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Colombia's Youth & Plays of Death

By Andres Cala
March 14, 2001

In the refugee camps of Colombia, children play act stories from their real-life experiences. These are plays of pursuit and sudden death.

"Death is loose, and if it asks one of you where I am, tell it, 'I don’t know him,'" says 13-year-old Yorman Antonio Camacho, playing the role of the hero of one play, "Panquemao," which translates as "burnt bread."

In this play, "Panquemao" is killed three times, but wins his life back by smartly turning over magic cards. His first death comes when he speaks out of turn and is killed by paramilitaries. "Panquemao" pulls out a lucky card and Death – dressed in military fatigues and a white mask – relents and lets him live.

A second time, the "killer army" returns and threatens to kill everyone, including Panquemao’s pregnant wife, unless they leave their land. When they refuse, the gunmen cover the faces of the townspeople with scarves. Panquemao pulls out another card that forces Death angrily to spare the people.

Next, the terrified townspeople pack what they can and flee to the nearest city, a place where they find themselves unwelcome and accused of squatting on land that is not their own. Their shantytown on the outskirts of the city is burned to the ground.

After being accused of leading "land invasions," Panquemao is killed for a third time. And for the last time, he pulls out a magic card and lives.

"Panquemao" is a play the refugee children wrote and performed. But the reality surrounding Yorman Antonio Camacho and the other 12 children in the play is not so magical as their play, nor -- for many -- is the ending as happy.

Like hundreds of thousands of other refugees in war-torn Colombia, Yorman lives in a kind of national crossfire that shows little sign of abating. Indeed, most signs point to an escalating conflict with government forces benefiting from the introduction of more advanced weaponry from the United States and a determined leftist guerrilla movement holding large swaths of the Colombian countryside.

Complicating the situation more, right-wing paramilitaries have launched a "dirty war," murdering suspected leftist sympathizers and forcing thousands of others to flee their homes.

The pervasive role of drug money – implicating the government, guerrillas and paramilitaries – has boosted the firepower of the civil war by making the purchase of armaments easier. Chapters of this civil war also date back more than half a century to violent clashes between the dominant political parties divided over land reform and other social policies.

Now, intervening in Colombia's complex history of politics and violence is the U.S. government with a $1.3 billion aid package, weighted heavily toward military assistance.

The U.S. assistance is a key part of what the government of President Andres Pastrana calls "Plan Colombia," a multi-front strategy with the stated goal of fighting narco-trafficking while simultaneously battling leftist guerrillas and the right-wing paramilitaries.


With his three brothers and his parents, Yorman lives in the slums of Soacha, a town about a 30-minute drive south of Bogota, Colombia’s capital. Their makeshift housing has no electricity and no running water. The family has barely enough food to survive.

Before the spreading political violence, Yorman’s family lived on a small farm in the town of Playa de Oro. His father worked as a construction worker. Their lives changed when the right-wing paramilitary forces of Carlos Castano arrived.

Castano’s armed men ordered all inhabitants to gather in the main square for a demonstration. Then, Castano’s soldiers dragged in two men who were accused of aiding leftist guerrillas. As the men’s neighbors looked on, they were held down and decapitated.

A few days later, Yorman’s father received a message threatening him with the same fate unless he left. The family gathered up some possessions and fled to the slums of Bogota, joining the vast population of displaced people.

The war, which claims 3,000 lives every year, puts civil society smack in the middle of the power struggle as the various sides seek strategic control over various parts of the country.

The Advisory Office for Human Rights and Displacement, a non-government organization known by its Spanish initials Codhes, estimates that 580,000 people have left their homes since 1998 alone. Over the past 15 years, the total number of refugees is estimated at about 2 million, although the government acknowledges only about one fifth that number.

Three-quarters of the displaced people come from the 91 counties where the principal conflict is occurring, including the 42,000-square kilometer demilitarized zone that President Pastrana granted as part of his negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the largest guerrilla group with some 17,000 combatants.

Under Colombian law, the government has the responsibility for protecting the displaced people, though the government admits that it doesn’t even know the full scope of the problem.

“Colombia lacks a system of information on forced displacement that allows figures to be put on the real magnitude of this problem," acknowledged the Office of the Vice President.

Based on the government’s lower estimates of refugees – about 400,000 – the amount allotted for their survival is just a little over $8 per person if calculated on the budget of the National Solidarity Network, the agency responsible for helping refugees. The government has promised an additional $120 million a year to tackle the humanitarian crisis, but even that would put the aid levels at only $300 per person per year.

Civil War

Pastrana has described the Colombian conflict as not a civil war but “war against civil society.” His critics, however, accuse him of pushing the country deeper into a real civil war with Plan Colombia that has a total budget of $7.5 billion.

The United States is supporting most of the military part of Plan Colombia with 70 percent of the $1.3 billion in U.S. aid earmarked for advanced weaponry, including more than 25 Blackhawk and Huey II helicopters, logistical and intelligence equipment, and training.

To counter this government escalation, the FARC has threatened to expand its military capabilities by increasing its arsenal of surface-to-air missiles and other sophisticated weapons.

The third element in this growing conflict – the paramilitary Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (known by the Spanish acronym, AUC) – also is enlarging the scope of its operations. The AUC has grown to 9,000 gunmen financed by drug trafficking and wealthy landowners.

The AUC accounts for the largest percentage of human rights violations including the torture and executions of suspected leftists. Of the mass displacements of Colombians, the AUC is held responsible for 71 percent, the leftist guerrillas for 14 percent, government troops for less than 1 percent, and multiple actors 15 percent, according to the office of the vice president.

An expanded war will almost certainly create more refugees. Codhes estimates that another 190,000 people will be displaced by the drug eradication program alone. Already, that drug eradication program has driven 3,000 Colombians into neighboring Ecuador.

While backed by Washington, the military aspects of Plan Colombia have been opposed by the European Union as well as international human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. These organizations predict that Plan Colombia will only enlarge the war and lead to more suffering.

Yet, for youngsters like Yorman, the war and its consequences have become the center of their life experiences. The fear of masked gunmen bringing sudden death is never far from their thoughts.

Andres Cala is a Colombian journalist who has covered the conflict since 1996. In a previous story, Cala examined the history of the war through the biography of a Colombian guerrilla leader.

Another story about the Colombian conflict was written for by Stan Goff, a former U.S. Green Beret who turned critical of U.S. policies in Latin America.

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