Monitoring groups in Colombia say the number of mass displacements in the country has increased in 2017 despite the end of the conflict between the state and the FARC guerrillas, as the country's emerging underworld dynamics create all too familiar problems.
In 2017, there have been 61 mass displacements affecting 9,902 people in Colombia, according to figures cited in a new report by the Human Rights and Displacement Consultancy (Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento – CODHES), a Colombian displacement watchdog.
The worst affected areas are all key drug trafficking territories and areas where the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) has created an underworld power vacuum.
The department of Chocó on the northern Pacific coast accounts for 34 percent of cases registered by CODHES, Antioquia in the northwest and Nariño in the southwest, both account for 16 percent of cases, and Valle del Cauca in the central Pacific region accounts for 11 percent of cases.
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Incursions made by the paramilitary successor groups known as BACRIM (an abbreviation from the Spanish for "criminal bands") were the most common cause of the displacements, accounting for 32 percent of registered cases. This was followed by combat between the army and armed groups or between rival armed groups, which accounts for 28 percent. Other reasons included individual and collective threats, which caused 20 percent of displacements, and murders of community leaders, with led to 9 percent of cases.
Although most of the displacements registered were connected to known armed groups, such as the Urabeños or the guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), a significant percentage were attributed to unknown armed groups, including the mass displacement of over 1,000 members of an indigenous community in northern Cauca.
While CODHES does not provide the figures for the same period during 2016, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), the first five months of 2017 saw at least a 10 percent increase in cases of mass displacement compared to last year, while the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs registered a 16 percent increase between January and July compared to 2016.
There are more than 7 million internally displaced Colombians, making it the country with by far the largest internally displaced population in the world.
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The war between the Colombian government and the FARC was previously one of the primary causes of displacement, in recent years accounting for between 35 and 42 percent of cases, according to CODHES. However, the FARC conflict has now been removed from the equation due to the guerrillas' demobilization over the course of this year. But as evidenced by the CODHES figures, in some regions, the end of the FARC as a military organization has led to more, rather than less displacement.
As the FARC have withdrawn, other armed groups, primarily the ELN, the Urabeños and FARC dissident networks have sought to capitalize by moving into former FARC territories to take control of these zones and the criminal economies that lie within them, coming into conflict with each other as a result.
The regions identified by CODHES as mass displacement hotspots are all epicenters of these new criminal conflicts.
In Choco, the Urabeños are battling the ELN for control of trafficking routes and illegal mining. Antioquia, meanwhile, has seen internal Urabeños conflicts and expansion campaigns as well as confrontations with the ELN. And in Nariño, a maelstrom of criminal networks including the Urabeños, the ELN and FARC dissidents are disputing control over drug crops and dispatch points.
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However, while the CODHES report focuses on incidents of mass displacement, the overall picture is more complicated.
Figures from the IDMC show that a total of 56,000 people were displaced in the first half of 2017. If this trend continues until the end of the year, it would mean the total number of people displaced would be significantly below the 179,000 recorded in 2016, and less than half of the 230,000 cases recorded in 2012, when peace talks with the FARC began.
The rise in incidents of mass displacement amid a general decline in displacement is a key indicator of the dynamics of the new underworld taking shape, alongside others such as the rise in murders of social and community leaders amid a trend of generally declining murder rates.
These indicators illustrate how peace with the FARC will likely lead to drops in violence indicators for the country overall, but a rise in territories that are of strategic criminal importance, as competition to fill the vacuum left by the guerrillas heats up. The reality behind these trends stands as a stark reminder that in a significant number of Colombia's conflict zones, the government's deal with the FARC has not brought peace, but rather a new cycle of conflict.