Fear for their lives sends many Colombians to United States
From Susan Candiotti
July 29, 1999
"They are killing us, they are kidnapping our kids, they kill our parents," said one woman, who used the alias "Claudia" during the interview to protect her family left behind.
At least 35,000 Colombians have been killed during the last 10 years of their country's three decade-long civil war. Most victims were civilians killed in massacres by rebels, rival right-wing paramilitary forces or the army.
The government is struggling to win the upper hand against guerrillas whom it claims are terrorizing citizens.
The ongoing conflict has internally displaced an estimated 1.5 million Colombians. Some have decided to leave the Andean nation of 40 million, and their No. 1 destination is the United States.
Kidnapping, shooting and threats
Claudia knew when she left her native Colombia last month on a six-month U.S. tourist visa that she had no intention of going back.
"You have to be afraid every time you go out," she said of conditions in her homeland.
It is the guerrillas that she and others fear. Claudia says they once kidnapped her mother, shot an uncle, tried to snatch her and continue to threaten her father, who refuses to pay protection money to safeguard their transportation business.
Claudia is among an estimated 500,000 middle- to upper class Colombians who could afford to leave. Most go to Canada, Costa Rica and western Europe or the United States.
Compared to the same period last year, the U.S. Embassy in Bogota reports tourist visa applications are up 50 percent.
Claudia is one of many who, upon arrival, have applied for political asylum. Florida-based immigration attorneys say they're seeing as many as 10 political asylum applicants a day.
"They are in fear for their life," said immigration attorney Eduardo Soto.
Not only are Colombians escaping kidnappings, bombings and murder, but also a crumbling economy with an unemployment rate of 20 percent.
Political analysts say if U.S. asylum claims are denied, many of these tourists-turned-refugees will risk staying illegally.
"Things are so bad in Colombia," said professor Victor Uribe of Florida Atlantic University, "being illegal in the United States is much better for any of them than being legal in Colombia."
U.S. efforts in Colombia
Skeptical that the Colombian government can make peace with rebels, some exiles want not only protected refugee status -- but also are calling for U.S. military intervention.
Washington is already funding Colombian efforts to win the drug war. This year alone, the United States gave Bogota $280 million.
During a visit to Colombia this week, the top U.S. anti- narcotics official, Barry McCaffrey, said the rebels and their rivals in right-wing death squads were funded by "hundreds of millions of dollars in drug money."
While the fighting continues, Claudia and her younger brother felt there was no other solution than to flee to the United States.
"I want to have a future," she said. "I don't want to think tomorrow is not going to have a future for my family."
But she still wonders when and if she'll see her family again.
Reuters contributed to this report.
Colombia welcomes U.S. help with drugs
Presidency of Colombia
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