Displaced persons gather outside makeshift home in Agua Blanca in Cali

Three young ‘tweens’ were showing off their salsa steps in a makeshift schoolroom high above the noise and traffic of Medellin, Colombia, the city that cocaine built. They wore tight-fitting blue jeans and sleeveless T-shirts. Three young soccer players outside seemed disinterested. They had no time for dance. Soon a grandmother started to scold the tweens. No one was watching the toddlers now crawling up the muddy slope behind the schoolroom. Life was normal in La Onda … or was it?

No cabbie wanted to risk driving up the increasingly narrow streets to reach the squatter’s slum. At first, we stood conspicuously at a crowded intersection, gringos asking taxi drivers for the impossible or undesirable: a visit to a Colombian slum. Nearby two young men were soliciting signatures on a petition to have current president Alvaro Uribe’s term extended beyond the limit set by the troubled South American country’s constitution. Life was normal in Medellin … or was it?

We finally prevailed upon a van driver to negotiate the bumpy roads that would eventually deliver us to what is part of the sad legacy of the $6 billion narcotics trade that has made the city notorious around the world. As we climbed upward, the streets got narrower and less navigable. The buildings got more derelict and unlivable.

Displaced by war

When we finally arrived at La Onda, some of the women and a few men had gathered in another schoolroom to talk about how they got there. Mostly it is women who have been displaced with their children. Some of the men bear the scars of an encounter with either the left-wing guerrillas or the right-wing paramilitary squads that rule much of rural Colombia.

Husbands are noticeably absent and presumed dead, victims of the 50-year civil war that the narco-trafficking industry partly perpetuates. One older woman said she was a communist and described how her political party was targeted for destruction. Many of her fellow party members were murdered because of what they believed.

La Onda is a symbol of the terrible human cost of the war and it smacks you across the face. It is a higgledy-piggledy patchwork of shacks that homeless people have slapped together in desperation. There were no social services other than what families could provide to each other. On display was a life that spells empty, meaningless futures for the slum’s children.

Yet it seemed like a normal day here. The children romp. The grandmothers fret. The boys strut. The girls giggle and primp. Yet all around is poverty. When night comes there is fear and uncertainty about tomorrow and what it will bring to further destroy their lives.

It was warm in Medellin, about 30 degrees Celsuis. But it would get hotter as I headed south to Cali, Colombia’s third largest city with about 2.5 million inhabitants. It is also home to more than a million Afro-Colombians. Many of them have been displaced to make room for new economic developments sanctioned by the government.

International Capital vs. local inhabitants

As I travelled there, I learned that the displacement of people is not strictly a local enterprise. Someone described to me what could happen to remove whole populations from their farmland in a hurry. “A phone call is made to someone with power in Colombia,” my informant said. “It might come from a large company in one of the capitals of the world. They need another 30,000 hectares of land to grow more pineapples or African Palm or they want to start up a new eco-tourist destination. But there is no land at the moment.

“In a few weeks or months, the person with power, perhaps with connections to the guerrillas or the paramilitaries, returns the call to the foreign capital,” my informant continues. “Miraculously the 30,000 hectares has become available.” What the caller doesn’t want to hear is that the people who once lived on the land have been forced off it. That is not the caller’s problem. He or she just wants to know how much and when can the work begin and the profits start to roll in.” Business life is normal in Colombia … or is it?

I arrived in Cali where I visited the slum called Agua Blanca. It is different from La Onda. For one thing, it is the largest Afro-Colombian community in the country and maybe on the continent. About 1.5 million black people form the majority here. They share much in common with the people of La Onda, but one thing is starkly shared: their common poverty caused by displacement.

A grandmother in one of the slum dwellings doesn’t know what happened to her husband. Neither do the others in similar shacks nearby. A young man is washing himself under a tap outside. He is lucky not to be a statistic … yet. His grandmother watches over him now, but the uncertainty is always hovering.

As we talk, I see a stack of mattresses that form a common bed for 18 children. There is little potable water, electricity or other services for the makeshift shacks of Agua Blanca … and less hope. The streets are running sewers. Children run unsupervised everywhere since there is no school for them to attend. When night comes, they roam wild. The older ones drink a cocaine-laced liquor called basuco that makes them crazy.

Gangs tramp the streets after dark. The younger ones taunt each other. The girls, like the tweens in La Onda, are pregnant soon enough. The other squatters view recent arrivals with derision and suspicion. Violence lingers below the surface and flares unannounced.

The deeper into Agua Blanca I went, the poorer were the displaced families. In one wooden shack, an elderly woman said the paramilitaries had murdered her spouse. She and her children and grandchildren were told to leave their rural community. It was a too-familiar example of companies, some created by former paramilitary leaders, scaring people off their land. The families arrive with nothing and have little hope of finding work. Some call the process ethnocide: the systematic destruction of communities.

Statistics tell only part of the story

As I talked to people who support the slum dwellers of Colombia, I gathered some raw statistics: 4 million displaced (1.7 since Uribe came to power), 15,000 disappeared, 3,000 kidnapped, 20,000 political assassinations over the past 20 years (12,500 since Uribe was first elected), 6,500 arbitrary detentions in the past six years. These are from a lawyers’ group in Medellin.

I learned from a human rights lawyer that Afro-Colombians are the poorest of the displaced people. In a graphic description of the brutality of the armed groups, the lawyer said “they would cut up the bodies, put them in bags and float them down river. No one was allowed to touch the bags. When the river narrowed, the body parts would be strewn on the shore” as a terrifying reminder of the paramilitaries’ terrorizing tactics. The same thing would occur along the roadsides.

Back in Bogota, the capital, all seems relatively normal … or does it? After two years of hearings, the Permanent People’s Tribunal was about to deliver its final judgment on Colombia’s human and labour rights record. A crowd of over 3,000 people, some of them from La Onda and Agua Blanca, had gathered to hear the tribunal’s findings.

Outside the National University’s Grieff Theatre, the huge head of Che Guevara is painted on a wall. A young woman creates a human sculpture by wrapping herself in a sheet that has the logos of multinational corporations imprinted on it.

A People’s Tribunal

Inside, a group of masked students has taken over the tribunal session that is being chaired by another Argentinean, the Nobel peace laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel. The students delivered a list of their own judgments and demands, conveying the deep sense of outrage that the slum dwellers share. Their masked faces underlined the danger for anyone who dissents.

When the tribunal resumed, the audience heard the full extent of the terror the Colombian people have faced. It was the same story that I had heard in the slums. From the crowd, voices would occasionally shout the Spanish word “Presenté”. I was told it signified the presence, spectre-like, of the displaced, the disappeared and the dead.

The tribunal held many corporations responsible for what it called “crimes against humanity” and pledged to send its findings to the International Court. But it reserved its strongest indictment for the Colombian government of president Uribe. Instead of stopping the displacements and violence, the tribunal concluded, the government was complicit.

As the tribunal report wound to an end, I stepped into the warm Colombian sun outside. I saw several people who could have come from the slums of La Onda and Agua Blanca or represented them. They seemed satisfied that the tribunal had reported fairly and accurately on the situation.

Would it stop the displacements? Would it restore some form of safety to the communities I visited? Would a free-trade agreement with Canada help the millions of people living in the slums of Colombia? Would life ever be ‘normal’ again in Colombia? I didn’t dare ask for fear of spoiling this one moment of hope.


Ron Verzuh is a Vancouver writer. He traveled to Colombia in July 2008 with a group of trade union leaders to study the potential impact of a free-trade agreement with Canada. Edited parts of this article also appeared in a booklet written by Verzuh and published by the unions. A front-page article in The Guardian Weekly for March 13-19, 2009, said “The crucible is Colombia, the world’s main cocaine exporter” and that the battles funded by the United States to curb the cocaine trade are “leaving mayhem in their wake.”