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Venezuela’s Dangers Spill across the Colombian Border
Venezuela’s Dangers Spill across the Colombian Border
Local Polls in Colombia Put Peace to the Test
Local Polls in Colombia Put Peace to the Test
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 Amid deadlock over the issue, the two governments have withdrawn their respective ambassadors “for consultations”.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
Campaign banners crowd the street corners ahead of 27 October local elections, in Monteria, Cordoba. CRISISGROUP/Zaida Marquez

Local Polls in Colombia Put Peace to the Test

On 27 October, Colombia will hold its first local elections since a 2016 peace agreement between the government and FARC rebels. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Elizabeth Dickinson explains what is at stake politically and why so much violence has accompanied the campaign.

What do these elections tell us about shifts in Colombian politics?

The run-up to this year’s local elections, which has been marked by an uptick in violence, offers a window onto the evolution of Colombian politics three years after the landmark 2016 accord between Bogotá and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

As a rule, Colombia’s state, city and municipal elections (held every four years) have attracted a high voter turnout. Big city voters tend to focus on urban preoccupations like public transportation and crime. Rural voters are likely to be more interested in issues like stalled progress on land reform and the persistence of armed groups and criminal gangs in their regions. Wealthy families with outsize influence in some parts of the country and illicit armed groups also have a major stake in local elections and often try to swing outcomes through campaign funding and coercion.

The most significant change this year may be in the ideological diversity of candidates

When compared to earlier local elections, the most significant change this year may be in the ideological diversity of candidates, who represent a far wider spectrum of views than in prior years – especially on the political left. Colombia’s left has long been one of Latin America’s weakest, in part because the public associated it with a violent insurgency that had Marxist-Leninist ideological origins. With the peace agreement starting to remove that taint, leftist candidates from the rebranded FARC, the Green Party, indigenous groups and grassroots organisations are standing for election this year. The Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (a party born of the now disbanded FARC) is running more than 300 candidates for mayor, local councillor or regional assembly representative.

At the same time, on the other end of the political spectrum, the right-wing Democratic Centre party of President Iván Duque, which is just five years old, is seeking to consolidate its regional power bases. With its focus on security, the party is aiming to win state and municipal races in regions where it does not yet have a significant local presence, such as the Venezuelan border state of Arauca.

While the 2016 agreement has substantially changed the political landscape, some of the electoral reforms that it contemplated have stalled. In May, the government abandoned reforms that would have helped insulate political parties from the disproportionate influence of monied and powerful actors, including by increasing transparency around campaign financing, in the face of congressional resistance.

Nearly two dozen candidates have been killed over the course of the year leading up to these elections and 605 candidates have reported receiving threats. What is going on?

Violence has clouded nearly every Colombian election in the last four decades. Threats and assassinations, including of various presidential candidates, have waxed and waned with the intensity of armed conflict. In comparison to regional elections in 2015 and 2011 – both prior to the 2016 peace deal – this year’s campaign season has been relatively peaceful. But relative to the 2018 national vote, which was among the most peaceful in 40 years, trends look less positive. Authorities have already warned that municipalities appear to be at greater risk of violence and fraud in the present election than in 2018.

The resurgence of non-state armed groups vying for regional influence explains at least some of the violence attending this year’s elections.

The resurgence of non-state armed groups vying for regional influence explains at least some of the violence attending this year’s elections. Over the last three years, new and evolving armed groups and criminal organisations have scrambled to move into areas the FARC gave up when it demobilised. Over twenty FARC dissident groups maintain dominion in areas of the Pacific coast, Venezuelan border regions and parts of the interior, such as Bajo Cauca, where they engage in illicit coca cultivation. The National Liberation Army (ELN), the largest remaining guerrilla movement, has consolidated control in its strongholds in Arauca and laid claim to some of the FARC’s former illicit markets and territories, such as in Chocó. (Talks between the ELN and the government broke down in early 2019, and so unlike in 2018, there will be no ceasefire in place for the vote.) ELN and FARC dissidents also compete with criminal organisations like the drug-trafficking Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces.

The election has made competition among these armed groups both more visible and more dangerous. The highest rates of pre-electoral violence are in regions where two or more armed elements are vying for control. These regions include Cauca and Nariño in the country’s south west and Catatumbo and Arauca along the Venezuelan border. In some areas, locals see the spike in violence as evidence that the 2016 deal failed to bring meaningful peace. As a community leader from Chocó described it, “the conflict never stopped”.

Candidates of all ideological leanings have faced intimidation, attacks and threats of assassination.

Candidates of all ideological leanings have faced intimidation, attacks and threats of assassination, often from actors with economic motives. Armed groups that have emerged from demobilised paramilitary forces and are involved in drug trafficking, illegal mining and other black-market activity have a strong incentive to silence candidates – territorial or indigenous leaders, for example – who might oppose their economic interests. In some parts of Cauca, Córdoba and elsewhere, groups have circulated pamphlets on social media telegraphing their threats against candidates. Government sources report that candidates who have resisted ELN demands – for example, members of the Democratic Centre party in Arauca – have faced threats and violent intimidation.

While part of this year’s violence is linked directly to armed groups, the wealthy families and individuals behind Colombia’s patronage politics also bear some responsibility. In areas such as the Atlantic coast, prosperous dynasties that straddle the business and political worlds have greater influence than political parties, and may use assassinations and threats in an effort to shift electoral outcomes. The masterminds of the violence, in these cases, tend to be candidates or their funders, even if they employ armed groups or contract killers to carry out their designs.

Although the dynamics behind much of Colombia’s pre-election violence seem fairly clear, finding the individual culprits behind threats and violent acts can be much more difficult. Many of those facing intimidation in this year’s campaign profess that they do not know who is threatening them or why. Partly as a result, election-related violence is rarely prosecuted, and impunity for recent acts of political violence stands at over 70 per cent.

To be sure, the police investigate in certain high-profile cases – for example, the harrowing 1 September assassination of Karina García, a Liberal Party candidate for mayor of Suárez in Cauca. In that case, initial reports indicate that a political rival may have paid FARC dissidents as hit men. Yet authorities are struggling to learn the origin of threats reported by at least 280 other mayoral aspirants across the country.

What has the government done to provide security for candidates standing for office and for voters on election day?

The government has recognised the resurgence of targeted political violence ahead of the elections and plans to send 60,000 soldiers to protect polling sites on election day. Bogotá has identified 315 high-risk municipalities where it should focus its efforts. In addition, the state has given more than 1,000 candidates some form of protection – ranging from bulletproof vests to armoured cars – though this is only about half of the number of political aspirants who requested help. As a final measure, Colombia will close its official border crossings with Venezuela from 24 October until election day in order to limit the threat from armed groups like the ELN that have a strong presence there.

As the record demonstrates, these efforts have thus far met with mixed success. The large number of potential targets, resource limitations and a somewhat fragmented response – with separate ministries assigned protection responsibilities for different groups of threatened individuals (eg, candidates, civil society leaders and ex-FARC members) and sometimes struggling to coordinate their efforts – have made an already difficult problem yet more challenging for the government.

How could the 2016 peace agreement influence the elections, and how could the election results affect the peace accord’s future?

Although an historic leap forward for peace in Colombia, the 2016 agreement accelerated the estrangement between Colombia’s relatively secure cities and the poorer countryside. In large cities such as Bogotá and Medellín, implementation of the peace agreement is not a major electoral issue compared to public transportation, the environment and crime. Yet in rural areas, where conflict persists, a growing sense of disbelief surrounds some of the accord’s more ambitious promises. Chief among these are land reforms and development initiatives aimed at eliminating the root causes of Colombia’s insurgencies. Community leaders in many rural areas say President Duque’s government has displayed only half-hearted commitment to these reforms.

Nevertheless, Colombians are unlikely to see the election as a referendum on the Duque government’s performance in implementing the peace deal. Local elections have historically favoured the country’s traditional establishment parties – ie, the Liberal and Conservative Parties that traded power in Colombia until the 1990s, together with their offshoots. That is likely to be the case on Sunday, regardless of whether or not the government-aligned Democratic Centre or the newly emerged left-leaning parties pick up seats.

Colombia’s external partners should maintain pressure for the reforms and support for the development projects.

The election of a new crop of leaders supported by traditional parties is likely to be both good and bad from the perspective of implementing the 2016 deal. On the positive side of the equation, many candidates support implementing key elements of the agreement that require a political push to make it happen – including land and other rural reforms as well as regionally focused development projects for conflict-affected areas, known locally by the Spanish acronym PDETs. A surge of effort from newly elected officials might generate momentum behind these reforms and projects, which are needed to wrest local economies away from the armed groups and drug traffickers that continue to wield great power in Colombia’s countryside.

But on the negative side, many of the traditional party candidates who are likely to prevail on Sunday are highly dependent on powerful interests – wealthy families, landowners and illicit actors – whose grip on the nation’s periphery constrains licit and broad-based economic development. This dependence in turn entrenches the lack of opportunity that drives people into the arms of armed groups. For this reason, Colombia’s external partners should maintain pressure for the reforms and support for the development projects – especially land tenure reforms and coca substitution programs – that can help create alternatives to the illicit markets that fuel conflict.

The FARC’s political successor is participating in local elections for the first time. What are their chances?

When the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (the FARC’s political successor) ran in national legislative elections in 2018, it campaigned hardest in large cities and won a miniscule 0.5 per cent of the vote. Its candidates seem to have absorbed a lesson from that disappointment, and are focusing their current efforts on rural municipalities where their insurgency formerly enjoyed support (whether real or coerced). They are aiming for offices below the level of gubernatorial and mayoral seats, in hopes that they can begin building public confidence in their ability to govern.

At least 60 former FARC members are also running for other political parties or in coalition with other parties. One of the most common connections appears to be with Colombia Humana, a left-leaning party founded by former Bogotá mayor and last year’s presidential runner-up, Gustavo Petro. Aligning itself with this highly popular national leader could be part of a strategy by some former FARC members to shed the organisation’s tarnished image and eventually appeal to an emerging leftist urban constituency.