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In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon
In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon
Under a Merciless Sun: Venezuelans Stranded Across the Colombian Border
Under a Merciless Sun: Venezuelans Stranded Across the Colombian Border
The local vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup
Our Journeys / Africa

In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon

Two years ago, the Cameroonian government declared war on Boko Haram. Despite some progress, the group’s violent impact is still seen and felt deeply in the remote north of the country. 

In March 2016, Crisis Group Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup travelled for four weeks into an insecure area only few researchers are given access to: Cameroon’s Far North Region. He was escorted three days by the military between the front-line towns of Ldamang, Mabass, Kolofata, Amchidé and Gansé, before he went on to travel alone across the region: to Maroua, the Minawao refugee camp, Mokolo, Mora, Kousseri and Goulfey. During the four weeks he spoke to a wide range of people, including traditional chiefs, local inhabitants and administration staff, refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), vigilante groups, local NGOs, humanitarian actors, academics, the military, former Boko Haram members, former traffickers, and others, some in presence of the military but the vast majority on his own. He completed his research in April and May 2016 with additional interviews in Kerawa, Bargaram, Fotokol, Makary, Hile Alifa and Blangoua. Read Crisis Group’s in-depth report on the crisis in the area.

This is the story of his journey.

Cameroon's Far North district. CRISIS GROUP

At 8 o’clock in the morning, I hear seven vehicles stopping in front of my hotel: two armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and five four-wheel-drive vehicles. Sitting inside are over forty Cameroonian soldiers, who are here to take seven journalists and me into Cameroon’s Far North district – a region that has severely suffered under Boko Haram, and still does.

I want to understand what – apart from weapons – it takes to counter Boko Haram.

I am joining this convoy because I want to find out how Boko Haram operates in this area, and how strong it is, two years after the government started to clamp down on the insurgency. I want to see how the people living here are affected, understand if Boko Haram still recruits fighters in the Far North, and hear how large its network of sympathisers remains. And I want to understand what – apart from weapons – it takes to counter Boko Haram. I am especially curious to learn about the so-called “vigilantes”, local self-defence groups that have gained a certain fame in this Cameroonian war on terror. What can these groups really achieve?

The starting point of our trip is Maroua, a buzzing city of 400,000 inhabitants and capital of the Far North region. The region has never gained the sad notoriety of Nigeria’s Borno state, but it gradually became an important refuge for Boko Haram fighters in the 2000s. And it has suffered immensely under the insurgency over the past years, particularly since 2014 when Boko Haram entered into open confrontation with the Cameroonian government.

The Alpha escort of the BIR in Maroua, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The group’s tactics then changed quickly: smaller incursions and occasional kidnappings soon grew into larger raids on towns and villages as well as strategic attacks against the Cameroonian army. In just two years, the insurgency staged more than 500 attacks and incursions, and around fifty suicide bomb attacks in Cameroon, making it the second most targeted country after Nigeria. According to Cameroonian soldiers, they fought fourteen fierce battles in Kolofata, Amchidé, Fotokol and Bargaram in 2014 and 2015 against sometimes hundreds and even up to a thousand heavily equipped Boko Haram fighters from mainly Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad.

In total, in two and a half years the insurgents have killed at least 1,300 civilians, 120 soldiers and abducted an estimated thousand people in Cameroon. They have burned down hundreds of schools and businesses and forced thousands to flee. Today, there are over 190,000 internally displaced Cameroonians in the Far North and around 65,000 refugees from neighbouring Nigeria, according to OCHA figures.

Before we leave Maroua, one of the soldiers gives me a helmet and a bullet-proof vest. This will be my outfit for the entire journey, the standard equipment for everyone travelling in this once peaceful area whose broken tracks are now sown with mines and improvised explosive devices (IED). These were laid by Boko Haram to block the government’s way into the territory. More than 50 incidents have been recorded since October 2014, with 22 of the mines killing at least 30 soldiers and wounding many more.

SABC News: "Boko Haram Has Leveled a Threat at Cameroon and its President Paul Biya"

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau threatens to step up violence in Cameroon. In a video posted online, Shekau threatens the people of Cameroon and its president, Paul Biya. SABC News

I climb into a mine-resistant armoured personnel carrier (APC). But our safety has a price: despite air conditioning it’s over 45 degrees Celsius inside. With sweaty faces, the journalists and I look at each other, suddenly understanding, at least slightly, the physical challenge that the soldiers patrolling the region experience each day.   

Twenty kilometres outside of Maroua the roads become bumpy. And then there are no roads at all. But the driver finds his way toward the north east and after four hours we arrive at Mabass, a village right at the Nigerian frontier. Mabass and the neighbouring towns of Tourou and Ldamang were repeatedly attacked by Boko Haram in 2014 but the insurgents never managed to fully occupy them.

We stop at a rocky plateau overlooking the vast sandy frontier area with Nigeria where the local commander, Captain Ticko Kingue, points at a lake in the distance. “You see the lake over there?” he asks. “That’s the Nigerian town of Madagali. This entire frontier area is plagued by the insurgency. Even last night there were attacks. We cannot go into Nigeria, not here, we’re not allowed to. So what we do is we prevent the insurgents from coming in”.

A soldier belonging to the Emergence 4 Unit deployed at Poste de Mabass, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

It is crucial that the Nigerian and Cameroonian armies cooperate in the fight against Boko Haram. But for a long time, the two country’s historically difficult relations painfully slowed down their military coordination. Today, two years since the Cameroonian government declared war on Boko Haram, there’s still a great need for better exchange of intelligence. But at least cooperation between the two armies has improved significantly within the context of the region’s Multinational Joint Task Force – partly operational since November 2015 with the aim of crushing Boko Haram.

Here in Mabass, we are very close to the Nigerian army base near Madagali. “Sometimes they come to us, especially if we can help them with equipment”, says Captain Ticko Kingue. “And they inform us how things are going on their side”.

On the other side of the frontier, most border towns are still held by Boko Haram. “It’s been a long time since they managed to occupy new territory”, Captain Kingue says. “But they keep trying. They usually come in large groups of 200 fighters or more. We call this a ‘combat de masse’. Usually they come at night in a surprise attack. Sometimes they pretend to attack a larger village or town to divert the army’s attention while they try to seize smaller villages”. Although Boko Haram use indiscriminate violence, they also sometimes target these smaller villages to seize supplies or preach to the population, as happened on 15 December 2015 in Kerawa, where Boko Haram members rounded up the population to preach to them for hours in Kanuri, Haoussa and Arabic.

At Poste de Mabass.

Crisis Group Cameroon Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup in conversation with local army commander Kingue at Poste de Mabass, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. (Subtitles available in French and English) CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Boko Haram’s firepower reached its peak between summer 2014 and spring 2015. In the face of Cameroonian, Chadian and Nigerian military pressure since then, Boko Haram had to change its tactics and appears to be in decline. The jihadist group lost much of the territory it occupied and has much less military equipment than it used to. The army claims it has dismantled most Boko Haram cells in Cameroon, killed about 2,000 members in fighting and arrested more than 1,000 suspects since 2014. Today, Boko Haram is ostensibly weaker and is not able to conduct large-scale attacks any more. But it is far from defeated. It still goes after smaller targets, and increasingly relies on suicide bombers.

Contrasting with the army’s success stories, a recent Amnesty International report documents severe failings and human rights violations in the Far North counterinsurgency campaign. According to Amnesty International, many of the army’s arrests were arbitrary, the rights of detained suspects were “routinely denied” and they did not receive fair judicial treatment. The Amnesty report has been widely criticised and rejected by the government, the military, civil society and the majority of local media. Crisis Group research raised similar concerns as Amnesty’s, but when speaking to a wide range of people it also found a high degree of local support for army actions in the face of Boko Haram’s bewildering violence.

Boko Haram is ostensibly weaker and is not able to conduct large-scale attacks any more. But it is far from defeated.

We continue our journey into the Mayo Tsanaga district toward the only refugee camp in the Far North. The camp near the village of Minawao is run by the UNHCR and hosts almost 57,000 people. Most of them are Nigerians from the border areas. More than 190,000 Cameroonians were also displaced, mostly fleeing to other villages and towns of the Far North.

When the camp was built in 2011, living conditions were extremely poor, but that changed, thanks to combined efforts by the UNHCR, other humanitarian agencies and the Cameroonian government. Housing is simple but resembles how people live elsewhere in the Far North. Refugees receive three meals per day, which is more than many ordinary Cameroonians get to eat. Children of all ages can go to school. Nonetheless there is still much room for improvement. The UNHCR claims that not even 10 per cent of the funds needed to care for all refugees have been provided. Because of that, sanitary conditions in the camp are still not up to adequate standards.

A child going to school at Minawao refugee camp. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Another problem is that refugees have nearly no opportunity to work. For security reasons – especially the fear of suicide bombers – refugees are not allowed to leave the camp. The UNHCR is currently trying to come up with social activities to help the fact that many refugees feel condemned to doing nothing.

The psychological burden is hardest on those who came to the camp traumatised by the atrocities they saw or experienced during the insurgency, particularly women and girls who suffered abuses. There are only a couple of psychologists in the camp providing care for the newcomers – not enough to give permanent psychological assistance to the thousands who need it.

Most refugees tell me that they want to return to their homes as soon as the security situation allows it. But nobody can estimate when that will be. Many find it hard to believe that they will be safe again in the near future. One refugee from the Nigerian town of Pulka in Borno state says, “I may have many complaints, but nonetheless we are fine here in Minawao. I won’t go back”.

Our convoy returns to Maroua before night falls. Situated 100 kilometres away from the border, Maroua is out of Boko Haram’s reach and therefore one of the safest places in the Far North. But it too has suffered violent attacks. In July 2015, Boko Haram sent four young girls as suicide bombers to four public places in Maroua. When they blew themselves up, they killed over 37 people with them and wounded 114 others.

Youth are seen by Boko Haram as easy prey. The insurgents can either recruit or force them into their ranks and use them for their purposes.

My tour with the military over, I meet with one of the survivors, 13 year old Kevin, who tells me what happened on the night of 25 July: “It was night and I was with my friends. We wanted to buy candy from a shop close to the Boucan bar. There was a queue with six or seven people ahead of us. And then suddenly, a girl who was sitting right next to the vendor blew herself up. I remember hearing the detonation of the bomb before I passed out. I only woke up later at Maroua hospital. It was there that I realised that one of my legs was completely burnt. There were lots of small splinters in my belly, chest and neck from the explosion. The government paid for the surgery and I could leave the hospital about a week later, but I wasn’t the same. They had amputated the lower part of my burnt leg and I learnt that one of my friends had died during the attack. My other friend is alive, but they amputated both his legs and his face is burnt. I had never seen the girl who had blown herself up in the neighbourhood before. After we left the hospital, neither the government nor any of the humanitarian NGOs followed up with us on what had happened. A Catholic priest passes by from time to time at our house to speak with my mother and help my parents buy medicine”.

Luckily, the horrors of the attack have not taken away Kevin’s hope for the future. When I ask him if he still goes to school he says: “Yes, I have passed the first trimester. My teachers are very happy with me. When I finish school I want to become an engineer”.

Hans De Marie Heungoup with a victim of a suicide bomb explosion. Maroua, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans de Marie Heungoup

65 per cent of Cameroon’s population of 23 million is under 30 years old. Children and youths are the most vulnerable in this war. Many are traumatised by the violence they see or experience at a young age.

At the same time, youth are seen by Boko Haram as easy prey. The insurgents can either recruit or force them into their ranks and use them for their purposes, like the four girls in Maroua.

Recruitment is helped by the fact that many young people are unemployed, poorly educated, belong to a part of the society that is not well integrated or don’t see a future for themselves for other reasons. Local authorities and traditional chiefs in Maroua as well as in Mokolo and Mora told me that Boko Haram has lost its appeal and capacity to recruit almost entirely. Very few youths are still joining the movement voluntarily. Nonetheless, forced recruitments still continue in the border areas. As Boko Haram indiscriminately killed Muslims and Christians, fundamentalist Muslims distanced themselves from the movement, stating that Boko Haram represents neither Wahhabi nor Salafi Islam. Many Imams and Muslim clerics told me that the war against Boko Haram has actually limited the spread of fundamentalist trends of Islam as hard-line preachers are now afraid to speak up in public. 

The Far North is the poorest of Cameroon’s regions, with 70 per cent of its people living on less than one dollar per day. During the past three decades, the influence of conservative Salafi Islam has increased in the region and many children grow up exposed to radical religious viewpoints. There is an urgent need for the state and public institutions to care for these youths and make sure they do not radicalise in the first place – and if they do radicalise, offer them help to leave the group and be fully re-integrated into society.

Maroua has a big prison, and the vast majority of suspected Boko Haram members arrested in Cameroon, almost 900 of them, are detained here. What is sorely missing is a de-radicalisation program, one that teaches a more tolerant Islam and re-integrates into society those who were recruited by force and are willing to abandon the movement. 

When speaking to the regional administration, I learn that there are also no public counter-radicalisation programs outside of the prison aimed at keeping young people and others away from extremist groups. The only efforts made in this direction come from civil society groups and the churches. Cameroon’s Association for Inter-Faith Dialogue (ACADIR) has set a positive example by organising conferences and meetings that have brought together religious leaders of different strands of Christianity and Islam. But these initiatives only scratch the surface of the problem. They don’t reach those who are the biggest threat to religious dialogue in the Far North: radical Islamist leaders.

If the government does not invest in development, the impoverished local population will stay vulnerable to radical groups and religious radicalisation.

If the government is to turn a security-focused approach into a long-term political strategy against radicalisation, there is still much to do. If the government does not invest in development, the impoverished local population will stay vulnerable to radical groups and religious radicalisation.

Last year, when the government launched an emergency development plan with a budget of roughly $10 million per year, hardly anyone believed that this could make a big difference. Most experts estimate that the current plan covers only about one per cent of what is needed to significantly improve the situation in the country’s least developed region. With $10 million, you cannot construct a road network in the Far North, develop public services in all areas, like health and education, help business owners get back on their feet, create employment opportunities and pay for preventive programs to keep especially the youth away from radical groups.

It might be possible for Cameroon to find other funding to do the job, but a correct assessment of the needs is necessary. Only then can the government show that it has understood the scope of the problem and can hope for help from its international partners.

Members of the BIR in the Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. PHOTO/Erwan Decherysel

I leave Maroua a second time to go up to the Mayo Sava district. This time, I am picked up by soldiers of the BIR, “Bataillon d’intervention rapide” (rapid intervention force). Of the approximately 8,000 soldiers deployed in the Far North, 2,400 belong to this well-trained and equipped elite unit. They take me to a place that has become a symbol of the war: Amchidé.

We are confronted with the sight of a ghost town. Formerly inhabited by 30,000 people, Amchidé is among the hardest hit places in Cameroon and the stage of three long battles between the army and the insurgents in late 2014 and early 2015.

Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The BIR camp of Amchidé has been baptised “Le Palais” (the Palace), not just because of its palace-like shape but also because it was one of the insurgent’s key strategic targets in Cameroon. Despite a dozen of conventional attacks, including three where Boko Haram mustered 800 insurgents, the city only fell for one day, on 15 October 2014. But the military base never succumbed. 

In Amchide.

Crisis Group Cameroon Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup in conversation with Captain Kiki, commander of the BIR military base of Amchide, Cameroon, in March 2016. (Subtitles available in French and English) CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The entire population of Amchidé fled during the fighting and only 10 per cent have come back – to an almost dead city. There are no businesses in Amchidé anymore, since the fighting has cut all Amchidé’s supply lines.

Most of those who came back are men, and about 40 of them joined forces to form a vigilante group. These vigilante or community defence groups are nothing new. In many Cameroonian towns and villages, unarmed vigilante groups have existed for a long time. But they have gained a new level of importance with the insurgency. They are groups of normal citizens – always men – patrolling their villages to make sure everyone is safe, especially at night. 

Members of the vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

As the Boko Haram threat increased, the government realised how these vigilantes can help in the fight on terror. It provided equipment, such as rifles, torches and night vision gear, and worked with traditional village chiefs who handpicked the most “suitable” men of their village to be part of the vigilante group. Vigilante groups have since played an important role against Boko Haram. They identify strangers they believe could be potential suicide attackers. And sometimes they even fend off smaller Boko Haram attacks. In the past year as well as this year, the Amchidé vigilante group and similar ones in Limani, Kerawa and Tolkomari have been involved in low intensity fights with small groups of about half a dozen Boko Haram fighters. In some cases they were able to surround smaller Boko Haram cells or win a fight against attackers. In other cases, they were not successful – and suffered casualties.

A member of the vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Although they are praised by the government and local authorities, the vigilante groups are not exempt from criticism. Sometimes, vigilantes have denounced local inhabitants as members of Boko Haram just to settle private accounts. In other cases, vigilantes have been suspected of providing information to Boko Haram and were therefore arrested by the army. 

In the case of Amchidé, the first vigilante group formed by the BIR had only Christian members, who harassed and extorted money from the local Muslim majority. Following complaints, the BIR dissolved Amchidé’s first vigilante group and formed a new one with Christian and Muslim members. 

Unarmed vigilante groups have existed for a long time. But they have gained a new level of importance with the insurgency.

The last stop of my four weeks’ research trip is Kousseri, an old market town in between the Chari and the Logone rivers. You only have to cross a bridge to reach the metropolis of N’Djamena, capital of neighbouring Chad.

In economic terms, Kousseri is the most important city in the Far North. It has strong links with Chad to the east and Nigeria to the west, especially the Nigerian town of Maiduguri. In the past two years, it has been flooded with Cameroonian IDPs and Chadian refugees. Its population has grown from 200,000 to 280,000. Many of them come from the city of Fotokol, 100 kilometre to the west on the Nigerian border, where Boko Haram caused most casualties suffered in the country during the main phase of the war between May 2014 and March 2015.

For a period of several months in 2014 and 2015, Boko Haram staged almost daily attacks on Fotokol. One especially heavy battle took place in Fotokol in early February 2015. For two days, about 1,000 Boko Haram insurgents were fighting against Cameroonian BIR forces and Chadian soldiers, killing 81 to 400 civilians, seventeen Chadian soldiers, seven Cameroonian soldiers and 300 attackers, according to various reports. 

One woman from Fotokol tells me that Boko Haram killed her husband. Another woman describes how Boko Haram raided the village asking: “Where are the Christians?”. Some IDPs in Kousseri tell me that they feel relatively safe now, but the violence they have seen is hard to forget, and life remains hard for them. They receive only limited support from aid organisations like the World Food Program and no support from the state. They have to find their own housing or stay with friends and relatives. Opportunities for work are scarce and the local economy has suffered from the fighting. Tens of thousands of merchants relied on cross-border trade. When the Nigerian border was closed due to insecurity, many of them were left without work. Aya, who used to own a large shop in Fotokol, lost everything. She tells me: “There is no possible turning back for me and my children. We have been chased from our village, our house was burnt; we have to make our life here in Kousseri”. 

Hans De Marie Heungoup with a displaced family from Fotokol in Kousseri, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

After four weeks in the Far North, when I return to the capital Yaoundé, the main concern resonating in my head is that people cannot imagine that security will be restored soon. The military battle against Boko Haram is ongoing and despite some successes it is far from won. At the same time, the military’s performance is tainted by accusations of human rights violations against the population, including arbitrary detention, torture, extrajudicial killings, and forced disappearances - allegations which the military mostly denies. During our discussion, the spokesman of the Defence Ministry replied to similar claims: “Cameroon’s army is republican and professional. We systematically investigate all human rights abuses cases and sanction. As you should know four soldiers in the Far North have been discharged a few months ago for committing grave acts against the honor of the army”.  

While his claim that all abuses are investigated is clearly an exaggeration, and it is not clear that all sanctions concern Human rights abuses, there has been some progress. Disciplinary measures have been taken against some officers and soldiers  in the Far North, who have been removed from operational assignments to administrative posts or dismissed. Some judicial investigations into rights abuses are underway. 

Still, efforts made are far from sufficient and the defence ministry’s focus on sanctions is too narrow. There are no financial or material compensations for victims of the families of victims that suffered human rights violations. Neither has the military officially apologised. The government should pursue a stricter and proactive sanctions policy against soldiers who committed abuses, publicise its sanctions and put in place measures that can rebuild communities’ confidence. If human rights violations by the army continue, they will jeopardise the success of the counterinsurgency, as parts of the population may radicalise and take the side of the insurgents. At the same time, Western countries might withdraw their support for the army, as happened in Nigeria when there was a rash of human rights abuses by Nigerian army.

If human rights violations by the army continue, they will jeopardise the success of the counterinsurgency. Parts of the population may take the side of the insurgents.

As much as security efforts are crucial to curb the insurgency, Cameroon, Nigeria and Chad also need to shape new policies that can prevent the emergence of new jihadist groups. More and more, the central authorities seem to understand that. At the ministry of defence and at the ministry of external relations, I meet several senior officials who recognise that a sustainable victory is impossible without development in the Far North. But then, they all add “the priority is to defeat Boko Haram militarily first”. Otherwise, the sad example of Chinese development workers who were kidnapped in 2014 by Boko Haram while building roads in the Far North could be repeated, they say. 

Boko Haram is much weaker today than in 2014. Nonetheless, the government must not delay proving to its population that it cares for its needs, and that it is trying to give those who feel neglected by the state new hope for their future. 

This commentary is part of Crisis Group’s series Our Journeys, giving behind the scenes access to our analysts’ field research. 

Inhabitants of La Bendición de Dios, an informal neighbourhood near Maicao, line up to receive water. Bram Ebus

Under a Merciless Sun: Venezuelans Stranded Across the Colombian Border

As Venezuela’s economy plumbs the depths of collapse, a new cohort of refugees is trekking across parched landscapes to Colombia. It consists of the most vulnerable, including poor expectant mothers, unaccompanied children and the sick, people with no defence against the predations of armed bands.

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It is a measure of life’s hardships in Zulia state, the oil production hub in north-western Venezuela, that its people must brave lawless borders just to get to the hospital. Across the frontier, in Colombia, the San José de Maicao hospital is full of pregnant Venezuelan women, some of them sitting on the floor. One new mother I met there had arrived in the morning after traversing a trocha, an illegal crossing between the two countries, which have no diplomatic ties. She borrowed money to pay a shadowy armed band for safe passage, and once in the maternal ward, gave birth to a healthy daughter. She lay in bed, the baby in her arms, a bit bewildered at her good fortune. Infant mortality is high among refugee mothers, most of whom, like this young woman, receive no prenatal care. She got to San José de Maicao just in time for a safe, orderly delivery.

Such harrowing tales of flight have become common in Zulia. Hunger, power cuts and collapsing public services have turned this region – once accustomed to easy wealth and ice-cold air conditioning – into one of the areas of Venezuela suffering the greatest humanitarian need, according to the UN. The human rights NGO Codhez, based in Zulia, calculates that seven in ten households have daily incomes of $1.09 or less, meaning that families often cannot eat three meals a day. Its hospitals are at once rundown and prohibitively expensive for most Zulia residents because they now demand payment in dollars for basic services that were once free. The nearest escape valve is the Colombian border. More than 160,000 Venezuelans now live across it, in the Colombian state of La Guajira, after escaping their home country’s tumult.

But La Guajira, in Colombia’s far north east, is no sanctuary. More than half the population of this semi-arid desert state lives in poverty. With Venezuela to the east and the mountains of Perijá – a hotbed of guerrilla activity – to the south, La Guajira is in a double bind. It faces not only the humanitarian needs of migrants and refugees, who now make up roughly 19 per cent of the population, but also the violence of guerrillas, narcos and other men with guns who prey upon its very desperation.

The Border Crossing Boom

The only official crossing from Zulia into La Guajira brings new arrivals to the small village of Paraguachón. Movable metal barriers featuring the logo of Colombia’s migration office stand along the main road. Scrawny, malnourished Venezuelans, exhausted after their long trip, mingle with locals hawking basic medicines and food items. As in other Latin American border towns, the informal economy hums with activity, as porters trot by pushing handcarts piled with luggage, moneychangers offer stacks of bolívars to the few Venezuelans returning home and penniless migrants sell their hair to wig makers for a fistful of dollars.

For years already, contraband gasoline from Venezuela has been fueling the informal economy of La Guajira's border areas. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus

But a lot more is going on in this particular border town. A nervous resident points out that various armed groups – narcos, guerrillas and others – rule Paraguachón. They have tightened their stranglehold on La Guajira’s border since 2015, when the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro closed the entire frontier in response to attacks on the Venezuelan army by unknown parties. Following the closure, the trochas became regular transit points and a gold mine for criminal gangs collecting informal tolls. The border reopened in 2016, but the illegal crossings retained their appeal to smugglers, traffickers, and the many migrants and refugees without identity papers.

Just a short distance from the official crossing in Paraguachón are two major trochas: la ochenta (the eighty) and la cortica (the short one). In plain view of Colombian police, motorbikes bearing jerrycans bump alongside old white Toyota pickups crammed with passengers and goods over the sandy roads to and from Venezuela.

A total of 90 trochas are located in Maicao, the municipality that includes Paraguachón. According to Colombia’s Ombudsman, an independent state agency charged with protecting civil and human rights, the number along the border between La Guajira and Zulia runs close to 200. At each of these points, criminals charge fees for passage, turning the trochas into big business and a trigger for competition with each other, as well as with state security forces. Aida Merlano, a fugitive Colombian parliamentarian wanted for electoral fraud, found refuge in Venezuela via a trocha in the La Guajira badlands. Three alleged al-Qaeda operatives arrested in January in the U.S. sneaked from Venezuela into Colombia using a similar route.

Contraband fuel is the economic mainstay on the Colombian side of the border.

Contraband fuel is the economic mainstay on the Colombian side of the border. With their faces covered in cloths or towels, adults and children, some no older than ten, wave funnels at passing cars while their skin burns under La Guajira’s merciless sun. They are engaged in pimpineo, the sale of dirt-cheap Venezuelan gasoline that is smuggled across the border in jerrycans (pimpinas in Spanish) and then poured straight into fuel tanks or retailed in soft drink bottles. In 2019 up to mid-November, Colombia’s Fiscal and Customs Police seized over 230,000 gallons of contraband fuel and confiscated about 300 vehicles along the La Guajira border. Still, trafficking continues unabated. 

Two indigenous Wayuu women agreed to meet to talk about smuggling fuel. They chose a discreet location, fearing violent reprisal from local gangs should they be seen conversing with a stranger. The smugglers, or pimpineros, use three courtyards on the Venezuelan side, to fill the jerrycans with gasoline, the women said. The fuelling station is located next to the local command building of the Venezuelan National Guard. “They [the National Guard] eat off us. They live from this”, one woman explains, adding that plainclothes Guard officers charge a fee on the contraband fuel, which costs about $1.50 per punto (5 litres), and $15 per pipa (60 litres).

A Surfeit of Crime

The stakes are high around the trochas. The smugglers recruit poor Wayuu children as moscas (flies) to look out for soldiers or police, giving them cellphones to sound the alarm. The children also carry guns, sometimes assault rifles, so that they, too, can collect the fees for safe passage. 

For ordinary civilians, the crossings have become more bane than boon. Recent arrivals in Colombia report that Venezuelan security forces and armed groups confronted them at several checkpoints in a single trip. One social worker based in Riohacha said women using the trochas risk sexual abuse, sometimes reaching their destination with their clothes ripped off. In a refugee shelter in Maicao, a distraught Venezuelan man told me that all his money was stolen when walking across. He had come to Colombia with his daughter, who has Down syndrome, in search of essential health care.

Many youngsters from the region are recruited by armed groups and criminal organizations. Some of them are posted along the border to work as 'moscas' and monitor the movements of border authorities. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus

Internecine violence makes matters worse. Criminal organisations and Wayuu clans collect fees from the traffic through various trochas, and often clash with each other in disputes over who is in control. Also joining the fray is the guerrilla National Liberation Army (ELN), whose Luciano Ariza faction, part of the Northern War Front, engages in extortion and livestock smuggling further south along the border, toward the Perijá mountains.

The sheer variety of illicit business makes the rivalries even more pointed. Weapons, minerals and human beings are trafficked into Colombia, while drugs move in the opposite direction. “This is a continuous time bomb”, said one resident in Paraguachón. “The narcos and the guerrillas want control over the border, and the Wayuu, the owners of the territory, are involved in a war that only benefits the people who do not belong here”. Meanwhile, the breakdown in communication between the security forces on either side of the border makes it easy for criminals to dodge arrest or to hide out on whichever side is more hospitable to them. Locals say the police are paid off not to interfere.

A short distance from Paraguachón, on the Colombian side of the border, lies a rancheria, a Wayuu settlement, filled with victims of these border skirmishes. Around 35 huts built of logs and plastic sheeting house up to six families each. Some of the children are blond, a symptom of the malnutrition common in La Guajira. According to the World Food Programme, the basic needs of 90 per cent of the state’s rural population are unsatisfied.

The children began getting trapped in shoot-outs.

All the Wayuu in the hamlet recently decided to leave their homes on the Venezuelan side of the border after teachers in the local schools walked out over low wages and never came back. To continue their education, the Wayuu children had to attend classes on the Colombian side. At first, they crossed the trochas every day. But then, the local Wayuu leader explained, the children began getting trapped in shoot-outs between armed factions and security forces. So all the families relocated.

“The Zone”

The most notorious armed outfit to have operated in the area was a relative upstart. La Zona (The Zone) undertook a swift and brutal expansion before its equally rapid demise. Along Zulia’s borders, and especially in the Venezuelan town of Guarero, the gang is accused of distributing lists of names and pictures of young people associated with other gangs or with no known affiliation. They were all marked for death, and according to a woman from Guarero, most of them were in fact killed. In an October 2019 report, the Colombian Ombudsman pointed to mass displacement from the town, with entire Wayuu families running away lest La Zona attack them or target their children for recruitment.

“The neighbours left”, said a Wayuu woman from the town who fled to Colombia. “Guarero is abandoned. Many people have gone far away to protect their lives”. She agreed to meet me in the dusty backyard of the Maicao family that employs her as a maid. It was the evening, and the oven-like daytime heat had finally subsided. Sitting on a plastic chair, she shooed the insects attracted by the flickering light bulb away from her face. Starting in early 2018, she stated, La Zona killed more than 100 people from the town, including her nephew, who was shot execution-style in broad daylight. The killers drove away afterward without impediment, she said; in fact, the Venezuelan National Guard stopped traffic to clear their way. “This happened in front of many people”, she declared in disbelief.

From mid-2019, however, La Zona met with a far more ruthless response from both Venezuelan security forces and other armed groups, both of which resented the criminal outfit’s rise and coveted its border revenues. “All [the Venezuelan] security forces started to look for the leaders of La Zona in their houses, and they have been carrying out extrajudicial killings”, said a human rights defender based in Zulia. “They ran away over the savannahs, and now they are stealing to survive”, added a Guarero local.

The Colombian ELN guerrillas have taken the opportunity to increase their presence in Zulia. A refugee in Maicao indicated that the insurgents move only at night and hand out pamphlets in the villages they visit. The guerrillas have sought to hold meetings in Wayuu rancherias, and sworn to combat La Zona and its predatory offshoots. In the eyes of the Wayuu woman from Guarero, they could be a solution to the region’s problems, since they claim to want to protect the people.

Surrounded by handcarts, a soldier patrols the road that connects Paraguachón with Venezuela. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus

Refugees

Violence, poverty, hunger and the need for basic public services are driving people out of Zulia. Aid institutions in La Guajira regard the incoming migrants and refugees as fundamentally different from those of previous years. The first migrant wave comprised wealthy people with passports, headed for Florida, Panama, Spain and other international destinations. By 2016-2017, many middle-income families were joining the well-off in exile, travelling to South American nations such as Colombia, Chile and Peru. In the third phase, around 2018, people lacking passports and the money to travel began trekking across the border to their destinations. They became known as los caminantes (the walkers).

The exodus of the sick and unwell [has begun].

But in La Guajira, arguably, a fourth phase has begun: the exodus of the sick and unwell. Each day people arrive with worse health conditions, including chronic diseases and mental disorders, a local social worker explained to me. Many of these extremely vulnerable people are stuck after criminals or corrupt Venezuelan officials stole their belongings, money and identity papers – or they simply had no money to begin with. In a refugee shelter in Maicao, the courtyard filled up with refugees drowning out each other’s voices to tell me their stories. A woman from Maracaibo complained with evident distress that she cannot reach her family in Barranquilla, Colombia – less than 300km away – after she was robbed of all her possessions in a trocha.

For those who get stuck, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has set up a reception centre with space for 600 people, but the waiting list is long – over 4,000 at present. Tens of thousands of Venezuelans end up in informal settlements on the outskirts of towns such as Riohacha, Maicao and Uribia, where naked children with scabies play in the dirt and men walk for kilometres to haul back jerrycans of water for household needs. There is no electricity or sewage disposal. Most of the time, the inhabitants tell me, they have too little food to eat three meals a day.

For lack of a better alternative, many Venezuelans stay in these camps for some time. According to Miguel Romo, director of the Colombian migration authority’s local branch, La Guajira is unprepared for the influx. The state government has little money, and it is dogged by corruption charges: there have been thirteen governors in the last eight years, many of whom have faced serious allegations of graft. Nevertheless, he acknowledged, the Venezuelans are unlikely to leave La Guajira, and thus humanitarian aid risks becoming “a bottomless barrel”.

Many Venezuelans that cross from Zulia state into La Guajira get stuck in informal settlements in the arid region. The lack of possibilities to pay for further transport makes La Guajira a bottleneck in which many migrants and refugees are stuck. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus

The informal economy – including organised crime – absorbs Venezuelans without the means to move further inland or abroad. Exploitation and death are commonplace. Maicao is one of the most dangerous towns in La Guajira, with a murder rate over twice the national average. “We are in an environment where there are no mourners”, said a woman in Maicao who runs a foundation working with vulnerable children and women. There are so many deaths, she explains, that the living have no time to grieve. In October 2019, the Colombian police broke up a criminal network run by Venezuelans and Colombians that forced underage boys and girls into sexual slavery. Many Venezuelans, including unaccompanied minors, sleep on thin squares of cardboard in shop or office doorways. Rapes occur nightly, according to the foundation manager. “Everything has broken down here”, she said.

Local hospitals, meanwhile, are thronged with Venezuelans, who according to a doctor in Maicao make up around 70 to 80 per cent of incoming patients, some of them with conditions such as tuberculosis and HIV in terminal stages. The hospitals in La Guajira are not prepared to give the complex care that people with such illnesses require, and there is no money to transport the Venezuelan patients to better-equipped facilities elsewhere. In theory, emergency rooms should take in Venezuelans without documentation, but an aid worker admitted that many do not receive treatment. Since 2014, a Colombian migration official said, more than 100 corpses have been left unclaimed in the Riohacha morgue by families who cannot afford to pay for repatriation. 

Along with the ill and the dying come the newborn. Beside the new mother I met in the San José de Maicao hospital were numerous other pregnant Venezuelan women who were unable to give birth in Zulia’s hospitals, which often cannot perform a caesarean-style delivery, and which are now charging patients in dollars for surgical gloves, gauze pads, anaesthetic and other medical gear. The government is supposed to provide such items – indeed, all health care – for free in Venezuela. An obstetrician explains that pregnant 13- or 14-year-olds are a common sight.

“We are working blind”, says the doctor. About 80 per cent of Venezuelan women have no passport, and the poorer young women coming here are even less likely to have one. The lack of affordable prenatal care in Venezuela means that most reach the hospital in La Guajira without the vital information such checkups provide about the general health of mother and baby.

Responding to the Flight

La Guajira cannot cope with all the stranded Venezuelans’ demands. Until it is able to offer adequate employment, the black market will continue to flourish – and the attendant violence to rise – in trochas such as those around Paraguachón.

At the same time, the scale of the economic calamity in Venezuela – where dollarisation and the scrapping of import and price controls have benefited only a tiny minority in Caracas – means that Venezuelans will continue to arrive in La Guajira without the money to travel any farther. Until Venezuela’s government and opposition make progress toward a negotiated settlement that allows the economy to stabilise, foreign donors should step up their investment in health care and social services for migrants and refugees. Colombian government figures indicate that outsiders have given $397 million to tackle the Venezuelan migration crisis over the past two years, even though the UN emergency call for 2019 alone asked for nearly twice that sum. Of the total, the EU and European countries have contributed 44 per cent, of which 11 per cent comes from EU donations.

Life is harsh in La Guajira, and that affects everyone – not just the Venezuelan newcomers. Donors should help make the above services available to Colombian residents as well. If international aid serves the Venezuelans alone, the Colombians could react with xenophobic outrage, feeling that they are being treated as second-class citizens in their own country.

Until conditions improve for migrants, refugees and residents, violent crime will continue to afflict the border area. An uncontrolled frontier with no cooperation between security forces is a bonanza for organised crime and an ordeal for the defenceless. The two countries could doubtless contain the criminality far more effectively if they could find a way to mend the bilateral relations that they severed early last year. No amount of diplomatic point scoring can justify the pain that all these people are suffering.

There are two informal border crossings, or “trochas”, that connect with Paraguachón, called “la ochenta” and “la cortica”. Cars carrying contraband goods slowly bump up and down the sandy roads. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus