by David Werner

The two cities in Colombia where I led workshops on “Community Based Rehabilitation and Assistive Technology” are geographically and climatologically very different. Yet in terms of the vast and growing gulf between rich and poor, they are distressingly similar. The first is the large, rapidly growing city of Medellín, nestled 5000 feet above sea level in a broad bucolic valley in the Andes. The second is the sprawling, sweltering town of Montería, in the lowlands near the Atlantic coast.

I arrived in Medellín several days before the workshop began. I allowed time to visit the homes of disabled children who were candidates for the workshop. My intention was to identify five or six children who might benefit most from simple assistive devices that the workshop participants could make in a single day, with the help of the children and family members.

Stichting Liliane Fonds, the Dutch foundation that had invited me, makes a point of reaching out to children in difficult circumstances. Hence many of the homes we visited were in the poorest barrios — clinging to the steep slopes of the Andes, on the impoverished fringe of the city.

“Are you able to climb steps?” asked Sister Teresa, the coordinator of the project, looking at me doubtfully. After all, I’m 73 years old. Also, I have a physical disability, and use orthopedic appliances. I assured her I had no problem climbing steps. I pictured at most having to climb a few flights of stairs to an upper story flat.

Sister Teresa knew from her own experience that it would be much more difficult than I had anticipated. I was unprepared for the perilous geography of the impoverished neighborhoods surrounding the basin of Medellín. These neighborhoods have gradually been ascending higher and higher up the steep flanks of the mountains, for several thousand feet. Much of the terrain is too ragged and perpendicular even for Jeep trails, so the roads are few and far between. To reach the huts where some of the disabled children live, we had to climb hundreds of steps, many that were narrow and precarious, and nearly all without railings. Though I pride myself on still being able to climb mountains (and every summer do so in New Hampshire), I had a hard time keeping my balance on the endless ragged steps of Medellín’s steep slums, and accepted a helping hand from some of the sure-footed locals.

For me coming down the steps was even more difficult than going up. But at least I could manage. For disabled children, however, the shacks they live in, perched high on the steep slopes and separated by thousands of steps from life in the city below, are almost like prisons.

One of the first families I visited had two disabled children, Sandra and Orlando, now young adults. The family’s hut perched on a high ledge among a sea of other shacks. Sandra had a degenerative lung disease and was hooked up to an oxygen tank. Though she could walk short distances, there was no way she could make it up and down the hundreds of steps to the closest road, unless she was carried.

Orlando, her multiply disabled brother, was mildly retarded, spastic, and had multiple deformities of his face, hands and feet. Too heavy for the family to carry up and down the myriad steps, he, like his sister, was in effect under house arrest. He had not left the family hut for 10 years, and is completely isolated from health centers, schools, and rehabilitation services, except for the Liliane Fonds volunteer who periodically comes to visit the family.

Orlando and Sandra’s family—like countless thousands of other displaced families currently subsisting in urban slums and squatter colonies on the fringes of Medellín, Montería, and other cities in Colombia—are in effect internal refugees.

Colombia’s Long Story of Drugs, Violence and Displacement

For the last 40 years, violence has been a way of life and death in Colombia. All manner of armed groups are at each other’s throats. For decades the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas de la Revolución Colombiana), the Colombian Army, an assortment of paramilitaries representing rich land owners, and the powerful drug cartels have been fighting one another. All of these groups have had—and most still have —ties to the multibillion dollar cocaine trade.

The US government has poured billions of dollars of so-called “foreign aid” into Colombia—the lion’s share in the form of weapons and suppor for the Colombian military—ostensibly to facilitate the “War on Drugs.” In reality the primary agenda of the US is to suppress the left-wing insurgency in Colombia. The US has labeled FARC a terrorist organization. Not only does FARC levy a tax on rich landowners and drug growers in the zones it controls, and kidnap key persons as bargaining chips, but it also takes a clear stand in favor of Colombian sovereignty. It opposes the power plays of transnational corporations, the privatization of public services, and the pending freetrade agreement between the US and Colombia.

Despite the billions of dollars that the Bush administration continues to pour into the ‘War on Drugs” in Colombia, the flow of cocaine to users in the US continues at around 250 tons a year. The well-known fact is that the Colombian military has long had ties to the drug trade. Even the current “Get Tough on Drugs” President Uribe has a history of family ties to Colombia’s top drug lords. The US itself has a long history of collusion with drug lords to help finance its covert operations.

There is little question that the insurgents are sometimes brutal. They have recruited hungry children as soldiers, some of them as young as 11 or 12 years old. But the most barbaric treatment of innocent people has been carried out by the government itself, in its so-called “scorched earth policy.” This terrorist tactic has been systematically pursued by government troops and paramilitary groups, many of the latter with ties to the government, the landed gentry, and transnational corporations. To discourage peasants from siding with the guerrillas, whole villages have been burned to the ground, children murdered, and women gang raped. This methodical, strategic violation of human rights, which came to a peak in the 1990s, led to the death of at least 200,000 persons and the displacement of millions. Over the four last decades huge numbers of terrorized families, many of whom have lost loved ones due to violence, have been fleeing the “conflict zones” in the rural area and immigrating to the mushrooming slums of the cities.

Complicating this picture in recent years, the current government of Colombia headed by President Álvaro Uribe has successfully won the favor of the Bush Administration— along with millions of dollars in military aid—by arresting large numbers of supposed drug growers in the rural areas. However, since the drug lords now are well connected in government and in international trade, thousands of those who are arrested, brutalized and jailed are completely innocent.

This pattern of arresting innocent people to satisfy the US government’s demands in the War on Drugs is the same as was practiced in Mexico 30 years ago, when soldiers dragged men and boys out of their houses in the predawn hours, tortured them to confess to drug growing and jailed them by thousands in order to oblige the US demand for “a massive wave of arrests” in exchange for approval of new loans from the World Bank.