ARAUCA, Colombia – Colombia has opened its doors to Venezuelans fleeing the government-created human rights and humanitarian crisis next door. But as tens of thousands cross the border in search of relief, many have instead found themselves in the middle of an ongoing armed conflict – where desperation and limited state presence have left them particularly vulnerable to abuses by armed groups.
Such is the case in Catatumbo, a border area north of Cúcuta. Many Colombians in the region hoped that the government’s 2016 accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) would help end long-standing abuses by all sides of the conflict. But as the FARC withdrew, it was the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) that stepped in to fill a void. Former FARC members have also mobilized into a smaller and less-organized group that now operates in the area, adding to the complexity of the violence.
These armed groups have committed egregious abuses that include killings, disappearances, sexual violence, child recruitment, and forced displacement. To be sure, this violence has not been limited to Venezuelan migrants.
As part of a Human Rights Watch fact-finding visit to the region, we interviewed a 34-year-old former primary school teacher who told us about an afternoon earlier this year when he went to look for a ball that one of his students had kicked off the school grounds. The teacher said that he found the ball about 50 feet from where his students were playing. When he went to pick it up, he stepped on what was most likely a landmine. The teacher lost his foot.
This type of violence has forced over 40,000 people from the region to flee their homes since 2017 – most of them left last year. Some have been forcibly displaced after armed groups threatened them for allegedly cooperating with competing armed groups or the government. Others have fled after being menaced for refusing to join an armed group themselves. We reviewed testimony given to state authorities by victims who said they had been threatened just for selling food to government soldiers.
But Venezuelan migrants are especially vulnerable to abuse. Weak immigration controls and the possibility of finding work have attracted desperate and, in many cases, undocumented Venezuelans to the Catatumbo borderlands. At least 25,000 Venezuelans currently live in the area. Some have been forcibly displaced and killed. There are reports that Venezuelan children have been recruited as soldiers in armed groups, and that Venezuelan migrants have been subject to sexual abuse.
It’s a similar case in Arauca, a province south of Cúcuta and along the border. Here, the ELN and another group that emerged from the FARC set the rules. We spoke with local human rights and humanitarian groups, as well as residents and community members, who described how the armed bands are imposing their authority through terror. According to them, the armed groups have set curfews in rural areas, forbidden people to wear helmets while riding motorcycles so that fighters can see their faces, and forced residents to pay a “tax” on all manners of economic activity – from exchanging money on the street to owning a store.
There are signs that residents pay a high price for disobeying these rules. Bodies have appeared recently dumped on the street with signs that read “killer,” “enemy informant,” or “thief,” signed by the groups operating in the area. These killings, which residents label “social cleansing,” have contributed to a skyrocketing murder rate in Arauca. According to the National Police, 98 people were killed there during the first six months of 2019, up from 85 in all of 2017.
Here too, Venezuelan migrants are at additional risk. Over 37,000 Venezuelans live in Arauca, including many who are not aware of the groups’ rules, humanitarian groups working in the area told us. Many have been killed.
The lives of Venezuelans along the border are often perilous not only because of armed conflict. Women and girls who have turned to sex work to support themselves often face danger. Humanitarian workers told us that Venezuelan women and girls in Arauca have been victims of sex trafficking. Earlier this year, two Venezuelan girls escaped from a brothel in Arauca, where the owners had taken their IDs and forced them to engage in prostitution. In Catatumbo, Venezuelan girls as young as 12 are in relationships where they exchange sex for as little as $2. We saw brothels in Catatumbo with “EPL” or “FARC” scribbled on the walls, and others in Arauca with “ELN” graffiti.
A 14-year-old Venezuelan boy in Catatumbo told us he would love to go back to school but, like many Colombian children in the region, he was working in a coca field, alongside children as young as 8, out of need. Some Venezuelans work for a plate of food. Their willingness to work for lower wages out of desperation has contributed to high levels of xenophobia, particularly in Arauca.
In Catatumbo and Arauca, fear is in the air. Many residents do not report crimes to avoid retaliation by armed groups – undocumented Venezuelans face the additional concern of possible deportation. When sharing their stories, residents always ask for anonymity. They lower their voices to talk about armed groups, including in private settings.
Even judicial authorities in the region rarely dare to pick up a corpse – when someone is killed, workers from the funeral homes usually come by for the bodies. We interviewed prosecutors who said that they have little or no security, so investigators rarely go to rural areas. Many police stations and most Army checkpoints we saw by the roads during our visits to Catatumbo and Arauca were barricaded behind sandbags and plastic sheeting.
The people in these areas – Colombians and Venezuelans – deserve better.
Colombia should get full credit for keeping an open-door policy for Venezuelans while other governments in the region, including Peru, Chile and Ecuador, have adopted measures that effectively limit Venezuelan immigration. Most recently, the government passed a regulation allowing the over 24,000 Venezuelan children born to undocumented Venezuelan exiles to claim Colombian citizenship.
But residents in these conflict-ridden areas need the Colombian government to increase its presence and reassert the rule of law. The government’s main response so far has been to send security forces. While that can help improve protection, provided the troops use rights-respecting strategies, it is also critical to have more prosecutors and justice officials, humanitarian assistance for all civilians in the area, opportunities to work and basic public services.
The government should also conduct a comprehensive assessment of how many Venezuelans are in the area and what their needs are, and make sure that everyone has a work permit so they can work in safer areas of the country if they choose.
Without such a response, Venezuela’s spiraling crisis will continue to feed new victims into Colombia’s ongoing armed conflicts.
Taraciuk Broner is acting Americas deputy director and Pappier is Colombia researcher at Human Rights Watch.