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May 11, 2004 - The New York Times

Crisis Facing Colombians Is Called Worst In Hemisphere

From Reuters News

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

UNITED NATIONS, May 10 - Colombia's drug wars have created the largest crisis for civilians in the Americas, driving two million people from their homes and threatening Indian tribes with extinction, a United nations official said on Monday.

The official, Jan Egeland, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator, said the country was mired in debt and reluctant to divert military funds to an army of uprooted people escaping the fighting or forced off their land by cocaine traffickers.

"Colombia is therefore by far the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of the Western Hemisphere," he said at a news conference.

"It has the biggest number of killings in the Western Hemisphere. It's the biggest humanitarian problem, human rights problem, the biggest conflict in the Western hemisphere."

He said that only Sudan and Congo had more displaced people.

In 10 isolated areas of Colombia, which aid groups cannot reach, Indians are trapped in forests and on farms, many of them forced to flee by drug lords or rightist paramilitary gangs, Mr. Egeland said. Others have been killed.

He said he had spent a month in the area when he was 19 but now "all my Indian friends have been dispersed or massacred."

In 2002, forced internal displacement reached an all-time high of 320,000 people uprooted.

The accumulative numbers since then have reached 2 million out of a country of 36 million people, threatening forecasts that Colombia's $77 billion economy will expand some 4 percent this year, he said.

Many of the displaced are flooding into cities, including many young people with "no hope, no education," making them ripe for recruitment into guerrilla, paramilitary or drug gangs, Mr. Egeland said.

The uprooted people go to cities in large numbers, where they live in shantytowns, like the one outside Cartagena, which has 10,000 people "floating in a sea of sewage and garbage."

Mr. Egeland said he had discussed with President Álvaro Uribe a new plan to coordinate foreign aid in the country.

The United Nations last appealed for $80 million in funds in 2002 but received only $33.6 million.

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