By: Matthew Bocanumenth, WOLA Program Associate
“I’m 25-years-old and my entire life I’ve lived in the midst of armed conflict,” social leader Mayerly Briceño sorrowfully expressed as she spoke about the dire humanitarian situation in Arauca, Colombia—a northeastern department that shares its border with Venezuela. At a January 7 event hosted by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and Colombian daily newspaper El Espectador, Briceño formed part of a panel of civil society leaders and experts convened to inform the international community about the realities being lived in Arauca after an outbreak of violence that marked the beginning of 2022 in the department. As the humanitarian situation continued to deepen, Briceño, who profoundly understands the perils of living through ongoing internal armed conflict, took to the streets with several communities throughout Arauca to demand peace, not more militarization.
This recent episode of violence in Arauca over the first weekend of 2022 killed at least 33 people, left many disappeared, and internally displaced hundreds of families and campesinos amid fighting between the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) guerrilla and dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia’s (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) 10th Front. On January 19, a car bomb was detonated in Saravena, Arauca in front of a human rights organization’s office. At the date of publication, more than 1,400 individuals have been displaced as a result of the ongoing violence, including over 400 families, and dozens of Venezuelan migrants and refugees living along the border. While horrifying and unacceptable, this surging violence is not surprising.
Decades of Violence in Arauca
Arauca has long felt the effects of Colombia’s internal armed conflict and true social investment, a longtime demand of Araucan civil society, is needed to advance peacebuilding efforts. Arauca is located in a remote region that has historically lacked institutional presence and has been left in the periphery of Colombia’s political and economic life. This lack of investment exists even though the department is the third largest oil producer in Colombia. As contended by Sonia Lopez, spokesperson for the Joel Sierra Human Rights Foundation, “armed conflict has been imposed on Arauca.”
Amid a lack of state presence, the guerrillas imposed their coercive and violent rule across communities in the department. The ELN established its influence in the region in the early 1970s, with the FARC shortly after marking its territorial presence. The discovery of oil in the early 1980s caught the attention of the extractive industry, which began expanding its lucrative operations. The guerrillas often targeted and extorted the oil industry with attacks like those against the Caño Limón–Coveñas pipeline, which is operated by state-owned Ecopetrol and U.S.-owned Occidental Petroleum. Such attacks prompted the Colombian government to deploy its troops to protect this growing industry and its infrastructure.
Violence against Araucan civilians persisted even with the state’s militarized presence in the region. The 1980s were met with the inception of drug trafficking schemes and the 1990s with the disturbing incursions of expansive paramilitary networks. In the 2000s, violent confrontations between the FARC and the ELN deepened Arauca’s humanitarian crisis. Civilians were often caught in the crossfire, harassed and forcibly recruited by these illegal armed actors, and internally displaced from their homes. The guerrillas eventually signed a non-aggression pact in 2010, but estimates for this gruesome period between 2006 and 2010 indicate that these confrontations killed up to 2,000 civilians.
The Colombian state’s military presence has not served to protect communities. Lopez characterized the strategies imposed by the Colombian state in Arauca as a “laboratory for armed conflict policies.” She pointed to the intensified violence seen during the implementation of Colombia’s counterinsurgency initiatives that saw a high incidence of extrajudicial killings, as well as counternarcotics initiatives that undermined the social needs of Araucan communities. With social investment at the forefront of the pleas by Araucan civil society, the state has continuously stigmatized civil society by accusing leaders of collaborating with guerrilla groups. When social leaders and communities at-large carry out activism demanding basic social investment and services, they are stigmatized as insurgents or sympathizers, and essentially persecuted by the state.
Adding yet another layer to an already multifaceted context, Venezuela’s proximity to Arauca—so much so that many residents in the region even tend to hold a binational cultural identity—plays a major role in the policies and narratives the Colombian government chooses to advance. A tense political relationship between the Colombian and Venezuelan governments has often undermined the wellbeing of these border communities by prioritizing geopolitical influence and optics. Meanwhile, the lack of a diplomatic relationship between the Maduro and Duque governments, despite sharing a 1,300 mile-long border, means that there are no formal channels through which the two countries can resolve border conflicts. For this reason, following a series of armed confrontations in the Venezuelan state of Apure in March 2021, a group of Colombian and Venezuelan NGOs issued a letter urging the UN Secretary General to designate a Special Envoy to support efforts to deescalate tensions along the border.
Overall, these dynamics, interests, and the state’s security approach to conflict in Arauca victimized the civilian population for decades. As Lopez put it, “if militarization were the answer, we would have already seen a solution.”
A Security Situation Foreshadowed
The current violence in Arauca was foreshadowed, according to Juan Carlos Villate—an Araucan Ombudsman for Tame municipality. The 2016 peace accord signed between the Colombian state and the FARC sparked hopes for peace throughout the country, prominently so in Arauca. In tandem with dialogues that were occurring with the ELN in the mid-2010s, these peacebuilding advances brought about a respite from violence for communities across the department. However, this tranquility was short-lived. Villate underscored how the faltering implementation of the 2016 peace accord helped generate the current security situation.
The Colombian government’s failure to comprehensively implement the 2016 peace accord helped triggered the growth of dissident groups that operate in the region. However, it is incorrect to assume that these dissident factions operate in the same ways as the FARC, according to President of Arauca’s Human Rights Protection Committee Guillermo Antonio Díaz Leonis. He explained that the commanders of these splinter groups are not the thousands of individuals that committed themselves to Colombia’s peace by laying down their arms. Communities throughout Arauca recognize that the dissidents are different from the FARC that demobilized. Instead, they are composed of a mix of different armed actors that are financed by the department’s illicit economies and fuel its violence.
A mute institutional and humanitarian response to the evolving composition of armed actors in the region also fostered the current insecurity and violence. The Ombudsman’s Office—which since 2001 has published over 70 different Early Warning alerts, risk reports, and follow-ups—has persistently documented the dynamics among armed actors in the department and warned that clashes between the ELN and dissidents of the FARC were going to arise. Even with this foreshadowing, the state has made no concrete humanitarian plans to ensure protection, leaving the civilian population entrenched in deep insecurity. Ultimately, Villate and Díaz Leonis concluded that Araucans are strong advocates of comprehensively implementing the 2016 peace accord and resuming dialogues with the ELN guerrilla, as they understand the detrimental implications of not following through with these peacebuilding efforts.
Dialogue with the ELN is Crucial for Colombia’s Peace
Luis Eduardo Celis, an expert with the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, echoed sentiments for a comprehensive peace by making a strong case for the Colombian government to resume national dialogues with the ELN. Celis characterized Arauca as having separate governing states: the Colombian state and the ELN. The guerrilla group has enforced its rule over communities throughout Arauca for over half a century. Residents, as they hold deep fear of repercussions and reprisals, are made to follow the ELN’s rules and norms. While the ELN is responsible for unacceptable atrocities and violence, many Araucan communities also deeply distrust the Colombian state and its institutions, often looking to the ELN to address community needs that should be carried out by the state. It’s a reality that must be acknowledged to truly address the complex situation in Arauca. The state must rethink its relationship with the department, which can only happen through social investment and peacebuilding efforts.
The Need to Prioritize Social Investment
Each panelist at WOLA’s event described the fundamental lack of social investment in Arauca, and how it perpetuates different manifestations of violence.
Adam Isacson, WOLA’s Director for Defense Oversight, spoke of a 2019 trip he took to Arauca with WOLA’s Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli. He described how despite the profits brought in by the oil industry, they saw how a large portion of the department’s residents live in poverty, as these profits are not invested back into the community for basic infrastructure and services. When roads, bridges, and other forms of infrastructure are built, they are made solely with the oil industry’s interests in mind. Even past U.S. foreign aid, such as under the Bush administration, was directed towards amping up security to protect Arauca’s oil infrastructure, leaving behind social investment for Arauca’s over 300,000 residents. This disregard for the communities and people who make up Arauca must change.
The people of Arauca deserve to advocate for themselves and choose their path to true democracy and peace. Arauca desperately needs to be given the ability to build up its institutions and infrastructure, so that it can govern autonomously, build up its economy, fortify its health systems, form an education system, and offer sustainable opportunities to its people. Right now, they are living with fear and anxiety of what will come with the ongoing internal armed conflict occurring in their department. But their story is also one of hope. Social leaders like Briceño are mobilizing communities to advocate for themselves. They are pleading with the international community to accompany them and urge the Colombian government to advance peace accord implementation and dialogues with the ELN. These communities are the catalysts to peace, and Colombia must invest in them.