The Colombian government’s failure to fill a void left by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels, who demobilized in 2016, is causing a spike in human rights abuses as armed gangs jostle for control of land on the Colombia–Venezuela border, Human Rights Watch said in a report released Aug. 8.
Many of the victims are desperate Venezuelans fleeing their country’s crisis, the advocacy group says.
Among the abuses committed by armed groups against civilians are killings, disappearances, sexual violence, child recruitment, and forced displacement.
“The abuses we’ve documented are extremely serious,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Americas division, told The Epoch Times. “These groups use threats to gain control, including against community leaders and human rights defenders, some of whom have been killed.”
Colombia’s peace agreement with FARC was supposed to open a new peaceful chapter in the country’s history, after half a decade of conflict. But new and existing armed groups seeking profitable illicit business opportunities such as narcotics trafficking have quickly filled the void left by the guerrillas.
Catatumbo, a region in northeastern Colombia bordering Venezuela, is a microcosm of the peace deal’s failings, as the site of a new war as armed gangs vie for control of land left by FARC. Colombian guerrilla groups National Liberation Army (ELN) and Popular Liberation Army (EPL), as well as FARC dissidents who refused to disarm, are competing for control of the area.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that 109 civilians were killed in the region by armed groups in 2018 alone, and 40,000 have fled the violence.
Among the victims are desperate—often undocumented—Venezuelans fleeing their country’s crisis or seeking basic goods such as food and medicine in neighboring Colombia. At least 25,000 Venezuelans live in Catatumbo, according to OCHA. More than 1.4 million in total have fled to Colombia, according to Colombia’s migration agency.
The collapse of wages in Venezuela—where the minimum salary is just over $3 a month—attracts migrants to the region, where immigration controls are “limited,” the report says.
The report also documents a boom in Venezuelan children being recruited to cultivate coca, the base ingredient of cocaine and the financial bloodline of armed groups. Others as young as 12 years old are paid or forced to join an armed group after members threaten to kill them or their families. Migrant women are forced into sex work that pays as little as $2.
HRW has called for new measures to protect civilians.
“The government’s efforts to increase its presence in Catatumbo through deploying the military needs to go hand-in-hand with broader efforts—like support for criminal investigations and humanitarian assistance—to protect the rights of farmers and Venezuelan exiles there,” Vivanco said.
Colombian President Ivan Duque announced on Aug. 8 that five of the areas most affected by conflict will be granted more troops and investment, to counter the expansion of armed groups who profit from drugs and violate the human rights of the local population.
Duque faces growing pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump to turn around its losing war on drugs, with cocaine production hitting an all-time high of 1,400 tons in 2017.
Cutting drug production and installing security in remote zones is a complex task, as it involves not only establishing a military presence, but offering residents a viable alternative to coca production that provides a living wage, Andres Valencia, a consultant and ex-military intelligence official, told The Epoch Times.
That task is now more challenging due to the crisis in Venezuela.
“Venezuela’s crisis is fueling the conflict, as there is an abundance of cheap labor to recruit from,” Valencia said. “The Venezuelan National Guard also contribute by facilitating drug trafficking routes and selling arms to criminals.”