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Criminal Networks Exploit Venezuelan Migrants in Colombia

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The mass exodus from Venezuela into neighboring countries, primarily Colombia, is turning into one of the worst humanitarian crises in decades in the region, creating ample opportunities for criminal networks to exploit. Colombia is struggling to manage the situation, and the migration into Colombia shows no sign of stopping. As the Venezuelan crisis continues, it is unlikely that the migration to Colombia will diminish in the short to mid-term.  In turn, the exodus has been exploited by armed groups and criminal gangs in Colombia, both recruiting migrants and targeting them for revenue.  Furthermore, the security situation around the border is complex, and the influx of Venezuelan migrants might fuel further conflict between criminal networks.

The UN says that the crisis could reach a point where its comparable to the migration crisis in the Mediterranean in 2015.  Over one million Venezuelan migrants have arrived in Colombia in the last 14 months, about 3,000 more arrive each day and the migration shows no indication of diminishing. Colombia has received the migrants with open arms, however, recently the country has been showing severe signs of struggling to accommodate the migrants. Recently they opened their first migrant camp in the country’s capital Bogotá, and tension has risen as the neighboring citizens to the camp are worried of increased violence in the area.

Economic problems in Venezuela are the key driver of the mass migration. The Venezuelan currency is hyperinflated, with a predicted inflation rate of 1 million percent by the end of the year according to the IMF. 95% of Venezuela’s export earnings stem from oil sales, and the country has depended on their vast oil reserves to secure the economy. But because of the plummeting oil price in 2014 and gross mismanagement of the oil production, their dependence on oil created the economic crisis they now are in. There is currently a food and medicine shortage, making life in Venezuela, in particular for the poor, very hard. Even though actions have been taken by the Venezuelan government to better the situation, it does not seem to work. The problems deepen as the US and EU continue to impose sanctions on the country, and they are not likely to stop until Venezuela’s President, Nicolas Maduro, is forced from power. But Maduro shows no sign of stopping, as he continues to consolidate his power. And as long as Maduro is in power, it is unlikely that the crisis will be reversed.

Venezuelan migrants, often poor and desperate, are being recruited by armed groups and street gangs. With promises of profitable employment, or coerced by threats, the criminal networks, primarily the National Liberation Army (ELN) and ex-FARC fighters, recruit along the borders between the countries. Insight Crime reported that the recruits might be receiving up to 50,000 (300 USD) Bolívars per months, equivalent to 27 minimum wages in Venezuela.  This is especially lucrative to the many migrants that don’t have the necessary paperwork to be able to legally work in Colombia. The authorities in Colombia have reported on 27 cases of recruitment of Venezuelans in the period between July and mid-October. In one case, migrants were lured into selling narcotics, after being promised jobs on coffee farms. The recruitments help strengthen the criminal groups and increase their reach through the porous border into Venezuela.

The criminal groups are exploiting the immigrants as a source of revenue. There have been reports of robbing, and the trafficking of Venezuelan migrants is soaring. On 22 November, Colombian authorities exposed a trafficking ring, rescuing 40 Venezuelan migrants forced into prostitution. The women were picked up by criminals at the border town Cúcuta, robbed of their papers, then transported to Colombia’s capital Bogotá where they were forced into prostitution to pay back for the transportation. This is just one example, as Colombian authorities have rescued over 80 Venezuelan women from forced prostitution in the last four months. Besides the women, migrant children are trafficked into forced begging in Colombia as well, and Colombia’s Child Protection Agency have identified 350 Venezuelan children as victims of child labour between March and June. Further, the security of the official passing points to Colombia has been tightened, forcing migrants without papers to pass through clandestine passings, called Trochas. The criminal groups often control these and take a fee for people to pass.

The security situation at the border between Venezuela and Colombia is volatile and complex. Many of the Venezuelan migrants cross the border using Simón Bolívar International bridge, connecting San Antonio del Táchira on the Venezuelan side with Villa del Rosario in Colombia. The crossing is located in close proximity to Catatumbo, a border region characterized by violence and drug wars. Besides the bigger networks, such as the ELN and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), a number of smaller networks are likely active in the region. Following the power vacuum created by the disbandment of the FARC-guerrilla in 2016, conflicts have continued. Dissident ex-FARC fighters are reportedly active in Catatumbo, trying to establish a post-FARC network. The situation in this area is multi-layered, with criminal networks, armed groups and street gangs fighting amongst each other. The migration wave is likely to destabilize the region further, as the criminal networks struggle to win control over the new opportunities the migrants provide.

As the crisis in Venezuela is not likely to end soon, desperate and poor Venezuelans will continue to pour over the border and provide the criminal networks with additional revenue streams and a hotbed for recruitment. The networks are likely to use this to grow and strengthen themselves. However, the massive exodus might fuel conflicts between criminal groups as they struggle between themselves to exploit the Venezuelans.

Human Trafficking in India

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While looking at security-related incidents, one cannot avoid noticing the increasing rate of human trafficking in Asia. Human trafficking is the third largest organized crime after drugs and the arms trade worldwide. About 80% of it is done for sexual exploitation, the rest is for ransom, forced labour, organ trade, forced marriage, medical trials, illegal adoption etc., and India is considered to be the main centre of this crime in Asia.

According to official Indian statistics, 88,008 cases of kidnapping and abduction were reported in India during 2016 showing an increase of 6.0% over 2015. Out of these 88,008, only 69,599 persons were recovered meaning that 18,409 of them disappeared. But that is not all, because 549,008 adults were also reported missing and 319,627 of them went untraced.  Moreover, 111,569 children were also reported missing and 55,625 of them disappeared without any trace. In addition, it seems that India’s official statistics heavily underestimate the scale of the problem, because a US State Department report from 2013 estimated that up to 65 million people were trafficked into forced labour in India.

The reasons given for this troubling trend are as varied as India itself. Social inequality, regional gender preference and corruption are all regarded as leading causes of human trafficking.  Even the theory of demand and supply can be cited here referring to the migration of men to major hubs creating a demand for sex resulting in young girls and women being abducted to be used as prostitutes. However, these “young girls and women are not only used for prostitution but also bought and sold like commodity” [to force them into marriages] in many regions […] where female ratio is less than [desirable] due to female infanticide.” Poverty also plays a significant role meaning that being born to a poor family brings with it a higher risk of being sold for money to ensure the survival of the rest of the family.

In conclusion, while the Government of India has undertaken a number of legal measures to fight human trafficking its current jumble of laws dealing with it has done little to crush this thriving businessA new approach of giving greater voice to victims and vulnerable populations in crafting policies that affect their lives, and holds governments more accountable when their rights are violated might be a more viable option.

Top Jihadist Killed in Raid in Mali

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One of Mali’s top jihadist leaders has been killed in a raid carried out in a joint operation by French and Malian forces against a base, located in the forest of Wagadou in the centre of the country, that sheltered the command of Ansar Dine of Macina. On Saturday 24 November, French and Malian authorities both confirmed the death of Amadou Koufa, real name Amadou Diallo, one of the most prominent jihadist leaders in the country who was killed in the raid on the night of 22 November. According to General Abdoulaye Cissé, “after the military operation the terrorist Koufa was seriously injured and taken away by his supporters before he died.” The confirmation of his death comes after France suggested on Friday 23 November that Koufa may have been killed in the operation in the central region of Mopti that “put out of actin” about thirty Islamist militants. The French army also disclosed at the time that the operation targeted a base controlled by Koufa, which was later confirmed by Malian authorities.

Detailing the preparation of the operation, General Cissé disclosed that “for months, the military intelligence services of Mali have collected a mass of accurate information that they shared with partners, including France.” On Thursday night, French forces deployed a number of air assets, including Mirage 2000 aircraft, a number of helicopters, supported by Reaper drones, and a C135 tanker. General Francois Lecointre, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, has emphasized that “the careful preparation and perfect coordination of all the French forces deployed in the Sahel have made this operation a success…”.

This operation represents a major setback for jihadists operating in the region. Sources have indicated that Koufa was a major link between the central and northern regions of Mali and it will likely be difficult to find a natural successor. He was also seen as the spokesperson for JNIM in central Mali. His death though is unlikely to stop any attacks, and may in fact lead to further incidents, with Malian and French forces specifically being targeted. French interests in the region may also be targeted as a result of this operation.

Koufa, a radical preacher, was one of the top deputies to Iyad Ag Ghali, the leader of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), which has repeatedly attacked soldiers and civilians in Mali and in the northern region of neighbouring Burkina Faso. These attacks have effectively shifted Mali’s six-year-old Islamist insurgency from the remote desert north closer to the populous southern region of the country, prompting France to deploy thousands of troops across West Africa’s Sahel region. JNIM was created from a merger of local groups in March 2017. The group was later endorsed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In September 2018, the United States Department of State designated JNIM as a “foreign terrorist organization.”

Video Image of Amadou Koufa

Since Koufa’s appearance in JNIM, intercommunal violence has significantly increased in the central region of the country, affecting the Fulani, who are traditional breeders, against the Bambara and the Dogon ethnic groups, which are mainly engaged in agriculture. The United Nations has indicated that the violence has killed more than 500 civilians since the beginning of the year. Koufa last appeared along with two other influential jihadist leaders from northern and central Mali in a video that was posted on 8 November, in which they called for “continued jihad.” The three included Iyad Ag Ghaly and Algerian Jamel Okacha, commonly known as Abu Al-Hammam. In the video, Koufa addressed Muslims of the world, and more particularly the Fulani communities of the West African countries of Mali, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon and called on all of them to join the “jihad.”

Security Advisory Armed Militants Kill at least 7 in Southeastern Niger (22 November 2018)    

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Armed men killed at least seven people Thursday 22 November in an attack that targeted French drilling company Foraco’s water well site in southeastern Niger.

According to officials, during the early morning hours of Thursday 22 November at least seven people were killed in Toumour, southeastern Niger.  Sources have reported that an undisclosed number of militants arrived on horseback and attacked the group in the enclosure of the town hall of Toumour, where they were installed.  Amongst the victims are six company employees, believed to be Nigeriens, and one civil servant.  An official has reported that “the controller, a civil servant agent, was kidnapped before having his throat slit not far from the site.”  A company source is reporting that the company had an escort of about fifteen guards but they were absent at the time of the attack, though this has not been confirmed.  Security sources have indicating that they believe Nigerian-based terror group Boko Haram is behind the attack, though this has also not been confirmed.  So far the terror group has not commented or made any claims pertaining to the attack, though Boko Haram is active in the Diffa region near the border with Nigeria and has in the past targeted foreigners and NGO’s operating in this area.

Since 2009, Boko Haram has been trying to establish an Islamic state in northeastern Nigeria, and in recent years, it has launched repeated attacks into neighboring Niger, Chad, and Cameroon.  Thousands of civilians have died in the violence in both Nigeria and in the affected neighboring states.  The village of Toumour has hosted several hundred Nigerian refugees who have fled the ongoing fighting in northeastern Nigeria and in the past, Boko Haram has targeted displaced persons camps.  The French company was apparently working in this area to increase water capacities in the region.  This attack may have also specifically targeted a French company because of France’s ongoing intervention in Mali.

MS Risk continues to advise against all travel to the following regions of Niger:

  • All areas of the country north of the city of Abalak, including the Aïr Massif region;
  • The province of Agadez, including the road linking Assamakato Agadez and the city of Agadez;
  • Areas of Tahoua province north of the city of Tahoua, including the city itself;
  • The area of Tillabéri province north of Niamey, including the road from Niamey to Gao and the road from Niamey to Menaka;
  • Areas within 40 km of the border with Nigeria in the provinces of Diffa, Zinder and Maradi;
  • The Parc du W, plus the contiguous Dosso and Tamou hunting zones.

MS Risk advises against all but essential travel to the rest of the country, including the capital city Niamey.

A state of emergency is currently in place for the Diffa region, as well as in seven departments of the Tillabéri and Tahoua regions bordering Mali.  As a result of safety and security concerns, many organizations, including foreign companies, NGOs and private aid organizations have suspended operations in Niger or withdrawn family members and/or staff members.

Terrorists are very likely to carry out attacks in Niger, including kidnappings.  There is a threat of retaliatory attacks in Niger due to the country’s participation in the French-led intervention in Mali and due to Niger’s involvement in the regional fight to counter Boko Haram.

Car Bomb Attack Targets Foreigners in Gao, Mali (12 November 2018)

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On Monday evening 12 November, a car-bomb explosion in northern Mali killed three civilians, with a terrorist group claiming that Canadian soldiers and other foreign forces operating in the area were targeted.

The Canadian Armed Forces have confirmed the attack, which occurred in the city of Gao, adding that all Canadian personnel were safe. The Ministry of Security and Civil Protection of Mali has disclosed that around 19:15 GMT, a 4×4 vehicle burst into flames in a courtyard in 8thdistrict the city.  At least three Malians were killed, and four foreigners (two Cambodians, a South African and a Zimbabwean) working for a subcontracting company of the UNMAS (the UN Mine clearance service) were injured, adding that neighboring homes were damaged in the attack.

SITE is reporting that Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) has claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that “a suicide bomb blast on the headquarters of foreign forces, including British, Canadian and Germans, in Gao.”  The Canadian peacekeeping contingent took over from Germans and Belgians in Mali in early July, and its main mission is to evacuate wounded peacekeepers by helicopter.