Even against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, a war is being waged along the vast and porous Venezuela-Colombia border, across which people, narcotics, black market gasoline, food, and medicine are smuggled, and where criminals and guerrillas find refuge.
The low-intensity conflict has been simmering for years, but border closures have had a habit of driving up the violence. In 2019, when the frontier was closed for three months on the Venezuelan side, violence, kidnappings, forced recruitment by armed groups, and disappearances of migrants fleeing Venezuela spiked.
On 14 March, the more than 2,219 kilometre-long border was again closed, this time by the Colombian authorities as a measure to contain the spread of the coronavirus, and just as thousands of Venezuelan migrants tried to make their way home.
Several local people contacted independently by The New Humanitarian by telephone from 1-4 May described a string of recent killings on the trochas, the smuggling routes that criss-cross the border and where rival gangs fight for control.
Local press in the Colombian border city of Cúcuta, as well as Venezuelan officials, have also reported displaced residents fleeing borderland battles between armed groups in and around the town of Boca de Grita, just inside Venezuela.
The broader conflict involves an array of different armed criminal groups and paramilitaries, as well as government forces from both countries. It threatens residents on the frontier and migrants alike, not to mention Colombia’s increasingly shaky peace accord.
FARC-EP: The “Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army”, known by the Spanish acronym FARC-EP, ended a 50-year armed struggle against the state by signing a 2016 peace deal. Some factions of the Marxist guerrilla group refused to lay down their weapons and join the political process and are known as “the dissidents”. Others are also active but still use the original name.
Colombian paramilitary forces: Right-wing groups that fought against leftists during the civil war. Also referred to as “paracos” from “Colombian paramilitaries” or as “BACRIM” by the government. This refers to a diverse collection of self-styled “self-defence forces” involved in criminal activity in Colombia, some of which have been accused of ties to the government.
The ELN: Leftists from the guerrilla group the “National Liberation Army”, known as the ELN, did not sign the 2016 peace deal and instead continued their insurgency. They have been at war with the national government since the 1960s.
Narco groups: A catch-all term for drug-trafficking groups that tend to be more focused on profits than politics, though some, such as the Rastrojos, have ties to paramilitary forces, and others, such as the Gulf Clan, have been accused of links to the government. There is often overlap between narco groups and other actors as all participate in drug-trafficking activities.
Mexican cartels: These groups have been making inroads into Colombia over the last few years, particularly the Sinaloa cartel. They generally avoid active conflict with other armed groups, instead focusing on partnerships, though indigenous groups have reported being threatened.
*This is not a full list. INDEPAZ, part of a network of Colombian peacebuilding organisations, has this comprehensive report on all the different individual groups.*
As criminal groups battle one another – and state forces – on either side of the border, territory can switch hands so fast that local residents often don’t know who is in charge, and fall victim to gangs that weren’t present only weeks before.
“It’s worse for residents when a region is contested than when it is controlled by one of these armed groups,” Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Andes director for the human rights group WOLA, explained. “It means even more chaos. Nobody knows what rules to follow and aggressive criminals commit violence to mark territory.”
One 49-year-old woman, who earns a living smuggling gasoline across the border from Venezuela to Colombia, was willing to talk to TNH, but asked that her real name not be used for fear of reprisal from armed groups.
“There was a fierce firefight [near Cúcuta] immediately after the border closure that left local paraco leaders dead,” she said, using the slang term for paramilitary groups. “Since then, I avoid the trochas near Cúcuta.”
The woman said she now sends her black market wares north through an intermediary who crosses the border by canoe before continuing via trochas near the Colombian town of Puerto Santander, where things are calmer.
Reliable data on the recent activity of armed groups is non-existent on the Venezuelan side, and difficult even to obtain for Colombia as government reports and those of monitoring groups are only released annually. However, according to official police statistics, there were 2,795 homicides across Colombia during the first three months of 2020 – an increase of almost 40 percent over the same period in 2019. Four out of five had links to narco-trafficking or armed groups.
Political-social violence in Colombia
# of recorded incidents of political-social violence, by province, 1 January – 30 June 2019
Note: Political-social violence includes threat, murder, attack, physical injury, abduction, kidnapping, and torture as defined by source. No data for provinces in grey. Source: Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular / Programa por la Paz (CINEP/PPP)
Trapped on the border
In recent years, the Colombia-Venezuela borderlands, especially around the migration hub of Cúcuta, have witnessed a mass exodus of millions of Venezuelans fleeing their homeland amid the rapid disintegration of its once oil-rich economy.
Since mid-March, despite the border closure, the traffic has been more two-way as tens of thousands of Venezuelans have headed home from Colombia and other Latin American countries due to lockdown restrictions forcing hardship and drying up opportunities.
Nicola Rodríguez, an unreserved 24-year-old musician from Táchira, the Venezuelan province just across the frontier from Cúcuta, smiled constantly and made dark jokes about the reports of violence on the frontier.
He had returned to Cúcuta recently with his wife and children from the Colombian capital of Bogotá, where the lockdown measures had left him unemployed. “We want to return to Venezuela,” he told TNH. “I can no longer support my family in Colombia. But now, after travelling here with nothing, we find ourselves trapped.”
Venezuelan and Colombian officials have opened a “humanitarian corridor” between the two countries near Cúcuta, allowing roughly 200 crossings daily for people trapped on either side to repatriate.
But 40,000-50,000 people crossed daily before the closure at the seven official checkpoints and – although traffic has dropped due to both lockdown measures and severe gasoline shortages within Venezuela – the trochas remain very active. Those left without recourse to cross legally often find themselves preyed upon.
“We want to return to Venezuela. I can no longer support my family in Colombia. But now, after travelling here with nothing, we find ourselves trapped.”
Rodríguez said he feared using the smuggling routes to cross with his young daughters, aged three and one. “Lately, the situation has been difficult,” he said. “Four people have been killed in the trochas since we arrived. We’re staying [In Cúcuta] for now until things calm down.”
Due to the quarantine measures, even imposed in Cúcuta, Rodríguez can no longer perform in the streets for food money. “I’m not sure what we’re going to eat tomorrow when the last of our food runs out,” he said, trying not to look worried.
Both the migrants leaving Venezuela and those seeking to return – members of either group may be unfamiliar with the region – can find themselves caught in the crossfire, robbed, or even forcibly recruited.
Human Rights Watch described the situation in Arauca, just south of Cúcuta, in a January report. “Armed groups use violence to control people's daily lives,” it stated. “They impose their own rules, and to enforce compliance they threaten civilians… those who do not obey face punishments ranging from fines to forced labour to killings. Residents live in fear.”
Just before the frontier’s closure in March, eight bodies were discovered in Juan Frío, a border village near Cúcuta: a result of ongoing conflict between the National Liberation Army (ELN by their Spanish acronym), a leftist Colombian guerrilla group, and a narco gang known as the Rastrojos.
“This region has always been at war,” Juan Maldonado, a social worker in the nearby Colombian border town of La Parada, told TNH dismissively when asked about the gruesome discovery. “The people here barely even register a [massacre] like that. It only made the local news because they found the bodies on the Colombian side.”
Local officials and human rights groups say the number of killings has always been higher than official Colombian government statistics, as many people are afraid to report incidents for fear of reprisals.
On the eastern front of a war that never ended
Most armed groups operate in rural areas where there’s little state presence, and their territories stretch along the border all the way from Amazonia in the south to the northern peninsula of Guajira, which is heavily populated by indigenous groups.
“The Colombian conflict is incredibly complicated,” said Sánchez-Garzoli of WOLA. Most groups date back to the Colombian civil war, and “they are fighting for territory for smuggling, illegal mining, and cocaine production. Lately, the ELN has been trying to expand its territory.”
When the 50-year civil war officially ended with a controversial peace accord in 2016, the central leadership of the main guerrilla group, the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, agreed to lay down its weapons and join the political process.
But some FARC factions splintered off following the accord, becoming known as “the dissidents”, and the ELN, Colombia’s second largest guerrilla outfit, used the opportunity to expand into the power vacuum.
Right-wing paramilitary groups that had battled the ELN and the FARC – committing atrocities of their own – competed with the fracturing guerrilla groups for territory and resources. By the end of the civil war, all these groups used drug-trafficking to finance their operations, putting them at odds with narco-groups in Colombia too.
Decades of violence combined with a lack of official law enforcement and economic marginalisation by successive Colombian governments has created large territories where the only law is the one imposed by the armed groups.
In 2018, according to a report by the public ombudsman’s office, armed groups were active in 178 municipalities and in 22 of the country’s 32 districts, with the ELN the most prominent. Right-wing “self-defence forces”, known as paracos – from the term “Colombian paramilitary” – followed in second place.
TNH conducted a survey of reports from various NGOs, independent think tanks, the Colombian media, and government studies and found that since the peace accord was implemented in 2017, there have been credible reports of activity by armed groups in every one of Colombia’s 32 provinces or departments. And their presence appears to be growing.
The result is that the Venezuelan border – a hotspot for conflict throughout the civil war – has become even more dangerous.
“Armed groups use the border as a shield,” said Oney Bedoya, an international security consultant and Colombian army veteran. “When they are pursued by the military from one side, they merely cross to the other. And there are areas neither government will enter.”
Both the ELN and the FARC have held territory on the Venezuelan side of the border since the 1990s. Insight Crime, a non-profit that studies the impact of criminality on human rights, has reported that both FARC dissident groups and the ELN have expanded their territory in Venezuela considerably since the Colombian civil war officially ended.
A threatened peace accord
As part of the 2016 deal, the government promised to develop infrastructure in former rebel-controlled areas, but the process has been slow and Colombian President Iván Duque – who won the 2018 election partly on promises to dismantle aspects of the agreement – has slowed down its implementation even further through legislative tactics.
Since the election, Duque’s administration has continued its heavy-handed approach, as well as a controversial aerial coca fumigation programme, even under national lockdown measures.
“The government isn’t living up to its [peace deal] promises,” Sánchez-Garzoli told TNH. “Their response isn’t to invest in conflict areas, but rather to deploy the military and focus on [coca] crop eradication. Government hardline tactics have only increased the presence and attacks of armed groups.”
But Sánchez-Garzoli said the blame isn’t completely on one side, stressing that the ELN has to listen to the communities it operates in and fulfill promises not to attack civilians. “Since the accord, the ELN has upped recruitment and expanded territory,” she said. “Vulnerable indigenous communities are among those threatened, and [the ELN] no longer respect[s] international accords.”
“Peace accords by nature are slow, messy processes. But the government needs to live up to its obligations. The only other choice is a return to war.”
The ELN offered the government a unilateral month-long ceasefire due to the coronavirus crisis. The agreement expired 30 April, but the group has since announced it will form “no attack plans, only defensive plans”. Even during the ceasefire, however, the ELN was fighting other armed groups, and it continues to be one of many actors threatening and assaulting local and indigenous communities.
The 2016 peace accord was strongly opposed by many in Colombia, failing a popular referendum by a razor-thin margin of less than one percent. Some here are still bitter over the decades of violence and a compromise they feel lets the guerrillas off too easily.
“No one is happy with a good deal,” Shauna Gillooly, a peacebuilding and conflict researcher for University of California, Irvine who is based in Colombia, told TNH. “Peace accords by nature are slow, messy processes. But the government needs to live up to its obligations. The only other choice is a return to war.”
Meanwhile, violence is increasing: a record 120 social activists were killed in 2019, drug production is at record levels, and armed groups are growing more powerful. Many Colombians who live in the main conflict zones have lost confidence in both the government's ability and its will to address the problem.
Rodríguez, still trapped in Cúcuta due to the violence and coronavirus quarantine measures, wasn’t much concerned with the bigger picture. As he strummed his guitar, he just wanted the immediate consequences of the conflict to end.
“I have faith we will find a way to come out of this ahead,” he said, referring to his family’s situation. “I have faith. I have to have faith, because I have almost nothing else.”
Additional reporting from a Venezuelan journalist who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.
Data visualisation by Abigail Geiger.