From the sixth-floor window of a Bogotá hotel, a flourishing capital is manifest. A hive of activity, it looks every bit the rejuvenated city it is billed as—the pacified centerpiece of a country that has gone to extraordinary lengths in an attempt to shed its violent skin. There are no visible reminders of the carnage that swallowed it whole in the mid-twentieth-century before widening its jaws to consume the rest of the country—at least not from this vantage point.
“It’s easy to forget how Colombia used to be,” says John Walters, US drug czar during the George W. Bush administration. “The violence was just staggering. You get used to how it is now and forget about the sacrifices that were made, but this has been a remarkable turnaround.”
Since October 2012, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government have been talking peace. The signs are good: On May 26 the two sides announced a breakthrough land reform deal, an agreement that will be critical to any lasting accord.
The nation’s murder rate—once among the highest on the planet—is at a thirty-year low and kidnappings in most major urban areas are a thing of the past. Official statistics show that foreign investment is up while labor-related killings are down.
In 2002, the war-weary Colombian people elected Álvaro Uribe, a hardliner who had campaigned on a pledge to eliminate the guerrilla insurgency spearheaded by FARC. Funded by billions of US taxpayer dollars of mostly military aid to support counternarcotics and counterinsurgency efforts, Uribe throttled FARC and convinced right-wing paramilitary group the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) to demobilize.
Uribe’s defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, took over the presidency in 2010 and continued his mentor’s aggressive policies. Large swaths of the country were pacified and the government’s chokehold on FARC tightened until the group was forced to make a move.
“The real change was Uribe,” says Walters. “We provided a lot of assistance and aid to a lot of different places, but you cannot substitute for the leaders of a partner country who are able, dedicated and courageous. During his presidency he not only systematically defeated FARC and the AUC but he also created a country.”
The payoff came in October 2011, when the US Congress passed the US-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (CTPA), widely referred to as a free-trade agreement. Supporters of the deal insist it promotes economic growth in both countries, creating thousands of jobs in the process.
The initiative immediately eliminated tariffs on 80 percent of US consumer and industrial exports and will phase out the remainder in the coming years. The International Trade Commission estimates a $1.1 billion expansion of US exports to Colombia, and advocates say it levels the playing field for US businesses in a country whose exporters already enjoyed trade preferences with the United States.
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If you walk through Bogotá’s historic La Candelaria district, things seem to be on track. The unmistakable swagger of suited foreign business people and tourists, both now woven into the fabric of the city, are symptomatic of a growing economy in a secure environment.
But in Plaza de Bolívar, the capital’s iconic central square, comes the first sign of the humanitarian crisis that rights groups are struggling to cope with. Fifty or so families line the square holding placards; some grasping pictures of loved ones. A man with a bullhorn is lobbying for attention, determined to convince ambivalent passers-by that reports of a miraculous turnaround in Colombia are greatly exaggerated.
These are a tiny fraction of what is the world’s largest population of internally displaced people, refugees in their own country. According to Colombian NGO Consultoria para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (CODHES), more than 5.4 million IDPs—over 10 percent of the nation’s entire population—have been displaced since 1985.
While the IDP crisis predates both of their tenures, roughly half have been displaced in the years since Uribe took office in 2002, and the number continues to rise under Santos. According to CODHES, 259,000 additional Colombians became internal refugees in 2011.
This story originally appeared in The Nation.
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