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Drug gangs force Colombian families off their land

More and more families in Columbia are being driven out of their homes by drug gangs, a new report reveals. More than three million people in the central American country have been forced from their homes, making Columbians one of the world’s most uprooted peoples. Families fled their countryside homes en masse during the country's four-decade conflict between the military, leftist rebels, armed gangs and drug traffickers. To escape the fighting, s they went to seek safety in major cities. And a United Nations' report released this week warned that the number of those uprooted grew again last year.

Columbia’s government says between 140,000 and 150,000 people were forced from their homes last year. But leading non-governmental organisation, the Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement says that a lot of cases are going unrecorded and that the government is playing down the problem. Its estimates suggest more than 210,000 were uprooted, roughly a 10 per cent increase from 2008. New criminal gangs made up of ex-army members and criminals are using violence to control cocaine transporting routes, especially along Colombia's Pacific Coast, the report says. This puts Afro-Colombians and people born in these areas, who often live near or along drug routes, most at risk of having to flee their homes.

Land-grabbing by these gangs, other armed groups and rebels is a major cause families having to leave. As much as 10 million hectares of land that once belonged to small-scale farmers and locals are thought to have been stolen and are now in the hands of illegal armed groups, according to government estimates. The report says the murder of community leaders campaigning to reclaim lost land and the numerous threats against them are ‘a matter of great concern.’ Sexual violence against girls and women in Colombia has nearly doubled in the last decade to over 21,000 reported cases, the report said, with the most cases blamed on rebels and criminal gangs. The Columbian army has also been accused of sexual violence against women in seven of Colombia's 32 provinces, according to the report. "It is especially worrying that in various cases those allegedly responsible are members of the Armed Forces," it says. Last year, Columbia had four visits from UN investigators sent to monitor its human rights situation, Reuters news agency reported, more than any other country in the world.

By Hayley Jarvis for SOS Children