A Nation Reconfigured by Displacement

window detail
Detail of a window in an abandoned house in San José del Peñon, Bolívar. Photo by Jose Luis Oviedo.


by Andrés Salcedo Fidalgo and María Angélica Garzón

It was January 2004. Aurora was standing at the traffic light selling dish towels in the middle of a crowded Bogotá avenue. She was living with four of her eight children in the Galán neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. Persecution and flight had stamped her life indelibly. She was only fifteen years old when she fled the small farm where she had grown up on the edge of the Mira River on the Colombian Pacific coast. She had watched as an uncle was murdered because of a land dispute. In fear she hid in an aunt's house in the small city of Tumaco and later went to the larger city of Buenaventura. She met and married a man there and they both returned to her land on the edge of the river to cultivate rice. The guerrillas stole their cows and their rice crop and told them to leave the land. When Aurora's husband refused to leave, they killed him. Aurora went back to Buenaventura, a city where the paramilitary forces had carried out "social cleansing" by killing young people. Threats and murders were constantly in the air. To protect her older children, she fled to Bogotá. She spent a few days at the Center for Attention to Migrants in the Bogotá Archdiocese, and then moved from neighborhood to neighborhood on the outskirts of the city.

Aurora found support in the city, but she also faced discrimination. Once the landlord of the house where she was renting a room locked her inside  without a key to get out. She cried because she needed to pick up her children after school got out. She also felt humiliated when her photo appeared without her consent in a huge poster for the Solidarity Network that stated, "We have everything in common with displaced persons." Her anger at her situation lessened somewhat when she joined the local Pentecostal church. But she still dreamed of recovering her lands filled with cacao, fruit and plantains and hoping she could return home to build a house and give her children a decent life.

Aurora's story illustrates the efforts to survive of many Colombian men and women from the countryside who were expelled from their land and forced to flee to the cities and look for informal employment to feed their children. As an Afro-Colombian, Aurora had suffered violence since she was born and raised in a historically marginalized region in which guerrillas and paramilitary forces fought for control of the territory.

abandoned house
Abandoned house in Mampujan, Bolívar. Photo by José Luis Oviedo.


Forced recruitment, massacres and displacements have left a long trail in Colombian history. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, Afro-Colombians fled slavery and work in the mines to begin a new life in isolated areas along the rivers of the Pacific Coast jungles. The indigenous population escaped from forced labor to isolated areas in the Andes and in the Amazon and Orinoco basins. In the 52 civil wars during the 19th century, thousands of children and youth were forcibly recruited in the marketplaces to serve in different armies. A process of dispossession, racial mixing and migration began, leaving many to work as laborers on plantations and in cities while others migrated to colonization areas. Much of the land on the indigenous reservations was divided up and sold as empty lots at ridiculously low prices through concessions and grants of property rights to  export agroindustries.

During the first half of the 20th century, Colombia—anchored in the clientelism of a sectarian two-party system—had a strong state presence in some areas and virtually no presence in others. This asymmetric and unequal nation-building process was reflected in the flourishing economies in the country's central region compared to the 75 percent of the territory that was considered remote, backward and available to be colonized and absorbed by large estates. From the 1920s until the 1950s, peasants and indigenous groups mobilized to demand land. By the middle of the century, the failure of land reform and the resurgence of violence between the liberals and conservatives (1946-1957) caused another great exodus of peasants towards zones that were being colonized or toward the cities, provoking rapid urbanization.

Between 1960 and 1964, guerrilla movements concentrated in several isolated zones, taking control over areas in which they replicated some of the state's functions such as collecting taxes, administering justice and security services. In 1987, armed drug traffickers rushed into the region, buying up 37 percent of the best land in guerrilla territory. They created paramilitary groups to exterminate all the members of leftist movements, including political figures, activists, union leaders and teachers. Towards the end of the 90s, they expelled the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas from several regions and, organized as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, assumed the role of keepers of order.

After several failed peace attempts (1984, 1992), the guerrillas expanded their fronts in zones that were strategic to the country's economy, and by the end of the 90s, they had taken control of around 60 percent of Colombia's municipalities. The government of Álvaro Uribe Vélez (2002-2010) responded to this situation with a military crusade backed up by paramilitary actions to do away with the guerrillas. This resulted in local authorities losing control and  enormous swaths of land given over for agroindustrial production and large-scale mining.  The most egregious massacres and the greatest number of displacements took place between 2000 and 2002, when around 412,500 were forced from their homes.


In the mid-90s, Colombia had become the scene of the largest humanitarian disaster in the global South. The Solidarity Network, initially created to attend the poorest and most vulnerable population in the country, changed its focus and became the principal entity to provide emergency humanitarian aid, as well as psychological and social support and programs for the return of displaced persons to their communities. In the year 2000, Plan Colombia initiated 15 years of U.S. aid with close to nine billion dollars destined for the war on drugs, military support to regain state territorial control, the demobilization of paramilitary groups, and development projects.

The focus of the Plan changed after courts made several constitutional decisions in response to the pressure exerted by the displaced population who, occupying officies. parks and plazas, demanded more effective and timely help. A 2004 court decision (T-025) declared that the prolonged violation of the rights of the displaced population was unconstitutional,  and two 2009 decisions (004 and 005) required protection for indigenous groups "at risk of disappearing," taking into account that seven percent of the displaced population that year was indigenous and 17 percent Afro-Colombian. In 2009, a reparation policy was adopted through an administrative system that recognized the importance of accountability for damages caused by Colombia's armed actors.  

Displaced persons did not want to be seen by officials and neighbors as helpless victims from poor, backward, violent regions. Displacement was challenging, but it had strengthened them politically. The victims had testified to the violent acts that prompted their flight, but they also described the world of land, relations, work and experiences that had been torn from them. This was a way to regain a certain respectability in the midst of precariousness and to reclaim the right to live a dignified existence in a city where so many victims of the conflict scrambled to make a living.


Bogotá had been a city the newcomers feared because of its enormity, because of the way people treat you and look down on you, because of the prison-like conditions of the rooming houses and the humiliation of having lost everything and needing to rent a room, as happened to Aurora. For those new arrivals, the urban reality meant a rupture from their old ways; they had imagined the future in another form. They had to expend enormous effort to try to get a real job and to make their way through the bureaucratic formalities to get access to health, education and food in spite of being belittled in the process.

In the context of a vast and stratified world of urban contacts, many displaced persons have managed to find comfort and acceptance in emotional support groups, religious circles or political parties. They no longer focus on the barrage of threats from their places of origin. Shortly after their arrival, they usually make contact with people from their community of origin and slowly begin to build up lines of communication with those they left behind.

Some ethnic groups have found that their culture is more appreciated in Bogotá than in their provincial capitals. Old networks of distant relatives have been activated and new inter-ethnic networks established through indigenous organizations, which have gained recognition through the affirmation of cultural differences.

However, certain groups, like the Embera-Chamí from Colombia's western jungles, continue to be affected by the violence and the asymmetry that shuts them off from society: women go barefoot as they did on their reservations; they weave and sell necklaces and bracelets on the sidewalks for the tourists in downtown Bogotá while their husbands peddle clothes in the bustling San Victorino market. They need to make enough money to rent a room by the day in rundown and marginal areas of downtown such as San Bernardo and La Favorita, where prostitution, petty trafficking and drug use are rampant.

The Afro-Colombians who settle on the periphery of Bogotá's south have found their homes through organizations such as Afrodes and Process of Black Communities. They also participate in economic circuits downtown through the sale of prepared food and fruit, as well as makeshift barbershops in the market plazas. Some of them reorganize and recreate their identity in the forms in which the urban society thinks of them to frame their livelihood in terms of jobs associated with music and the tropics. Afro-Colombian youth have managed to capitalize on that image, demonstrating certain abilities in rap or reggaeton, dance and the Afro world music in fashion on the peripheries of Colombian cities. 


In a country where much of the population has only known expropriation and expulsion, defense of the territory has become a priority for the indigenous and Afro-Colombian social movements of people who have exercised their right to decide their destiny on their own terms. The most recent displacements have sparked a process of social, demographic and political reconfiguration without precedent in which displaced persons have found a voice in ethnic, women's and ecological movements that oppose the predatory and warlike mentality associated with the armed conflict. The enormous capacity of the victims to forgive was reflected in the October 2, 2016, plebiscite in which they supported the signing of the peace accords to end not decades, but centuries of abuse and arbitrary treatment, while religious groups and conservatives voted against it, preventing the change that is necessary for a reconfigured society.




Andrés Salcedo Fidalgo is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Contact: asalcedofidalgo@gmail.com asalcedofi@unal.edu.co

María Angélica Garzón is a professor at the Universidad Pedagógica y Tecnológica de Colombia and a doctoral candidate in Human and Social Sciences at the National University in Bogotá. Contact: maria.garzon03@uptc.edu.co