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Venezuela’s Dangers Spill across the Colombian Border
Venezuela’s Dangers Spill across the Colombian Border
Protests in Colombia
Protests in Colombia
Colombians deported from Venezuela return for their belongings and carry them across the Tachira River, border between the two countries, to Cucuta, in the Colombian North of Santander Department, on August 25, 2015. AFP/Luis Acosta

Venezuela’s Dangers Spill across the Colombian Border

On 21 August, the Venezuelan government declared a state of emergency in five (later extended to ten) municipalities on the border with Colombia, deploying up to 5,000 additional troops to the area and closing the border for what President Nicolás Maduro said would be an “indefinite” period. The measures were justified as a response to an incident in which three Venezuelan soldiers were wounded by a gunman the authorities said was a Colombian paramilitary acting on behalf of smugglers. The border has been closed on a number of occasions in recent years, the last time being in 2014. What has caused alarm on both sides of the border is the suspension of constitutional guarantees and the summary expulsion of Colombian citizens, over 1,000 of whom have already been deported, with at least a further 10,000 or so fleeing of their own accord.

Critics of the Maduro government claim the measures are intended to affect the outcome of parliamentary elections scheduled for December. Amid deadlock over the issue, the two governments have withdrawn their respective ambassadors “for consultations”. The Colombian-Venezuelan border is a hotbed of criminal and political violence, not to mention corrupt officials – both civilian and military, as revealed in a Crisis Group report in 2011. Its closure, and the militarisation of border communities, can only exacerbate tensions and play into the hands of criminal organisations.

Meeting this week at Colombia´s request, members of the Organisation of American States (OAS) were unable to agree on playing a role in the crisis. Colombia also convened the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), but the latter’s failure to meet promptly caused it to pull out. The two organisations should be up to the task not only of cooling tempers but of offering credible mediation mechanisms to prevent a violent outcome, including a fact-finding mission which can identify rapidly how to de-activate the factors fuelling the crisis. So far, however, they have failed to do so.

The view from Caracas

Map of the Colombia-Venezuela border. WIKIMEDIA

The border crisis between Venezuela and Colombia that erupted on 19 August was ostensibly sparked by an incident in which an unidentified gunman, riding pillion on a motorcycle, wounded three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian engaged in an anti-smuggling operation in Táchira state. The incident remains shrouded in mystery. Some press reports have attributed it to a turf war between different elements of the Venezuelan armed forces, allegedly battling to control the extremely lucrative contraband trade.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the government’s response appears entirely disproportionate. This is the first time Articles 337-339 of the 1999 constitution, dealing with states of emergency, have ever been invoked, and it is far from self-evident that the border shooting constitutes the kind of “grave threat to the security of the Nation” for which the government requires additional powers.

Tensions have been further exacerbated by the deployment of an additional 1,500-2,000 troops to the already heavily militarised border and the summary expulsion of hundreds of Colombians, many of whose houses have since been destroyed. The government accuses them of being smugglers and members of paramilitary organisations. The border zone has absorbed large numbers of Colombian migrants in recent decades, many fleeing the armed conflict. It is estimated that at least 3 million Colombians live in Venezuela, some of them under the status of refugees.

Border commerce and daily life for Táchira residents have been severely disrupted. The main airport serving the area has been closed, causing further transport chaos. A number of constitutional rights have been suspended, including freedom of assembly and the inviolability of the home. Even peaceful protests now require a government permit, which must be applied for two weeks in advance.

INFOGRAPHIC | Colombia’s Returnees

All this comes amid a severe national economic and social crisis which the border closure can only make worse. It further strains the political atmosphere as campaigning gets under way for parliamentary elections, due on 6 December, which opinion polls suggest the government has little chance of winning. The man who stands to lose the most if Maduro fails to retain control of the National Assembly (AN) is the regime’s second most powerful figure, AN chairman Diosdado Cabello. Cabello and his allies in parliament are recommending extending the state of emergency to other parts of the country, especially border areas, and stand ready to renew it after 60 days if the president so decides.

The government has now announced that it intends to move against illegal miners, many of them Brazilian, near the southern border, raising the prospect of further international tension. It is already embroiled in a bitter dispute with its other main neighbour, Guyana, over the Essequibo territory which is claimed by both.

Venezuela now faces the worrying prospect of an election held under a state of emergency, in which normal campaigning would be impossible across large swathes of the country. In a clear bid to stir up patriotic support, the Maduro government has made a staple propaganda item of a supposed association between leaders of the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance and Colombian paramilitaries – an allegation for which there is no substantive evidence. If, in turn, the right-wing opposition in Colombia forces the Santos government to take a more belligerent attitude to the border crisis, this will further strengthen the hand of the Venezuelan hawks.

The state of Táchira is by no means so marginal to Venezuelan politics as its remoteness from Caracas might suggest. Seven 20th-century Venezuelan presidents, who ruled for a total of 60 years, were tachirenses and the state capital, San Cristóbal, saw the fiercest clashes between government and opposition factions during street fighting in 2014 that killed several dozen people nationwide. The mayor of San Cristóbal, Daniel Ceballos, was removed from office last year and jailed for failing to remove barricades. He remains under house arrest.

Colombian Minister of Foreign Affairs María Ángela Holguín (left) and her Venezuelan counterpart Delcy Rodríguez (right). UN PHOTO

The Maduro government’s actions seem calculated not only to annoy the Colombian government – reinforcing its right flank – but to further whip up anti-government feeling in Táchira, possibly provoking a return to street violence like last year’s, or worse. This might even be designed to provide a pretext for postponing the December elections. A meeting on 26 August between Foreign Ministers Delcy Rodríguez of Venezuela and María Ángela Holguín of Colombia produced no breakthrough and there is every indication that the Maduro government intends to persist with its current policy.

Venezuela’s political, economic and humanitarian crisis appears to be moving into a new and more dangerous phase. This could leave the international community – and in particular Venezuela’s neighbours, who have been reluctant to intervene –with no choice but to act. Mediation of the border dispute itself may be required. But above all, the Maduro government must be persuaded to hold a free and fair election in December. Its failure to do so could plunge the country into even more serious conflict, with grave consequences both at home and abroad.

The view from Bogotá

The 2,219-kilometre border between Colombia and Venezuela has long posed a serious challenge to the government in Bogotá. Along much of its length, illegal armed groups have held sway, with the state’s inability to control its own territory particularly evident in departments such as La Guajira, Cesar, Norte de Santander and Arauca. Trafficking of all kinds, extortion and contraband have been the order of the day, and disputes between rival groups over trafficking routes have frequently led to violence.

Progress in border security and bilateral cooperation has been minimal, even following the rapprochement between Presidents Hugo Chávez (1999-2013) and Juan Manuel Santos (2010- ) aimed at defusing the political and diplomatic conflict arising from former President Alvaro Uribe’s complaint that Colombian guerrillas had camps on the Venezuelan side of the border.

The problem of border security is real, therefore, and will only be made worse by Venezuela’s unilateral sealing of the frontier and expulsion of Colombian citizens. In the past, Bogotá has mostly used cautious diplomacy to deal with such occasional border closures. On this occasion, the social and political impact on Colombia is of a magnitude that will be difficult to ignore.

Colombians leaving Venezuela with their belongings cross the bordering Tachira River to arrive in Cucuta, Colombia, on 27 August 2015. AFP/Luis Acosta.

According to humanitarian organisations, more than 10,000 Colombians have already been forced to cross the border. Over 1,000 have been deported, while the rest fled for fear of Venezuelan security forces. This sudden influx has primarily affected two municipalities in the department of Norte de Santander – Cúcuta and Villa del Rosario – already facing serious difficulties in attending to thousands of people displaced by Colombia’s own armed conflict.

The political impact is also severe. The Venezuelan government’s actions have thrown a bucket of cold water over the appeasement policy implemented by Colombia in a bid to avoid a potentially more serious conflict between the two nations. Moreover, it may well have negative consequences for the Santos government’s flagship initiative – the peace process with leftist guerrillas.

A border emergency bodes ill for the final phase of negotiations in Havana with the country’s largest armed group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The Venezuelan government, which has a close relationship with the FARC, has played a positive role by “accompanying” the talks, and thus boosting the guerrillas’ confidence in them. But they need a stable environment if they are to disarm and demobilise. The Catatumbo region, on the Venezuelan border, is one of their most important strongholds and the main base for FARC commander-in-chief Rodrigo Londoño, alias “Timochenko”.

It is not only the FARC who are based along the border. Rivals of FARC like the National Liberation Army (ELN) and remnants of the Popular Liberation Army (the EPL, for whose leader a huge manhunt is currently under way), have their most important areas of operation very close to the border crossings that Venezuela has now closed. Criminal gangs, whose origins lie in the now-demobilised, rightwing paramilitaries, also maintain an active presence in the area. All these illegal armed groups are linked to the extensive illegal economy on both sides of the border.

The Colombian government initially insisted on pursuing a solution via diplomatic channels and has resisted further domestic political pressure to escalate the crisis. But President Santos is faced with opposition led by his predecessor, former President Alvaro Uribe, who has won more popular support as a result of popular indignation over the abusive treatment received by the deportees. The aggressive behaviour of the Caracas government has weakened Santos and strengthened the position of those who want a more forceful response.

Hence the personal involvement of Santos in the crisis, the recall “for consultations” of Colombia’s ambassador to Caracas and Colombia’s various diplomatic offensives, all of which were intended to send a signal that he was determined to act more firmly. The situation may also merit a more active presence on the part of humanitarian organisations, which have a long history of operating in Colombia, not only in order to provide immediate assistance but also potentially to contribute to an easing of tensions.

Critics seeking to use the border crisis to embarrass Santos have, however, offered no real alternative to his diplomatic strategy. To break diplomatic relations, close the border on the Colombian side or impose trade sanctions – or even to boost the already significant military presence in the area – would merely worsen conditions for the millions of people of Colombian origin who chose to make Venezuela their home in more peaceful and prosperous times and whose connections with their homeland remain strong.

The benefits of the process of détente initiated by Presidents Santos and Chávez (such as Venezuela’s participation in the peace process) appear to be evaporating, while the concrete measures implemented from 2010 onwards – including strengthening border security, improving living conditions and effecting bilateral confidence-building measures – have not been sufficient.

Venezuela’s political and economic crisis is beginning to be felt in full force in Colombia. Living alongside a highly controlled even if plummeting economy has boosted smuggling opportunities and easy money, but now these short-term benefits are outweighed by the potential dangers of an escalated confrontation, in an atmosphere of growing jingoism.


Former Program Director, Latin America
Senior Analyst, Andes

Protests in Colombia

In this testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, Crisis Group expert Elizabeth Dickinson analyses the protests that have swept the streets of Colombia, fuelled by economic inequality, and urges the U.S. government to support Colombia in its pursuit of a peaceful resolution.

Good afternoon and thank you for the opportunity to address the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and to discuss the critical situation in Colombia. International Crisis Group is a global organization committed to the prevention, mitigation and resolution of deadly conflict. We cover over 50 conflict situations around the world and our presence in Colombia dates back more than 20 years. It is in the spirit of our conflict prevention mission that I hope to speak to you today.

Colombia is locked in its worst bout of unrest in recent memory. Peaceful protests have erupted in all of Colombia’s departments, rural and urban, involving a broad array of social groups. The government’s response has leaned heavily on the security forces. Bogotá’s belated and wavering commitment to negotiations has inflamed tensions.

This simmering crisis could jeopardize Colombia’s chance at consolidating a fragile and incomplete peace, following the signing of a 2016 peace deal to end decades of conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Unless decisive action is taken to address the inequality, lack of opportunity and police violence that have brought tens of thousands of Colombians to the streets in the context of an unrelenting pandemic, demonstrations will most likely continue to erupt, creating further instability and with it grave risks.

After years of U.S. investment to help Colombia find a path toward greater peace and prosperity, it would be a mistake for the United States to stand on the sidelines now

Police brutality could further erode the force’s legitimacy in the eyes of the public, making it increasingly difficult to secure vulnerable communities and entrenching a contentious relationship with protesters. Right-wing vigilante violence against demonstrators could grow more lethal and organized. Such turmoil could generate more opportunities for armed and criminal groups to consolidate their control, above all in rural areas long affected by conflict. These high stakes are exactly why the United States should take a greater role in working to calm the tensions that are roiling this critically important regional ally. After years of U.S. investment to help Colombia find a path toward greater peace and prosperity, it would be a mistake for the United States to stand on the sidelines now.

I speak to you today having spent the last two months traveling across Colombia to both rural and urban protest sites, including the city of Cali along the Pacific coast, Guaviare in the southern Amazon region, Catatumbo along the border with Venezuela, and of course Bogotá, where I reside. My comments are based on this field research as well as conversations with dozens of local and national officials, military personnel, civil society and religious figures. Crisis Group has detailed our full conclusions in a report published on 2 July, which I commend to you.

I will first address why the protests are happening, then discuss risks of escalation and finally outline ways we believe the United States could help.

Colombia’s protests reflect the 'accumulation of decades of injustice'

Colombia’s protests reflect the “accumulation of decades of injustice”, as one 28-year-old protester in Bogotá put it. They began over a controversial tax reform, but have since extended to reflect deep socio-economic grievances and anger at the security forces. At their peak in May, marches took place nationwide daily. Protestors also erected a series of roadblocks within cities and on major interstate highways to draw attention to their cause.

Two key benchmarks are vital to understanding why the protests are happening now: They are taking place after a year of worsening pandemic, and five years since the signing of Colombia’s peace accord with the FARC.

During five decades of armed conflict, the country’s main political parties pushed aside fundamental questions about inequality and economic opportunity in deference to the scale of the insurgent and criminal threats facing the Colombian state.

Since the 2016 peace accord, however, the stigma of association with the guerrillas no longer constrains left-leaning activism, while long-standing rifts and resentments in Colombian society have grown more pronounced. Colombia is deeply unequal, and its elites tend to be entrenched and protective of their entitlements. According to the OECD, it would take eleven generations for descendants of a poor family to reach the average income.

A year of on-and-off lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic have only served to intensify the experience of inequality, particularly among the urban poor who disproportionately work in informal jobs and were hit hardest by movement restrictions. As of 2020, 42.5 per cent of Colombia’s population was living below the poverty line.

In impoverished rural areas ... they have been left waiting for promised government support as expanding armed groups have made their livelihoods and physical safety even more precarious

In impoverished rural areas, which were promised a sweeping transformation in the 2016 peace accord, protesters say their lives have seen little improvement; instead, they have been left waiting for promised government support as expanding armed groups have made their livelihoods and physical safety even more precarious.

Fueled by a wealth of grievances, it is no surprise that the protests are widely supported. According to polls, 84 per cent of young people and 75 per cent of all Colombians view the demonstrations favorably, although some of the protesters’ actions were less popular. (Roadblocks, which have almost all now been lifted, drew strong public criticism because of the deep economic damage they caused.)

The government was late to acknowledge the extent of discontent and even now it struggles to express empathy for people who have taken to the streets. Top officials have described protesters as troublemakers, vandals and urban terrorists. Together with documented police misconduct, the government’s reactions have at times added fuel to the fire.

Although the number of protests declined in June, we should not be lulled into believing the turmoil is over. The strike committee has called for new mass protests on 20 July. Unrest is likely to affect Colombia in the run-up to the May 2022 presidential elections. Political forces on all sides may be tempted to let the crisis simmer to appeal to and invigorate their support bases, but there are at least three serious risks to doing so:

1. Continued police brutality that escalates conflict with protestors and erodes the force’s credibility and ability to operate. Despite ample evidence of abuse against protestors, the police have faced few repercussions for misbehaviour and instead continue to hear unequivocal support from their chain of command. If protests spike again, this lack of accountability might embolden the police to skirt the law and use additional force. Yet the record of abuses without transparent consequences endangers the long term credibility of the institution, undermining its ability to control crime and protect vulnerable communities.

2. Right wing opposition to protests could erupt into further vigilante violence. Groups of armed civilians, at times visibly organized, have on several occasions fired upon protesters without police intervening to stop them. In cities such as Cali, where the population is heavily armed, a deep history of right-wing paramilitary activity raises concerns that these groups could grow, become more entrenched, and use increasingly brazen violence against left-leaning activists.

3. Armed and criminal groups could dig in. The evidence shows that illegal armed and criminal groups neither organised the protests nor are they a driving force behind participation. But they may prove to be the beneficiaries of prolonged unrest. In urban areas, roadblocks cordoned off whole parts of cities such as Cali, creating grey zones over which the state had no control. Despite the fact that most barricades are now lifted, authorities may struggle to re-establish a presence in these areas. Communities are unlikely to permit police patrols again. Local urban criminals, by contrast, have behaved with savvy, broadly showing solidarity with the national strike. This has won them local credibility and may facilitate collaboration, voluntary and coerced.

Rural areas are even more vulnerable to exploitation by armed outfits. As soon as protesters erected roadblocks, armed groups saw the benefits in having parts of the countryside cut off from the state and its security forces. They used the opportunity to impose new taxes, intimidate residents and, by some accounts, expand trafficking. As a senior military officer told us, “armed groups have discovered that protests are a good shield to hide behind”. The unpopularity of the government’s response to protestors’ demands, meanwhile, has breathed new oxygen into these groups’ political rhetoric. Armed groups’ entrenchment may well be long lasting: Colombia has learned time and time again that it is far easier for these groups to implant themselves in an area than to extract them from it. Deteriorating security conditions will further undermine and delay implementation of the 2016 peace accord.

In this alarming context, we suggest the United States should actively encourage the Colombian government to reopen negotiations with protest leaders and consider serious reforms to address the drivers of unrest. Specifically, the US could:

1. Express and offer support for comprehensive police reform. Colombia’s police force operates under an antiquated framework that is poorly matched to today’s challenges. It was built as a counter-insurgency force and remains part of the Defense Ministry. As a result, police are ill prepared to face unarmed protesters who are not enemies, but citizens whom they have a constitutional duty to protect. Unless Colombia can effectively address these issues, the police will continue to lose credibility. While President Ivan Duque’s June 6 proposal for police reform is a step in the right direction, it falls short in ways I am happy to discuss.

2. Communicate the importance of a negotiated solution with demonstrators. Crucially, Bogotá needs simultaneously to hold national talks while committing to participate in local dialogue processes and facilitate decision-making at that level. Many local negotiations have made real progress but foundered because the resolutions they reach ultimately require Bogota’s sign-off. As a negotiator in Catatumbo told me, “the regions have done our work; we have reached agreements and lifted the blockades. But we are waiting for the national government to show up.”

3. Continue to support the complete implementation of the 2016 peace agreement. The accord provides a roadmap to addressing rural grievances and addressing historical debts to the countryside. Specifically, the accord includes key reforms to the rural economy, increased political participation, and voluntary coca crop substitution – all measures that dovetail with protestors’ demands today. Ultimately, peace will depend upon Colombia committing to the long-term process of opening up access to social mobility and economic opportunity for its marginalized citizens.

I look forward to discussing this further and to your questions.