MS Risk Blog

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.