Intense fighting among government forces, paramilitary groups allied with the government forces, and armed rebel groups led to continued forced displacement in Colombia during the year. A UNICEF study estimated that 900,000 people, most under the age of 18, had fled their homes since 1985. An estimated 600,000 remained displaced in 1996. In October, at the request of UNHCR and ICRC, Costa Rica granted refugee status to twenty relatives of Colombian rebels. Colombia's interior minister played a key role in convincing Costa Rica to accept the rebels' relatives, who had been threatened by a paramilitary group. In November, UNHCR reported that 400 Colombian farmers had fled to neighboring Panama. Panamanian officials, in collaboration with the Colombian Air Force, immediately deported 88 of the refugees. UNHCR also reported that hundreds of Colombian refugees were living in Ecuador. Colombia hosted 225 refugees registered by UNHCR from a wide range of countries. Internal Displacement Colombia is home to the longest running guerrilla insurgency in the Americas. In 1996, two leftist rebel groups – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) – battled government forces. In addition, groups of armed civilian paramilitaries waged a joint campaign against the rebels with the army. Violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by all sides were egregious and frequent. An average of six people a day fell victim to political killings. In cases where a perpetrator was known, 70 percent of cases were attributed to the security forces and the paramilitaries working with them; 30 percent were attributed to rebels. As a percentage of such cases, paramilitary violence rose markedly in comparison to 1995. During the first ten months of 1996, President Ernesto Samper governed Colombia under a "state of internal commotion," which gave the security forces broad powers of search and arrest. Decrees passed subsequently authorized the military to request that certain areas be declared "special public order zones" and to restrict movement in these areas. By mid-year, more than one third of Colombia was a special public order zone. In 1996 alone, a UNICEF study noted, 36,202 families had abandoned their homes. The Colombian government estimated that 195 persons had left their homes per day because of political violence. Various other groups familiar with forced displacement in Colombia also said that, in 1996, displacement increased over the previous year. According to the System of Information on Households Displaced by Violence (SISDES), a local NGO, the army was responsible for 16 percent of the displacement, paramilitary organizations were responsible for 32 percent, and guerrilla organizations for 26 percent. SISDES attributed the remaining displacement to the actions of the police, urban militia, and drug traffickers. Although political violence was generalized in Colombia, there were key regions where fighting, targeted killings, and threats particularly prompted forced displacement: the northern departments of Cesar, Bol'var, and Antioquia; the Middle Magdalena region; and the region known as Urab‡, which borders Panama. Displaced persons faced a cruel dilemma. They could not stay in conflict zones because of fears for their safety, but if they sought refuge in other regions they were rejected by local people, who often perceived them as an economic burden and as potential supporters of the rebels, of the army, or of the paramilitaries. According to ICRC, 300 people in the Middle Magdalena municipality of Yond— fled in December after armed men killed nine, "disappeared" one local merchant, and burned 19 houses. The villagers who fled, mostly children, hid in the woods until an ICRC delegation arrived with food, kitchen utensils, blankets, and mattresses. More families fled after paramilitaries captured, killed, and dismembered another three farmers. In northern Colombia, paramilitaries calling themselves the "Peasant Self-Defense Groups of C—rdoba and Urab‡" (ACCU) were linked to at least 200 killings from July through December, some within sight of police stations and military barracks. Nevertheless, military authorities claimed that the ACCU could not be located or identified. Only in December did Colombia's defense minister offer a reward of $1 million for information leading to the paramilitary leaders' capture. Conflict over land remained a principal cause of forced displacement. Violence associated with landowners, cattle ranchers, and drug traffickers' attempts to expand their holdings resulted in the displacement of poor, landless families. Among the most dramatic examples was the forced displacement of nearly 2,000 people from one of the largest privately owned holdings in Colombia. Located in the northern state of Cesar, Bellacruz ranch was, for more than a decade, home to hundreds of peasants who claimed title to its uncultivated acres. On February 14, approximately 40 paramilitaries who had been hired by the Marulanda family, which owned Bellacruz, began threatening and whipping peasants and burning their homes. They forced an estimated 250 families to abandon their land. In subsequent attacks, the paramilitaries killed peasants who protested or refused to leave. Groups that reported on the situation of the Bellacruz displaced – including the Grupo de Apoyo al Desplazamiento – were publicly characterized by the army as working hand-in-hand with rebels and included on death lists. Although the attorney general's office reportedly had arrest warrants for 20 of the paramilitaries, it did not arrest any of them. In November, paramilitaries reportedly vowed to continue to pursue and kill Bellacruz peasants and their defenders. The government eventually signed three accords with displaced Bellacruz families promising their safe return and relocation. However, by the end of the year, only 95 families had been relocated. More than 190 remained displaced, living in poverty and fear, and human rights groups reported that paramilitaries continued to threaten Bellacruz families and those who defended them. Displacement and Drug Eradication After farmers who grew coca, the plant from which cocaine is produced, protested the forced eradication of their crops in July, military authorities in charge of special public order zones in the departments of Caquet‡, Guaviare, and Putumayo began breaking up protest marches with violence. Soldiers reportedly burned homes and belongings and threatened local authorities, forcing some to flee the area. Repeatedly, high military officials characterized protestors and their leaders as guerrillas, criminals, and drug traffickers. In Caqueta, protests subsided after the government signed an accord with farmers, promising to invest in education, health care, and public works. However, since the signing, dozens of protest leaders and farmers have apparently been targeted for their activism.
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