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Saturday, 5 May, 2001, 16:41 GMT 17:41 UK
Colombia's mass exodus
Colombian soldiers
Colombia is considered a very dangerous place
By Jeremy McDermott in Colombia

The Colombian foreign ministry estimates that at least four million Colombians are living outside the country, whilst the customs authorities believe that as many as half of those travelling abroad have no plans to return.


For those who remain the task of rebuilding a shattered nation becomes harder by the day

Colombians are leaving in droves, fleeing kidnapping, record levels of violence and crime and a dire economic situation.

It is known here simply as the Exodus. Passport offices can't cope with the demand for new passports from all sections of society.

To get an appointment for a US visa interview the waiting list is over a year. The old joke is circulating: the last one to leave Colombia turn out the lights.

The factors driving Colombians from their homeland are varied and powerful.

Ransom

Margarita is supervising the last of the packing. There are boxes piled high along the far wall of the apartment. Her eyes are red from crying.

Bogota
Recession has driven unemployment levels to over 20%
"When we got my father back from the guerrillas he told us off for paying the first part of the ransom, saying that he had become friends with them and that they would have let him go," Margarita said.

"So he assured us it wasn't necessary to pay the remainder of the money the rebels were demanding. So they came to the farm, forced him onto his knees and shot him."

Margarita is leaving for Mexico with the remnants of the family. They will never come back.

There is not an upper or middle class Colombian family that does not know somebody who has been kidnapped.

Nationwide tax

There were over 3,700 abductions last year, more than one every three hours.

The rebels of the largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), have demanded a nationwide tax.

Bodies of rebels killed by government troops
Record levels of crime and violence in Bogota
It is called Law 002 and states that anybody with holdings worth more than a million dollars must pay the tax. If not they will be kidnapped and the ransom will be significantly more than the original tax requested.

Then there are the record levels of crime and violence. There were over 26,000 homicides in Colombia last year, making it one of the most dangerous places in the world to live. More than 90% of all crimes go unpunished.

Luisa is a bundle of nerves. She was driving along the Circunvalar, one of Bogota┐s main thoroughfares, in her new VW Golf. As the road passed through one of the poorer areas of the city, a brick was hurtled into her windscreen, shattering it.

Economic situation

She managed to get the car under control and pull into the side of the road. The robbers were waiting for her and took her bag, her jewellery, her mobile phone and her car stereo.


There were over 26,000 homicides in Colombia last year, making it one of the most dangerous places in the world to live

"I'm afraid to go out alone now," she said over a strong drink. " I feel like a prisoner in my own country. Everybody said I should have bought a battered old second-hand car, and then I would not attract such attention.

"But I saved for that car; I was looking forward to it. Now what. I have to sell it. We can't live a normal life here, I'm going."

The economic situation is also pushing Colombians abroad. Oscar who has an established printing business in the industrial city of Medellin is closing the firm.

"Two men came into my business," he said. "They were in suits, looking smart, so my secretary showed them into the office. They came straight to the point.

"I was not 'insured', which meant I was not paying protection money to the paramilitary gangs that control downtown Medellin. I had to pay up or close up. It was that simple."

Recession

But Oscar is suffering the effect of the recession that gripped Colombia last year. He has already had to lay off some workers and doesn't think he will see any profit this year.

An officer of the Colombian police
More than 90% of all crimes go unpunished
So the extortion demand means he has to close down. He will restart a business somewhere the conditions exist to make a go of it. Maybe the US, maybe Costa Rica.

"I have no choice", lamented Oscar, "I love my country, but I have to live."

The recession has driven unemployment levels to over 20%. Students leaving university with top-notch marks are struggling to find a job. Those in employment are being paid pathetic wages.

Maria is having her goodbye party in a bar in Bogota┐s fashionable Zona Rosa. She works for a bank, one it young up and coming executives.

"I get paid just over $1,000 a month here," she said. "I know I'm one of the lucky ones with unemployment as it is and the minimum wage at only $120.

Shattered nation

"But the salary for my job in the US is paying more than $5,000 a month. Why should I sell myself short, I have to go," she explained.

As the people flee, so does capital. According to conservative estimates by business organisations, money from bank accounts, investments and the sale of assets worth $2bn has left the country in the last two years; a staggering amount when one thinks that Colombia's gross domestic product is $90bn.

But for those who remain the task of rebuilding a shattered nation becomes harder by the day, even if a peaceful solution can be found to the country's 37-years civil conflict, at the moment a distant prospect.

"I have resisted the temptation to go," said Jorge, a computer programmer.

"I want to live in Colombia, to build a decent place to live. But I'm still young. If the time comes that I have a family, I will have to think of my children, and Colombia now is no place to raise children.

"And the trouble is I cannot see things get better soon, only worse in fact."

See also:

01 May 01 | Americas
Colombia rounds up death squads
15 Feb 01 | Americas
Thousands flee Colombian violence
03 Dec 00 | Americas
Colombia anti-drugs victory
02 May 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Colombia
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