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Colombia's blacks hit hard by guerrilla war

CNN | 6/02/2007

Story Highlights
The drug trade, four-decade war have left many Colombia blacks displaced
Colombia's blacks often caught between guerillas and paramilitaries
U.S. says to continue getting aid the country must improve lives of black citizens

ISTMINA, Colombia (Reuters) -- She knew it was time to leave town when left-wing guerrillas started showing up at the hospital late last year asking for medical help.

As a nurse, she was well aware that providing treatment would make her a target of right-wing paramilitaries at war with the guerrillas. To refuse could also get her shot.

"Why wait for that?" the 50-year-old woman asked Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity. "As we say in medicine, it's easier to prevent than to cure."

She took a seven-hour boat trip up the San Juan River from her hometown of Sipi to Istmina, both in the jungle province of Choco, joining thousands of other Afro-Colombians displaced by Colombia's four-decade-old cocaine-fueled war.

Now she lives in a shack with a dirt floor and no toilet. If it did not rain so much, she would have no water.

This is a common condition in Choco, where 85 percent of the population is Afro-Colombian and residents lack sufficient health care and other basic services such as electricity.

Choco is a cocaine-producing area sandwiched between Panama to the north, a common destination for smugglers, and Valle del Cauca province to the south, home to Colombia's toughest drug cartel.

Most people in Choco are descended from African slaves brought by the Spanish to work in local gold mines, or from freed slaves who sought refuge from racism in the cities. One out of 10 Colombians is black.

The United Nations says Colombia has more than 3 million displaced people, the world's worst ongoing humanitarian crisis outside Africa. Afro-Colombians and indigenous tribes are particularly hard hit.

Caught in the crossfire

The country has received billions of dollars in U.S. aid aimed at fighting the drug trade. To keep this aid flowing, Democrats who took control of the U.S. Congress last month say Colombia must improve the lot of its black population.

"Displaced Afro-Colombians are being attacked by both the paramilitaries and the guerrillas and being abandoned by their government," Democratic U.S. Rep. Donald Payne of New Jersey told Reuters during a recent fact-finding trip to Colombia.

President Alvaro Uribe, a U.S. ally popular for reducing crime, wants to sign a free trade deal with Washington. But Payne said Democrats will not ratify the pact unless Colombia improves its record on human and labor rights.

"There is definitely going to have to be some conditionality stronger than what we've seen on the free trade agreement," he said. "For example, labor union members here really have very few rights. They're murdered."

More than 4,000 Colombian union leaders have been assassinated since 1986, according to the U.S. State Department, the world's highest such murder rate.

Colombians are caught in the crossfire between the army and a mosaic of armed groups vying for control of cocaine-producing land in places like Choco, where locals point out, only half jokingly, that the narcotics business is the only part of the economy that really works.

Even those opposed to the drug trade say with a certain pride that Choco produces the most potent coca leaf in Colombia.

Uribe reached a deal with the paramilitaries under which more than 31,000 of them laid down their arms in exchange for monthly stipends and other benefits, but critics say he emphasizes military over social investment.

"All he wants to do is spend money on the army and on benefits for demobilized paramilitaries who killed members of our families and made us leave our homes," said one displaced woman living in provincial capital Quibdo. "We get nothing."

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