MS Risk Blog

Colombia-Venezuelan Border Still Faces Increased Tensions as Rival Armed Groups Broke a Years-long Truce

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President Iván Duque’s administration has launched a series of controversial military measures as part of its “Peace with Legality” policy, including a March airstrike on a rebel camp that killed two children, and the deployment of special forces in July to some of the country’s deadliest conflict zones. Criminal groups in Catatumbo recently attacked the presidential helicopter with small-arms fire as it passed overhead; planted mines in a landing strip where COVID-19 vaccines were to be delivered; and are accused of masterminding a car bombing at an army base in the regional capital, and Venezuelan migration hub, of Cúcuta that wounded 36 people.

Four years later, these foreigners from the National Liberation Army, or ELN, function as both a local government and a major employer in this town in the north-western state of Zulia, according to the educator and 14 other residents. All spoke on condition of anonymity and asked that their community not be named because they feared retaliation.

The guerrillas pay villagers, including children, to staff narcotics operations, extortion rackets and wildcat gold mines in both countries. Colombian security officials say the criminal proceeds are financing the guerrillas’ long-running insurrection against the Colombian government. The group’s recruiting has intensified over the past year as the coronavirus pandemic has deepened misery in Venezuela, where the economy was already reeling from years of hyperinflation and shortages. When the armed Colombians first arrived, they were flanked by local Socialist Party community leaders and proclaimed they were there to bring security with the blessing of President Nicolas Maduro.

But their brand of law and order quickly morphed into tyranny. The Colombians forbade residents from sharing information about the group’s activities, set a strict 6 p.m. curfew, outlawed firearms and controlled who entered the town

The Colombian government has long claimed Venezuela’s leadership grants safe harbour to anti-government Colombian rebels, and that Caracas allows cocaine to move through its territory for a cut of the profits. Maduro has denied the drug-trafficking accusations but expressed sympathy for the rebels’ leftist ideology and openly welcomed some guerrilla leaders.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not respond to requests for comment about the guerrilla group’s activities in the country. Pablo Beltran, the ELN’s second in command, denied the group is involved in cocaine production, drug trafficking or other illicit activities, or that it recruits Venezuelans to work in such operations. He reported that the group does charge fees to criminal drug groups entering territory it controls in Colombia where coca is cultivated.

They are mainly ELN guerrillas and former fighters from another rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. These combatants reject the landmark 2016 peace deal reached between the FARC and the Colombian government. The FARC dissident groups could not be reached for comment. More than 1,000 members of the ELN alone are operating in Venezuela. The rebels have filled gaps in Venezuela’s crumbling institutions, handing out food and medicine, even approving infrastructure projects in some areas. The guerrillas steadily consolidate power over the past five years, expanding their illicit business activities while largely assuming the role of law enforcement.

Since the FARC disarmed and joined the government as part of the peace deal, other groups have moved into territory it formerly controlled, including in Catatumbo. While crime rates in urban centres such as Medellín and the capital, Bogotá, have fallen dramatically in recent years, violence in the countryside has risen. Mass killings soared in 2020 to levels not seen since the height of the civil war in 2012. As of 31 August, there had been 68 mass killings recorded so far in 2021 – heavily concentrated in the rural areas that were promised investment and infrastructure under the peace accord.

A total of 310 activists, social leaders, human rights defenders, and local political candidates were killed in 2020, compared to 210 in 2017 and 152 in 2016, according to Indepaz, a non-profit that monitors the peace process. Again, the vast majority of these killings occurred in rural areas. In Cauca, a different conflict zone in central Colombia, only five activists were killed the year the peace accord was announced. By 2019, that number was 72. Venezuelans, meanwhile, have been caught up in clashes between the Colombian and Venezuelan security forces and the rival armed groups – some of which use Venezuela as a safe haven. In May, some 5,000 Venezuelans became displaced and crossed into Colombia after Venezuelan forces attacked a FARC dissident group.

Thirty years later, the two countries continue to work together towards this same goal, but cocaine has been getting cheaper in the United States, coca fields keep expanding, violence continues to worsen, and, despite the militarisation, the Colombian state has no more real presence in places like Catatumbo than it did before the peace agreement in 2016.