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Venezuela’s Dangers Spill across the Colombian Border
Venezuela’s Dangers Spill across the Colombian Border
Colombia: Peace Withers amid the Pandemic
Colombia: Peace Withers amid the Pandemic
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 Amid deadlock over the issue, the two governments have withdrawn their respective ambassadors “for consultations”.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.

Contributors

Former Program Director, Latin America
Senior Analyst, Andes
philgunson
Protest in Colombia, 21 November 2019. CRISISGROUP/Zaida Marquez

Colombia: Peace Withers amid the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare shortcomings in the implementation of the FARC peace agreement. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 – Autumn Update, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to continue pushing for full implementation of the 2016 accord and encouraging the government to pursue a humanitarian ceasefire with the National Liberation Army (ELN).

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020 - Autumn Update.

Four years after the government’s peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country may be watching its tentative but hard-won progress toward peace start to unravel. Well before authorities detected the first COVID-19 case in Bogotá in March, armed and criminal groups were consolidating their influence in the areas hardest hit by conflict before 2016. In doing so, they took advantage of delays in fulfilling the accord’s terms, especially as regards measures to remedy the sources of violence in Colombia’s countryside, among other things, by stimulating the development of legal commercial activity to create alternatives to the drug trade and other illicit economies that fuel conflict. The pandemic has laid these shortcomings bare, while offering spoilers the chance to exhibit their growing power. The country’s largest remaining leftist guerrilla movement, the National Liberation Army (ELN), FARC dissident groups and organised crime have all expanded their territorial reach in the past year. 

A national COVID-19 lockdown has tightened the armed groups’ grip and, in some places, made them quicker on the trigger. The year 2019 saw 36 massacres (ie, killings with three or more victims), the highest number since 2014. Yet 2020 had already surpassed that total by mid-August, including several mass killings of young people at social gatherings, mostly by armed groups, and at least one of which appeared to involve the enforcement of informal lockdown restrictions. As of 2 September, 225 ex-FARC combatants had been killed since the peace accord was signed (including 52 in 2020), including by armed FARC dissidents seeking to pressure ex-combatants to take up arms once again. Meanwhile, pandemic-related health concerns have slowed implementation of the 2016 accord yet further, putting on hold many grassroots peace accord projects aimed at boosting rural economies and improving public services. As conflict resurges nationwide, the border with Venezuela has also become a hotspot for clashes. 

To help halt these worrying trends, the European Union and its member states should consider the following steps:

  • Continue leading international efforts to push for full implementation of the 2016 peace accord, with an emphasis on tackling extreme poverty in rural areas through the Territorially Focused Development Programs (PDETs) and support for ex-combatants in developing new livelihoods.
     
  • Press the government to encourage voluntary coca crop substitution rather than apply forced eradication. The EU could use its experience supporting legal economic alternatives to drug production to strengthen the National Integral Program for Substitution, which is fraught with delays, and help design supplementary approaches that include a wider set of coca growers.
     
  • Work closely with Colombia’s Attorney General’s office to strengthen criminal investigations into killings of social leaders and ex-combatants, as well as massacres of civilians. The EU’s financial support for the Attorney General’s special investigation unit is vital to chipping away at prevailing impunity.
     
  • Encourage the government to pursue a humanitarian ceasefire with the ELN aimed at alleviating pandemic-related hardships. Despite mutual distrust, the ELN in July signalled a willingness to negotiate a bilateral pause to fighting during the health crisis, following their own unilateral one-month ceasefire in April.

A New Wave of Violence

Two ominous patterns marked Colombia’s start to 2020: sluggish government efforts at carrying out the 2016 peace accord, paired with the accelerated advance of armed groups into former FARC-controlled territories. Weighed down by reservations that the 2016 accord was too lenient with the former rebels, the two-year-old government of President Iván Duque has pursued its implementation at a plodding pace. The accord’s primary vehicle for bringing economic growth to rural areas, the PDETs, also aims to bolster the state’s feeble presence in districts that suffered most during Colombia’s half-century of guerrilla warfare. Yet, according to a congressional oversight report released in August, it will take 40 years to finish establishing the PDETs at the current rate of progress. In the south-western province of Cauca, officials told Crisis Group that municipalities where security dramatically improved as the FARC laid down its arms, and which were included in the PDETs, are today inaccessible to many state agencies due to violent feuds between various armed groups. 

Indeed, many of the country’s historical war zones have slid back into discord. These new conflicts for territorial control are notably more local and less ideological than the conflict with the FARC. The peace agreement ended the FARC’s insurgency, but its aftermath spawned dozens of new armed groups, including nearly 30 FARC dissident factions, while also empowering the country’s other main guerrilla group, the ELN. Criminal groups, which emerged from the remnants of demobilised right-wing militias fifteen years ago, have also grown in strength and number. Across formerly FARC-controlled areas, these various armed outfits exert power over residents while also seeking dominion over illicit economic activity, including coca cultivation, extortion, human trafficking, mining and logging. To corner these black markets, and to achieve monopolies in legal commerce, criminals seek to control territory and those living in it while preventing rival groups from doing the same. Most gain this control by imposing regulations on everything from movement to behaviour in public.

Indicators of violence that fell following the FARC accord have begun to rise again. Civil society groups that track killings of social leaders, for example, count nearly double the number of murders in 2020 so far as in all of 2016, when the accord was signed and ratified. New forms of violence have also emerged, such as forced confinement within “invisible borders” across which rival groups restrict movement. Nearly 50,000 people – 65 per cent of them women and children – have suffered this maltreatment in 2020 so far, up 226 per cent from the first half of 2019 according to statistics from the state Ombudsman’s office (which is responsible for overseeing the protection of civil and human rights in Colombia). 

The pandemic has made the strangulation of rural communities yet worse. Between 24 March and 1 September, the government prohibited inter-municipal travel, leaving residents with poor or intermittent telephone connections even more isolated and unable to share information about threats they faced. In July, three quarters of households nationwide told the national statistics agency that their economic situation was either worse or much worse than the previous year, while unemployment rates doubled from 10 to 20 per cent. Armed groups across the board seized upon the health crisis to intensify their control, imposing additional social restrictions under the guise of quarantine regulations, and in some cases limiting movement to local supporters while harshly penalising rule-breakers. The ELN, for example, declared a “total” lockdown in its stronghold communities in southern Bolívar department from 3 to 17 August, advising the population in a 30 July communiqué that they should supply themselves for the entire period as “no type of vehicle” would be allowed to transit during the two-week period. The quest to impose similar rules at whatever cost appears to lie behind the killing of eight young people at a social gathering in Samaniego, Nariño on 15 August. 

Restrictions on movement have also prevented community organisations and the government from carrying out some programs linked to the 2016 accord. Recently demobilised ex-FARC members are particularly disadvantaged by the lockdown and deep economic recession. A total of 30 per cent of former combatants have received support for livelihood alternatives, but the pandemic has disrupted half of these projects, according to the UN. Of these, projects led by women in urban areas were the hardest hit of all. Coupled with the stubbornly high rate of murders of former combatants, many attributed to dissident factions seeking to coerce ex-members to take up arms again, the economic slowdown has raised questions as to the sustainability of the peace accord’s one indisputable success: the demobilisation of the vast majority of FARC fighters.

Bogotá attributes the fresh violence exclusively to drug trafficking and criminality, rather than also pointing to the deep-seated rural poverty and the almost complete absence of effective state institutions across large swathes of territory.

The government has responded to rising insecurity mainly by targeting armed groups with military force and forcibly eradicating coca plants. Bogotá promises to honour the peace accord, but it views the agreement as extraneous to its security strategy. It attributes the fresh violence exclusively to drug trafficking and criminality, rather than also pointing to the deep-seated rural poverty and the almost complete absence of effective state institutions across large swathes of territory, which allow illegal markets and alternative providers of law and order to thrive. There is little to suggest the government’s strategy of taking out the armed groups (which tend to proliferate in these conditions) or eradicating the coca trade (which saw an increase in cocaine production last year, notwithstanding an acreage decline, indicating new efficiencies in the refining process) will be successful unless underlying issues are effectively tackled. That is why the 2016 peace accords emphasised crop substitution as a mechanism for easing farmers away from the coca crop and building new licit economies.

But the Duque administration does not see it this way. It has blamed the massacres on a recent bumper coca crop and it has attributed the size of that coca crop to a 2015 government decision to end aerial fumigation. Rather than moving to complete crop substitution programs for around 100,000 coca-growing families that signed up, the government has stressed the need for forced eradication and vows soon to restart aerial fumigation. It has not met its promises to help coca farmers find new crops and has left the programs underfunded, even as the enrolled areas continue to suffer consistently high rates of lethal violence. While there was a roughly 15 per cent drop nationwide in homicides between March and August, coinciding with the lockdown, largely attributable to the impact of stay-at-home orders, violence rates in conflict-affected areas remained high. 

Moreover, enhanced eradication alongside additional military deployments has other downsides. For one thing, it risks exacerbating humanitarian needs. For example, in August, the UN documented severe food insecurity among 200,000 people in the traditional coca-growing hub of Putumayo; this resulted from a combination of forced confinement at the hands of armed groups and/or the loss of coca crops – their only source of income – to forced eradication. For another thing, eradication programs can erode trust and create friction between the government, on one hand, and coca farmers and the communities where they live, on the other. This was illustrated by a mid-September incident in Policarpa, Nariño, where the Ombusman reported that FARC dissident factions pressured the community to insist that a military eradication unit leave their area. 

Coca also contributes to insecurity along Colombia’s 2,200km border with Venezuela, with the frontier state of Norte de Santander now hosting the country’s largest concentration of coca crops according to the UN, but there are also other dynamics at play. Even though official crossings between the two countries have been closed during the pandemic, with some humanitarian exceptions, contraband and people, as well as drugs, continue to move via informal crossings known as trochas. Control of this illegal commerce is fiercely contested. The ELN now enjoys the strongest single hold on the frontier’s various illicit economies, but Crisis Group field research suggests that post-paramilitary groups and corrupt police on both sides of the border maintain lucrative niches of their own. Bogotá and Caracas frequently trade accusations that the other is stirring up bilateral hostilities by offering support to armed proxies along the border. On 19 September, for example, clashes broke out between the Venezuelan military and, reportedly, a FARC dissident faction, leaving at least four soldiers and fifteen fighters dead. With cooperation between the two states at a minimum, tensions sparked by armed group activity or other mutual suspicions could heighten rapidly.

A Role for the EU and Its Member States

The window is closing on the deep reforms promised in the 2016 peace accord. The European Union has been among the agreement’s strongest proponents, and the bloc should remain focused on its implementation in spite of the health and economic emergency facing Colombia. Funding is a key area to watch. With budgets stretched by the pandemic and recession, the government might be tempted to reassign resources allocated to satisfying commitments in the peace accord. The EU and its member states should urge Bogotá to prioritise funding and implementation of territorially focused development projects, the PDETs, which are intended both to stimulate economic development and prevent conflict by easing entrenched rural poverty and isolation. In addition, targeted assistance to the Attorney General’s Office – through the EU’s fast and flexible conflict prevention and peacebuilding instrument – can help reduce the persistently high rates of impunity for violent crime, including massacres and assassinations of social leaders. Just 60 perpetrators of 415 such homicides have been tried and sentenced since 2016; in some cases, they are hired guns, not the masterminds. With limited risk of prosecution, groups and interests that rely on terror are unlikely to relent.

The EU should use its wealth of experience working to assist farmers in converting from illicit crops to help modify Bogotá’s current focus on eradicating coca and eliminating drug trafficking.

The EU should use its wealth of experience working to assist farmers in converting from illicit crops to help modify Bogotá’s current focus on eradicating coca and eliminating drug trafficking. There is broad political consensus in Colombia that in its current form the crop substitution program is flawed and impossibly expensive. The EU could help authorities think of different ways to expand substitution more efficiently, while maintaining existing commitments to coca producers. For reasons of cost, participation in the program was capped despite great interest, although in a few areas – particularly where forced eradication or fumigation would prove difficult – the government is piloting local agreements with additional coca growers to trade voluntary eradication for aid. The EU should encourage Bogotá to scale up these efforts instead of relying on forced eradication and restoring aerial fumigation. More urgently, the EU can suggest that the government halt forced eradication during the pandemic so as to avoid ratcheting up humanitarian need in many rural areas. 

With the same end in mind, the EU should support efforts to secure a humanitarian ceasefire by the ELN for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis. The ELN observed a unilateral ceasefire in April that significantly reduced violence, particularly in Chocó along the Pacific coast, and offered to do so again in July if the government reciprocated. Bogotá could agree to ad hoc humanitarian talks in order to rekindle the group’s willingness to negotiate a bilateral pause in fighting, without guaranteeing that it would lead to formal political negotiations, which it might make subject to the guerrilla’s behaviour over a certain period of time. Steps to peace by the ELN would also help calm tensions along the Venezuela frontier and might even inspire closer cooperation between Bogotá and Caracas over the shared health and security crisis in the borderlands. Having strongly backed humanitarian relief for Venezuela as well as for its migrants and refugees, the EU should support the development of confidence-building measures between the neighbours, along the lines of the communication channel established between the two countries’ health ministries in April. Easing mistrust across the border will be crucial to controlling the risks of a violent flare-up or disease transmission.