Voices - Columbian Refugees in Ecuador

La Abuelita: Columbians flee to escape death threats

By Levi Butts

A less fortunate family living in Quito, Ecuador, uses
the resources they have outside their home to dry laundry
and complete everyday tasks.

In Ibarra, a large but quiet Andean town about 43 miles (70 kilometers) northwest of Quito, Ecuador, is an ACNUR field office.

Essential for many refugees, the field office provides services to Colombians traveling south from border towns in northern Ecuador and southern Colombia.

There a refugee grandmother agrees to participate in an interview. She, like all other Colombian refugees and Ecuadorian aid workers interviewed, requested her identity be kept secret. She is afraid the narcotics and paramilitary operatives will locate and kill her and her family.

To protect her identity she will be referred to as La Abuelita "The Grandmother."

Though her age is difficult to guess, she appears to be in her late sixties. She has lived her life engulfed in the Colombian civil war. Like many Colombians, she lived with the violence her entire life, taking it in stride, living with the brutality and the fear. She says in recent years the conflict has worsened.

In 2004, after refusing to participate in paramilitary activities, Abuelita and her family became the target of paramilitary operatives in her hometown.

Her husband was assaulted and harassed by police, by paramilitary agents and narcos. After a young boy was killed in their neighborhood, her husband began receiving death threats.

In November 2004, Aubelita and her family escaped to Ipiales, a Colombian town near the country’s Ecuador border. Three years later the narcotics networks found them. La Abuelita and five members of her family moved to Ecuador. She says she did not know anything about Ecuador. They were just running for their lives.

Arriving in Ecuador with only what they could carry on their backs, La Abuelita and her family were homeless. Like thousands of their countrymen and women fleeing the violence, they became ghosts in a country and culture not their own. Faced with prejudice and discrimination, La Abuelita and her family had very few options when they arrived in Ecuador.

ACNUR is the entity that provided La Abuelita and her family security, safety and hope. She says ACNUR has been a great help and she is very thankful for all they have done. Her husband is receiving psychiatric aid to cope with the violence and intimidation he was subjected to. She and her family have received monetary and education support as well.

When asked about returning to Colombia, La Abuelita responded with resounding and adamant "no."

She said, "I will never go back to Colombia. I want to move as far away from Colombia as I can."

La Abuelita is now awaiting ACNUR’s approval for refugee relocation for herself and her family. She wishes to go to Canada.

A view overlooks Ecuador's capital city, Quito, high
in the central Andes Mountains.

La Abuelita is a Colombian refugee living in Ecuador with her family. Her identity is being concealed for her protection.

Her hands are callused from years of work and her face is creased with time, Andean sun and pain.

She recounts the ebb and flow of the conflict, the generations of violence and her thoughts about the future.

She remembers the beginning of the civil war.

She remembers FARC’s growth from infanthood, to adolescence. She remembers the brutality of the 1970s, the kidnappings, the murders and the American interventions.

She witnessed the formation of the AUC

(Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia) in the early 1990s and, after an international and domestic backlash against their brutal tactics, their demobilization in 1997.

She watched as those same soldiers re-converged after the government’s forced demobilization to form a criminal network called BACRIM

(Bandas Emergentes en Colombia) in the late 1990s. La Abuelita remembers the war and candidly shares her stories. As she came of age, so, too, did the Colombian civil war.

The multiple sides fought fiercely for ideas, grudges, territory and most of all, for money. The conflict, La Abuelita says, began with the poor trying to help the poor. She refers to leftist political and pro-communism guerilla movements.

FARC in its infancy, says La Abuelita, was very popular among rural peasants.

She says the organization became very powerful and the government formed paramilitary groups to combat FARC.

In desperate need of financing, FARC began kidnapping high-profile international targets.

When their budget exceeding their income FARC began producing and marketing massive amounts of cocaine and marijuana.

La Abuelita says the common people of Colombia suffered the most from the war as all sides strayed far from their ideals.

La Abuelita is not confident in the Colombian government’s ability to solve the narcotics conflict that has emerged from the Colombian civil war.

She says each time the government kills key organization leaders, they are immediately succeeded.

La Abuelita says the government tries very hard to bring peace to Colombia, but the organizations are too big and the economics of drug trafficking are too lucrative. Today, because the government is very intolerant and refuses to negotiate, Colombia is returning to the violence of the 1970s, says La Abuelita.

Assassinations, car bombings and human rights violations are commonplace.

Resolving the Colombia’s crisis is a difficult task to even discuss.

International intervention/assistance concerning the Colombian narcotics conflict is a polarized topic among Colombians and Ecuadorians.

Unlike many of her countrymen, La Abuelita is a proponent of international assistance, saying Colombia receives much help from the United States.

For example, "American spy planes find guerrilla soldiers," she says.

La Abuelita is fully aware of the economic concerns as well.

The narcotics conflict in Colombia is a multimillion-dollar industry. The conflict seems too big to think about.

La Abuelita is tired. She hopes to leave South America soon and move to Canada. Solving the problem of the Colombian war seems impossible to the aging grandmother. She says there is only one hope, education.

Young men and women join one side or another because they lack futures, hopes and dreams. They have no choice, she says.

Young people grow up in conflict and accept war as a way of life. Money and fame is to be made and had in the narcotics business, she says.

La Abuelita ends the interview by saying, "Education is more important than anything else. Education can fix Colombia.