its budget remains woefully inadequate whilemilitia and rebel coffers grow fat on the cocaine trade.


Despite a U.S.-backed security buildup, Colombia has onlyhalf the police officers per capita of the average EuropeanUnion country and the army is similarly small, according toBogota thinktank Seguridad y Democracia.

Capital city Bogota for example has one-third the policeforce, per 100,000 citizens, of New York.

"This is a weak state not capable of enforcing the law,"Seguridad y Democracia director Alfredo Rangel said.

While President Alvaro Uribe focuses on defeating therebels, paramilitaries are tightening their grip on areas theycontrol, setting curfews and banning things they disapprove ofsuch as long hair on men and mini-skirts on women, human rightsgroups said.

They often punish those who break the rules withoutinterference from authorities, the groups said.

The U.N. has opened field offices throughout the country tosupport the government's effort at providing basic services.One office is in a Bogota suburb called Soacha where in Mayunidentified men poked their heads into the doorways of localschools to announce students were not to be out after dark.

Two teen-agers were executed later that month for being outof their homes at 8 p.m., adding to the scores of murdersSoacha has seen this year.

"The problem is when we close our office, never later than5 p.m. because it is extremely dangerous to be there at night,we never know what is happening from 6 in the evening to 6 inthe morning," said Roberto Meier, representative in Colombia ofthe United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.