MS Risk Blog

Armed Clashes in Colombia’s Border Regions

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On 29 March, 11 people were killed in what Colombian authorities described as an operation by security forces against former FARC members. It emerged in the following days that some of the 11 people may have been civilians. The victims allegedly included community and indigenous leaders and a 16-year-old teenager. On 30 March, the OHCHR office in Colombia tweeted that it is following up on the incident, where “civilians, community and indigenous leaders reportedly lost their lives,” calling on authorities to investigate and clarify the facts. The Colombian prosecutor’s office said on Twitter that it was opening an investigation into “the events in Puerto Leguizamo where 11 people died.”

This extremely concerning incident occurred as part of a focus by Colombian security forces on cracking down on former FARC dissidents. The FARC, despite agreeing to disarm as part of the 2016 Final Agreement to End the Armed Conflict and Build a Stable and Lasting Peace agreement, remain a significant presence in rural regions in Colombia. There are also other non-state actors active in these areas. According to the Indepaz peace research institute, there are 90 armed groups with some 10,000 members active in Colombia overall. These figures include more than 5,000 FARC dissidents who rejected peace, some 2,500 members of the National Liberation Army or ELN (the country’s last active guerrilla group), and another 2,500 rightwing paramilitary fighters. There are frequent armed clashes between these different groups. The Venezuelan army is also involved in the conflict, it has been claimed by rights organisations and by Colombian President Ivan Duque. Humanitarian workers and refugees from Apure said that they have witnessed members of Venezuela’s National Guard entering villages with the ELN rebels and taking people away in trucks.

Local communities become caught up in the violence between the Colombian army and these groups, and caught up between the groups fighting each other, as these actors compete for territory. The conflict has had dire humanitarian consequences for the populations of regions like Apure, as levels of violence has increased over the last year or so. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, mass displacement in Colombia almost tripled in 2021 compared with 2020. UNOCHA states that in total nearly 110,000 people have been displaced or confined by the armed conflict in 2021 alone. Human Rights Watch said that at least 103 people were killed in Arauca in the first two months of 2022 amid violence between the armed groups, the highest death toll in the region for January and February since 2010.

The violence and displacement is a consequence of inadequate implementation of the 2016 peace agreement, which aimed at bringing security to areas historically impacted by conflict when under FARC control. President Duque is steadfastly opposed to the agreement, which must be a contributing factor to the unsuccessful implementation. One of the agreement’s provisions was to protect former FARC members and allow them to reintegrate into civilian society, yet 315 former FARC members have been killed since the accord was signed. On 28 January, Colombia’s constitutional court declared an “unconstitutional state of affairs,” and ordered the government to implement the agreement’s security guarantees. Slow movement on another of its provisions, to strengthen Colombia’s government’s presence in formerly FARC controlled regions, means that a power vacuum has been created where these rural areas formerly held by the FARC are now dominated by numerous smaller splinter groups and armed nonstate actors such as the ELN. They all vie for control over illicit activities in these areas that the FARC once controlled.

Whether improvement will be seen in the situation is uncertain. A UN Security Council briefing was held on 12 April to discuss the topic where President Duque was present for the first time. It was expected there may be more encouragement to use mechanisms established by the 2016 agreement such as the he Follow-up, Promotion and Verification of the Implementation of the Final Agreement (CSIVI), but there do not appear to be solid plans or conclusions drawn from this meeting. It is possible that the May presidential elections will bring about some change to security policy and improve the situation, since current frontrunner Gustavo Petro has expressed that he is open to dialogue with the ELN to reach a peace agreement.