Colombia – The people behind armed conflict Part III: The Internally Displaced People, a result of armed conflict

Hi all! Last week’s entry was dedicated to understanding the main participants of the conflict. The battle for supremacy and the wish to annihilate the opposite groups have put civilians in the crossfire. They are victims that play an important role in the armed groups war tactics. Part III of this paper will look at some of the main ways in which the Colombian population have been exploited by the participants of the armed conflict. These war tactics are in many cases the reason why civilians become internally displaced. 

According to the United Nations, internally displaced persons are:


Persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of  habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border

The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) refer to IDPs as some of the most vulnerable people in the world, not only due to the reasons behind their displacement, but also because IDPs reside within their own national borders. To remain inside a state border place IDPs legally under the protection of their own government, although there are occasions where the state is the reason for the initial escape. Because IDPs are still regarded as citizens and not refugees, they are excluded from rights to protection under both human rights and international humanitarian law.

Data from CODHES* indicate that the past 15 years have seen an average of 300,000 new IDPs each year in Colombia. According to iDMC** as of December 2014, Colombia had 6,044,200 people living displaced due to conflict. This means that approximately one in eight Colombians have at some point in their lives been forced to leave their home because of violence or threats related to the armed conflict.[27] Worldwide more than every sixth person internally displaced is Colombian.

The people who become internally displaced in Colombia are some of the poorest in the country. According to DNP***, 98.6 per cent of the IDPs live under the poverty line, whilst 82.6 per cent are living in extreme poverty. This is far worse than for rest of the population, which of only 29.1 per cent live in poverty and 8.7 per cent of those live under the extreme poverty line.[28] Nearly all forced displacement happen from rural to urban areas. The IDPs’ loss of land increases their precarious situation, as they no longer have the resources to provide for themselves or the possibility to take advantage of the only proficiency they know. Before displacement many were able to use their land for cultivation and livestock making it possible to put food on the table and have a small income by selling off any excess goods.[29]

Overall, the number of victims of forced displacement between 1985 and 2012 was fairly equal in terms of gender: for every 96 men there were 100 women displaced. 39% of IDPs in the same period were under the age of 15 and 15% of these were under five years old at the time of displacement.[30] As few people have been able to return to their home of origin, the gender and age of IDPs will more or less correspond to gender and age at the time of displacement.

Numbers show that Colombians of afro-Colombian or indigenous origins are particularly vulnerable to forced displacement as most of them live in the rural areas affected by the conflict. CODHES reports that in 2012, 51,938 afro-Colombians were displaced, counting for 20.26% of the total number of IDPs registered that year. Likewise, at least 18,154 indigenous persons were forced to leave their homes that same year, making up 7.08% of the total number of IDPs. In 2012, the indigenous population had a number of people affected by   displacement twice as high as the rest of Colombians.[31] As of 2014, 29.6% of all IDPs in Colombia were of Afro-Colombian ethnicity.[32]

Whether as a direct or indirect consequence, the causes for displacement are largely linked to the armed groups fight for power and territory to support military dominance and conceal various illegal activities. Members of armed groups use various forms of war tactics to obtain their goals and the civilian population becomes a source of political, economic, moral and logistical support, thus an important part of the conflict. It is of little relevance whether the support is given with consent or forced. Violence is used either to obtain subordination among the population or to eliminate the established support of enemy groups. Either way, the violence is always justified in the eyes of the perpetrators.[33]


War Tactics

The war tactics and assaults used by the armed groups are often, if not exclusively violations of human rights. Although with varying severity, they are usually the prelude of forced displacement as this is usually the solution to end other types of assaults or the fear of them. Displacement becomes a reality for many civilians who are exploited by armed units who want to avoid direct confrontation with the enemy. Both guerrillas and paramilitaries are known to prefer the option of starving the opponent of resources through undermining their support base by turning people and social organisations on enemy territory into military targets. By doing so, areas of interest are easier made untenable then by head-on confrontations.[34] To gain power armed groups need finance to support these activities and civilians become a source of income, which is obtained in various ways, such as imposing devastating taxes on peasants or kidnapping for ransom. Especially during the height of the narco business, the armed groups dependence on the drugs forced people to relocate. Communities, peasants and other vulnerable groups were forced off their properties so armed groups could magnify the cultivation of drug crops, conceal the laboratories processing it, control the routes transporting the drugs, and participate with ease in illegal industries such as money laundering and arms trafficking, which are all a source of income to support their pursuit for supremacy.[35]

New illegal operations related to the extraction of minerals such as gold and emeralds have become more frequent and a reason for forced displacement. According to data given by the Office of the Comptroller General, as much as 87% of forced displacement occurs in municipalities where communities have opposed the initiation of mining companies that improperly have bought concession to their land. Armed groups benefitting from mining activity use death threats to force people to leave their homes. The presence of landmines planted by guerrillas has severe effects on the rural populations. The FARC and ELN started using landmines to combat the enemy and they are now found in more than two-thirds of the Colombian municipalities.[36] Between 1990 and 2013 over 10,000 people were victims of landmines, 20% lost their lives and 39% of the victims were civilians. Although efforts are made to clear the land of mines, people are forced to leave their homes because of the dangers caused by these devices.[37]

According to data base information publicised by the Observatorio de Restitución y Regulación de Derechos de Propiedad Agraria, 2,552 massacres have taken place in Colombia between 1980 and 2014, leaving at least 15,611 casualties.[38] In 2012, 21% of the displacements happened due to homicides such as massacres, which become a result of the armed groups’ fight for power. 21.7% was forced to flee due to threats and 58% due to military confrontation between the conflict’s various participants. Their findings have been based on massacres with at least four victims.[39]

The belief that life in peace is an indisputable human right has resulted in peace communities asserting themselves around Colombia. These communities have decided to stay neutral by not aiding or supporting any variety of armed groups, refusing to be forced off their land by peacefully resisting the conflict. San José de Apartadó suffered one of the most grotesque attacks on peace communities in Colombia. On the 21st of February 2005, 8 people were assassinated by paramilitaries.[40] Although some communities are resisting armed groups, such events are forcing many to leave their homes in fear of repeated delinquencies. Likewise the indigenous communities are consistently challenging their right to live in peaceful societies free from the violent intrusion of armed groups. The demand to exert their human rights has had serious consequences for the communities. Between 2002 and 2009 more than 1,400 indigenous individuals was murdered as a result of the conflict and 176 people have forcibly disappeared. The number of indigenous IDPs has kept rising at an alarming speed over the last decade. Between 2006 and 2007 the number rose by 23.1 per cent. During the three first quarters of 2009, there were nine incidents of mass indigenous displacement and a total of 3,100 indigenous people were forced to leave their homes.[41]

Sexual violence is a practice that is widespread, habitual and systematically carried out by armed groups and almost always with impunity. Stigmatisation and repeated victimisation inhibits reports of sexual violence and silences these crimes. The presumed gender roles in the social environment of the victims often generate perceptions that the victim is liable in the sexual violence afflicted on them. The responsibility of the perpetrator is diminished and instead victims become outcasts in communities that are shamed by the incidents. Sexual violence means humiliation and punishment of women, but is also a way to destroy emotional bonds between enemies or bring dishonour male rivals and their community. In such ways members of armed groups use this type of crime to wear down the opponent by taking advantage of the social and cultural connotations associated with sexual violence. Not exclusively, but in particular paramilitaries use sexual violence as a strategy to obtain social and territorial control. More than a response to irrepressible sexual instincts, sexual violence is a response to incentives or sanctions established by the leadership of armed groups and based on the learned representations of femininity and masculinity.[42] Likewise, it is believed that violence within families in displaced communities is significantly higher due to the social and economic stress levels that develop when displaced or living in poverty. In 2010 a study was done concerning sexual violence in municipalities were participants of the conflict were present. The study included 497 municipalities within the timeframe of 2001 and 2009. 489,687 women came forward stating that they were victims of sexual violence. According to the women, guerrillas and paramilitaries committed 74,698 of the assaults, whilst member of security forces were responsible for 21,036 incidents.[43]

Illegal recruitment of children is part of the war tactics used by the armed groups and the fear of one’s child becoming a soldier is considered as one of the principal reasons for the displacement of families. Children as young as ten years old have been known to enrol in rebel groups. They are usually from rural communities on the Pacific coast and the southern provinces where the conflict is most intense.[44] Amongst various sources it is estimated that between 6,000 and 18,000 child soldiers are involved in the Colombian conflict. The recruitment of minors is beneficial for the armed groups as the children can be used as cheap workforce in economic activities such as mining and drug trafficking. Children are also participating in army activities and assisting combatants with supplying necessities such as food, nursing and hygiene.[45] Moreover, in their effort to expand the loyalty of families in conflict areas, guerrillas are often targeting children to accomplish the collaboration.[46]

The desire for excitement, power or wealth combined with the wish to rise out of poverty is often encouraging children to join the armed groups. Likewise, threats or the perception that recruitment is the only way for safety is also driving children towards a life as a soldier. The armed forces’ presence in the community puts parents in difficulty as their children are constantly exposed to members of such groups. Interaction with guerrillas and paramilitaries becomes a daily occurrence for the minors who are often influenced by their way of life. The fear of the outcome from such influences and pressure often leave the parents with no other option but to flee their homes to protect the children. Another devastating impact of the recruitment of child soldiers is the stigmatisation and criminalisation that propagates between families and whole communities when social and communal networks are damaged because of rupture in the trust between civilians.[47]

The armed groups have long used forced disappearance as a tool to control rural communities and silence communal organisations and political opposition. It is not only directed at activists, but also used as a way of terrorising communities in rural parts of Colombia. Moreover, by using forced disappearance the armed groups want to break up social movements that are considered a threat to their supremacy. The disappearance spreads fear through the victim’s family and those associated with them. They face many obstacles because of their relation to the person that is missing and become stigmatised as the victims are considered supporters the enemy. The victim’s family is usually threatened or displaced by force.[48] Although large massacres, assassinations and terrorist attacks have been the most visible assaults, they are not the most common forms of violence against civilians. Force disappearances, targeted killings, kidnappings and smaller massacres stands out as the more frequent violations in the armed conflict. These acts are more regular, but with lower intensity, which is part of the strategy to make such activities less visible and hidden from the public eye. However, the impact of such delinquencies can be profound and a way that the armed groups terrorise the civilian population. When tortured and molested bodies are publicly displayed to communities they send a clear message to civilians about what will happen if they do not cooperate.[49]


Next week will be looking at some of the challenges the internally displaced are faced with when they leave their original communities. As civilians struggle with personal problems when becoming internally displaced, Colombia face a difficult task in supporting and providing help to all those affected by war. 

*CODHES – La Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento

**iDMC – The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre

***DNP – Departamento Nacional de Planeacion

[27] iDMC Online, Colombia IDP figures analysis <> Accessed: 6 February 2016

[28] Sara Feldman, Julie Freccero, Kim Thuy Seelinger, Safe Haven: Sheltering Displaced Persons from Sexual and Gender-based Violence, Case Study: Colombia, Human Research Centre in conjunction with the UNHCR (Berkeley: University of California, 2013), (p.26) <> Downloaded: 10 January 2016

[29] Angela Consuelo Carrillo, ‘Internal Displacement in Colombia: Humanitarian, Economic and Social Consequences in Urban Settings and the Current Challenges’, International Review of the Red Cross, 91.875 (2009), 527-546.

[30] Unidad para la atención y reparación Integral a las victimias, Informe nacional de desplazamiento forzado en Colombia 1985 a 2012, (2013).

[31] CODHES, La Crisis humanitaria en Colombia persiste. El Pacífico en disputa, Informe de desplazamiento forzado en 2012, Bogotá 2013, <> Downloaded: 6 March 2016.09.

[32] iDMC Online, Colombia IDP figures analysis.

[33] Centro de Memoria Histórica, ¡basta ya! Colombia: Memorias de guerra y dignidad, Imprenta Nacional, Bogotá, 2013, (p. 38) <> Downloaded: 9 April 2016.

[34] María, Teresa Restrepo-Ruiz, ‘The Impact of Plan Colombia on Forced Displacement’, in International Migration and Human Rights: The Global Repercussions of U.S. Policy, ed. Samuel Martínez (London: University of California Press, 2009), pp. 199-215, (pp. 7-8).

[35] James M. Shultz, Ángela Milena Gómez Ceballos, Zelde Espinel, Sofia Rios Oliveros, Maria Fernanda Fonseca & Luis Jorge Hernandez Florez, ‘Internal displacement in Colombia’, Disaster Health, 2.1 (2014) 13-24 (p. 18).

[36] iDMC, Colombia: Displacement Continues Despite Hopes for Peace, 16 January 2014 <> Downloaded: 26 February 2016.

[37] Steven Cohen, ’45 Families Displaced by Landmines in Western Colombia’, Colombia Reports, 15 January 2014 <> Accessed: 23 March 2016.09.

[38] ‘Por Masacres en Colombia Hay Más de 15.600 Víctimas en los Últimos 30 Años’, El Tiempo Online, 22 October 2015 <> Accessed: 7 March 2016.09.

[39] iDMC, Colombia: Displacement Continues Despite Hopes for Peace, 16 January 2014 <> Downloaded: 26 February 2016.

[40] Comunidad de Paz de San José de Apartadó, Diez años después los victimarios regresan a la escena del crimen, 23 February 2012 Accessed: 7 March 2016

[41]ABColombia, Caught in the Crossfire – Colombia’s Indigenous Peoples, October 2010 (p. 9-12) <> Downloaded: 2 March 2016

[42] Centro de Memoria Histórica, ¡basta ya! Colombia: Memorias de guerra y dignidad, Imprenta Nacional, Bogotá, 2013, <> Downloaded: 9 April 2016.

[43] Sara Feldman, Julie Freccero, Kim Thuy Seelinger, Safe Haven, 2013 (pp. 23-25)

[44] Anastasia Moloney, ‘Child Recruitment by Colombian Fighters is Major Cause of Displacement – UN, Thomson Reuters Foundation, 22 April 2013 <> Accessed: 28 February 2016.

[45] Centro de Memoria Histórica, ¡basta ya! Colombia: Memorias de guerra y dignidad, Imprenta Nacional, Bogotá, 2013, <> Downloaded: 9 April 2016.

[46] iDMC, Colombia: Displacement Continues Despite Hopes for Peace, 16 January 2014 <> Downloaded: 26 February 2016.

[47] Centro de Memoria Histórica, ¡basta ya! Colombia: Memorias de guerra y dignidad, Imprenta Nacional, Bogotá, 2013, <> Downloaded: 9 April 2016.

[48] Lisa Haugarrd and Kelly Nicholls, Ropiendo el silencio, en la búsqueda de los desaparecidos de Colombia, Grupo de Trabajo sobre Asuntos Latinoamericanos y la Oficina en los Estados Unidos sobre Colombia, October 2010 (pp. 3-5) <> Downloaded: 8 April 2016

[49] Centro de Memoria Histórica, ¡basta ya! Colombia: Memorias de guerra y dignidad, Imprenta Nacional, Bogotá, 2013, <> Downloaded: 9 April 2016.

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