Security deteriorates along the Colombia-Venezuela border
The ELN’s “Camilo Torres Urban Warfare Front” took credit for a bomb that detonated outside a police station in Cúcuta, the largest city along Colombia’s border with Venezuela, on the morning of August 30. The device wounded 14 people, among them 12 police, in Cúcuta’s Atalaya neighborhood.
“Cúcuta is subject to these types of terrorist acts and violence in its rural zones due to the presence of no less than 20 foreign criminal groups,” said Jairo Tomás Yáñez, the mayor of the city of half a million people. While Venezuelan organized crime operates in the area, particularly a band calling itself the Tren de Aragua, it’s not clear why the mayor would have specified “foreign” groups. Colombian groups active in Cúcuta, the conflictive nearby Catatumbo region, and on the Venezuelan side of the border include the ELN, ex-FARC dissidents, at least two groups descended from the paramilitary networks of the 1990s and 2000s (the Gulf Clan and Rastrojos), a criminal group descended from the long-demobilized EPL guerrillas which the government calls the “Pelusos,” and smaller local bands.
The latest attack follows two high-profile events in June: a car bomb on the premises of the Army’s 30th Brigade headquarters in Cúcuta on June 15, and President Iván Duque’s helicopter being hit by gunfire as it overflew the region 10 days later. Colombia’s Prosecutor-General (Fiscalía) has arrested and charged several people, including a former Army captain, for both crimes, alleging their affiliation with the “33rd Front” ex-FARC dissident group.
These incidents, including the August 21 killing of the vice president of a Junta de Acción Comunal (local advisory board) in rural Cúcuta, “are a small sample of the complexity that the area is experiencing,” warns a Peace and Reconciliation Foundation analysis of Cúcuta, which sees the situation worsening as Colombia’s 2022 presidential and congressional elections draw near. “Some of the factors affecting this reality have to do with the closing of the border [both during and before the pandemic], the reconfiguration of armed actors, and the increase in cocaine cultivation and processing” in this region, “a zone without the rule of law or institutional presence.”
Cúcuta, the capital of Norte de Santander department, is just south of Norte de Santander’s Catatumbo enclave, a cluster of about a dozen barely governed municipalities that currently grows more coca than any other region of Colombia. The region “effectively exists outside the presence of the Colombian state,” reads an analysis by Joshua Collins at The New Humanitarian. Catatumbo has easy access to Venezuela through the large border municipality of Tibú and the presence of all of the above-mentioned armed groups, while one of Colombia’s main oil pipelines (the Caño Limón-Coveñas) runs across its territory.
Catatumbo has strong campesino, Indigenous, and other organizations, including eight former FARC women, profiled this week in a lengthy Vorágine article, leading local reintegration efforts near the site where they demobilized. It has always been a dangerous place to be a social leader, though. This week, the “Madres del Catatumbo por la Paz,” a women’s organization, denounced that its entire leadership had received new and serious threats.
South and east of Norte de Santander, the oil-producing border department of Arauca is also seeing increased tensions. The department has been under heavy ELN influence since the 1980s, endured a bloody mini-war between the ELN and FARC in the 2000s, and is now seeing a growing presence of ex-FARC dissidents. In Saravena, Arauca’s westernmost border municipality, members of an armed group this week stopped employees of the Unit for the Search for the Disappeared (UBPD, an agency created by the 2016 peace accord) and demanded that they hand over their official vehicle. Municipal authorities meanwhile held an “extraordinary security meeting” after an ex-FARC dissident group calling itself the 28th Front threatened local Indigenous communities, accusing them of petty theft.
An internal dispute between leaders of the 10th Front, a large and fast-growing ex-FARC dissident group, brought a jump in homicides in Arauca in August: at least 28 in a department of 230,000 people. La Silla Vacía notes how the dissidents have increased their territorial control on the Venezuelan side of the Arauca river. Across from the departmental capital, “We can stop at the river’s edge and look them in the face,” said Arauca’s chief of police.
Corruption enables this on both sides of the border. “In Arauca,” on the Colombian side, “there are rumors that all spheres of power are permeated by the dissidents,” La Silla notes. “The most frequent [rumor] is that a good part of the political class of the department works with them.” In the departmental capital, the accusations “even touch the municipality’s security forces.”
Relations between the ELN and local government have been alleged for decades in Arauca. This is the region of Colombia that the ELN, through its powerful Domingo Laín front, is believed to control most tightly. While the dissidents’ presence grows, though, the ELN “has been conspicuous by its absence,” La Silla Vacía observes. “According to a source close to a commander of that group, they continue in the tone of not confronting them in order to avoid a guerrilla war like the one the region suffered ten years ago. However, the tension between them continues to grow.”
Reuters reporter Sarah Kinosian documents the extent to which the ELN and dissidents have increased their territorial control on the Venezuelan side of the border. In a village in Zulia—across from Colombia’s department of Cesar, which lies north of Catatumbo—ELN members from Colombia “function as both a local government and a major employer,” recruiting people—including children—to work in Colombian coca fields, Kinosian writes. “Rebels who once hid from Colombia’s military in Venezuela’s jungles,” mainly ELN and ex-FARC dissidents, “have moved into population centers, ruling alongside Maduro’s government in some places, supplanting it in others.” ELN leader Pablo Beltrán, speaking from Havana where he was a negotiator until peace talks ended in January 2019, told Reuters that while guerrillas cross into Venezuela, he denies that they are present with the permission of Nicolás Maduro’s regime.