Control over territory and resources lies at the root of the conflict. Much of the wealth accumulated by the paramilitaries and the politicians and businesspeople that support them has come from the misappropriation, often accompanied by violence or the threat of it, of millions of hectares of land belonging to hundreds of thousands of campesinos (peasant farmers), and Indigenous and Afro-descendent communities throughout the length and breadth of the country. As part of the deal with the government, the paramilitaries promised to hand over all their ill-gotten lands and to restore them to their legitimate owners or their families. However, other than some property of little worth, they have so far failed to return any significant stretches of land.
Internal displacement in Colombia remains one of the world’s major human rights crises. Between 3 and 4 million people have been forced to flee their homes and seek refuge elsewhere in the country; a further 500,000 are believed to have fled to neighboring countries.
According to the human rights organization CODHES (Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento), more than 380,000 people were forced to flee their homes in 2008, an increase of more than 24 per cent over 2007. This rise has been put down in large part to intense fighting between the security forces and guerrilla groups, especially in the south of the country.
The reasons people are forced to flee vary. However, the one overwhelming factor is the continuing armed conflict: counter-insurgency operations, guerrilla and paramilitaries activities against civilians that are seen as allies of their enemies, land conflict, economic interests and fear of the terror and human rights abuses committed by all parties in the conflict.
Some of the internally displaced are accidental victims caught up in the hostilities, but in many cases displacement is a deliberate strategy used by the parties to the conflict to "cleanse" civilians from areas which they believe are controlled by their enemies, or as a means to win control over areas of economic or strategic importance.
Indigenous People, Afro-descendant and campesino communities make up a disproportionate number of those who have been internally displaced. They are at particular risk of displacement, particularly in areas that have been earmarked for large economic projects, such as mineral and oil exploration, agro-industrial developments or hydro-electric installations.
People often face severe economic and social difficulties when they are displaced. They also suffer discrimination and stigmatization by those who accuse them of being "guerrilla sympathizers" or of bringing the conflict with them. The security forces’ counter-insurgency strategy is largely based on the premise that those living in conflict areas are part of the enemy, simply because of where they live. The result of labeling communities in an area as "sympathetic" to guerrilla forces has been a pattern of abuses.
Guerrilla and paramilitary groups have also seen communities in conflict areas as either their allies or their enemies. They too have failed to respect the right of civilians not to be dragged into the conflict.
The trauma of displacement can be particularly profound for women. Many will have lost their partners to the conflict and need to provide for their families in very difficult conditions. Discrimination and exclusion also contribute to the barriers that many women face in getting access to the goods and services they and their families need.
The Colombian government must take effective measures to prevent forced displacement, including Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities and campesinos as well as adopting all measures which improve the effective protection of civilians, including internally displaced people, in accordance with recommendations by UN human rights bodies.
Amnesty International is also calling on all partied to the conflict to ensure that measures are adopted to improve the effective protection of civilians, including internally displaced people, in line with recommendations by the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.
The recent increase in killings of leaders of displaced communities, who are campaigning for the return of lands stolen from them by paramilitary groups, has been a source of particular concern, and urgent action must be taken to protect these leaders.
On May 23, 2010, for example, human rights defender Alexander Quintero was was shot dead by four unknown gunmen on motorbikes as he made his way home by foot with his family in the town centre of Santander de Quilichao in the south-western region of Cauca.
Alexander had for years had been campaigning in favor of truth, justice and reparation for the victims of the paramilitary Naya massacre in 2001 in which more than 30 people were killed and more than 70 forcibly disappeared. He had been the president of the Alto Naya Association of Community Action Councils and represented victims of paramilitary groups in the Justice and Peace process, had received repeated death threats as a consequence of his human rights work.