Guerrilla groups have supplanted state rule on both sides of the lawless border between Venezuela and Colombia, where they impose their own brutal rules on civilians, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
In Colombia’s eastern Arauca province and the neighbouring Apure state in Venezuela, civilians are unable to move freely, forced to obey a strict curfew and taxed on virtually all economic activity. HRW documented abuses including murder, kidnappings, disappearances, child recruitment and rape.
“Armed groups in Arauca and Apure also punish residents with forced labor, requiring them to work for free, sometimes for months, farming, cleaning roads, or cooking in the armed groups’ camps, which are often in Venezuela,” says the report, released on Wednesday.
The groups act with impunity thanks to limited state authorities on both sides of the porous border where they impose their own rules. Two of the groups have even handed out a manual for residents of the region.
Those that do not follow the groups’ strict rules pay the ultimate price. The bodies of 16 civilians were found in Arauca last year, with scraps of paper on them announcing a “justification” for the killing, the report found. “The texts accused the murdered victims of being ‘informants’, ‘rapists’, ‘drug dealers’, or ‘thieves’, for example.”
Security on the Colombian side of the border was supposed to improve following a historic peace deal in 2016 with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), which had fought against the government for five decades.
While that accord formally ended a conflict that killed over 260,000 and forced 7 million from their homes, little has changed on the ground in former Farc strongholds such as the Arauca province.
HRW’s report claims that one of the two armed groups present there is a splinter group of the Farc’s 10th Front, which still uses the defunct rebel army’s insignia.
Another Colombian leftist group, the National Liberation Army (ELN) works in alliance with the dissidents. The Patriotic Forces of National Liberation (FPLN), a Venezuelan guerrilla group that supports its country’s leftist government, is also present.
“The Colombian-Venezuelan border is strategically important to armed groups due to the illegal economies that exist there, including contraband, drug trafficking, and human trafficking,” said Juan Pappier, one of the authors of the report. “Armed groups can also attack civilians in Colombia and then use Venezuela as a rearguard, something that happens often on the Arauca-Apure border.”
But Venezuela is also a hotbed for criminal activity, with gangs taking advantage of the chaos left by the country’s social and economic collapse. Hyperinflation sits at an annual rate of 10,398%, according to a Forbes analyst, while shortages of food staples and medicines are commonplace.
Colombia’s president, Iván Duque, has accused Venezuela’s embattled president Nicolás Maduro of directly contributing to the insecurity by sheltering ELN and dissident Farc fighters.
Over 4 million people have now fled Venezuela, the United Nations’ refugee agency reports. Many migrants, deeply impoverished, make the route through Colombia on foot, where they are further at risk of armed groups.
“Civilians pay the price for the security mess in Arauca, including the Venezuelan immigrants already fleeing a serious humanitarian crisis in their country,” Pappier said.
Jesús Rodríguez, a Venezuelan migrant labourer, crossed into Colombia at an informal crossing in Arauca. Without a passport or any official documents, he had to pay off armed groups to cross the Arauca river on a small boat. “There may be soldiers at the border, but they don’t do anything. The guerrillas control everything – they are a fact of life.”
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