Moving Beyond Easy Wins: Colombia’s Borders
Moving Beyond Easy Wins: Colombia’s Borders
Table of Contents
  1. Executiv Summary
Report / Latin America & Caribbean 3 minutes

Moving Beyond Easy Wins: Colombia’s Borders

Colombia needs bolder policies to cope with the violence in its border areas, because improved relations with its neighbours alone have neither effectively reduced ongoing conflict with illegal armed groups nor alleviated the plight of the local communities.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

Executiv Summary

Improved relations between Colombia and its neighbours have not alleviated the plight of border communities. For fifteen years, porous borders that offer strategic advantages to illegal armed groups and facilitate extensive illicit economies have exposed them to an intense armed conflict that is made worse by the widespread absence of public institutions. The warfare triggered a humanitarian emergency and worsened relations especially with Ecuador and Venezuela, the most affected neighbours. Spurring development in the periphery and reconstructing diplomatic ties are priorities for President Juan Manuel Santos. A little over a year into his term, his new policies have paid undoubted diplomatic and some security dividends. But the hard part is still ahead. Efforts to improve the humanitarian situation and build civilian state capacity must be scaled up, tasks that, amid what is again a partially worsening conflict, have been neglected. Otherwise, pacifying the troubled border regions will remain a chimera, and their dynamics will continue to fuel Colombia’s conflict.

Border regions were drawn into the armed conflict by the mid-1990s, when they became main theatres of operations for illegal armed groups, often financed by drug trafficking. A crackdown under Álvaro Uribe, Santos’s predecessor, brought only elusive gains there. The illegal armed groups have been pushed deeper into the periphery but not defeated. Coca cultivation and drug trafficking remain significant. Violence has come down in most regions, but remains higher along the borders than in the nation as a whole, and security has begun to deteriorate in some zones, as New Illegal Armed Groups and paramilitary successors (NIAGs) extend their operations, and guerrillas gain new strength. The Uribe approach also carried high diplomatic costs. Relations with the neighbours became toxic over a 2008 Colombian airstrike on a camp of the main rebel group, FARC, located just inside Ecuador and over allegations that Venezuela was harbouring guerrillas.

Fixing the border problems has been a priority for Santos. He has moved quickly to restore diplomatic relations with Ecuador and Venezuela, and bilateral platforms are in an early stage of either being revived or created. There is a strong political commitment on all sides to preserve the restored friendships, despite the continuing presence of illegal armed groups in both neighbouring countries. Security cooperation is improving. The Colombian Congress has passed a constitutional reform to redistribute royalties from oil and mining concessions, a measure that should increase funds for public investment in many peripheral regions that currently do not benefit from that bonanza. In an effort to produce tangible results fast, the foreign ministry is leading implementation of projects aimed at boosting social and economic development in border municipalities.

The Santos agenda represents a substantial policy shift, but as the conflict continues unabated in the border regions and has increasing repercussions on Venezuelan and Ecuadorian soil, problems remain. Three sets of issues need to be tackled. First, more must be done to increase the civilian state presence in the destitute border areas. Militarisation of the borders has failed to deliver durable security gains, and efforts by security forces to increase their standing with local communities continue to stumble over human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law. With dynamics along their borders increasingly resem­bling the situation in Colombia, similar problems are fast emerging in Ecuador and Venezuela. The security forces of all three countries must play by the book and focus more on citizen security, and their civilian authorities must take the lead in providing services.

Secondly, more effective responses to the severe humanitarian problems are needed. Colombia continues to struggle to attend to internally displaced persons (IDPs) and other victims of the conflict, a large number of whom cross the borders in search of protection. But protecting them has not been a priority in Venezuela, leaving an estimated 200,000 highly vulnerable. This contrasts with the response in Ecuador, which has recognised and provided documentation to some 54,000 Colombian refugees. But Ecuador has tightened its policy since January 2011, exposing such individuals to new risks. Governments are hesitant to give more weight to a potentially divisive issue in bilateral relations, but looking the other way will only make matters worse over the long run.

Thirdly, efficient forums to solve problems jointly and pro­mote border development are still lacking. This partly reflects the neighbours’ reluctance to acknowledge any responsibility for a conflict they consider a domestic matter of Colombia but that in fact is sustained by transnational criminal networks and is increasingly creating victims on all sides of the borders. The high diplomatic volatility has also been damaging efforts to institutionalise cooperation that needs to be grounded in buy-in and participation of local authorities, civil society and the private sector. In a region where the next diplomatic crisis is often not far away, the current improved political climate offers the governments a chance to boost civilian state presence, improve the humanitarian situation and put relations on a more sustainable footing. They should seize it.

Bogotá/Brussels, 31 October 2011


Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.