Venezuelan refugees are falling into the hands of Colombian armed groups  

July 25, 2019

While the media is flooded by headlines regarding the Venezuelan crisis and President Maduro’s refusal to step down, many underlying consequences of the massive migration provoked by the crisis are going by unnoticed. One of these concerns is the recruitment of Venezuelan refugees at the Colombo -Venezuelan border by Colombian illegal armed groups.

About 1,3 million Venezuelans have fled the economic crisis to their neighboring country of Colombia in search for basic goods such as food and medicine, but ultimately a life free of misery. However, as the Colombian government and civil society organizations struggle to fully assist the thousands of refugees who are crossing the border into Colombia every day, armed groups have swept in to meet their needs and in turn fill their ranks. Taking advantage of their vulnerable situation, these illegal armed groups offer desperate migrants food, shelter and a sum of about US$300 per month which is more than 30 times the minimum wage back home.

Illegal crossings

As tensions rose due to discussions of a possible U.S military intervention through Colombia to topple the Venezuelan regime, Maduro temporarily closed the official border between both countries, deepening their already strained relationship. Although the border was re-opened after 4 months, people who use the border every day were put in great danger as a result. Migrants fleeing into Colombia had to make their journey through irregular crossings known as trochas, exposing them to exploitation from illegal armed groups controlling the border region, where women and children are especially vulnerable to violence, and young males to being recruited.  Despite the re-opening of the official border, long lines and tight restrictions have led migrants to continue crossing through the dangerous trochas. A stark comparison can be drawn to the dangers migrants and asylum seekers crossing Mexico into the United States must go through. They must travel through criminal strongholds such as that of the Zetas cartel, exposing them to extortion, and violence such as kidnapping, human trafficking and killings.

Once migrants survive the difficult journey to Colombia, the dangers do not vanish. As Venezuelans arrive into Colombia in vulnerable conditions, border communities are not prepared to attend to their critical needs. A lack of opportunities in the borderland region has turned the borderlands into a prime feeding ground for armed groups to grow. One of the central recruitment grounds is the borderland region of Arauca in eastern Colombia. As refugees cross the Arauca river, they are vulnerable to recruitment by Colombian armed groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and FARC dissident groups who found a safe haven in the porous border region.

Power vacuum

As a result of the historic 2016 peace deal between the largest guerrilla group in the country, the FARC, and the Colombian government, there has been a power vacuum in the regions once firmly controlled by the FARC. As of today, the Colombian government has failed to implement much of the peace deal and exercise control over the rural borderlands regions, leaving room for armed groups to fill in their absence.

ELN and FARC dissidents have now become a major source of employment for dozens of Venezuelan refugees seeking a better life. Many start out with low level jobs within the group and some are set to become trained guerrilla fighters. These armed groups use bombings and kidnappings of innocent civilians to carry out extortions, and are killing community leaders in areas where they are resisted across Colombia, just to name the level of danger Venezuelans are getting involved in when joining these groups.

Balloon effect

The exact number of refugees that have joined the ranks of Colombian armed groups is unknown, estimates range between 200 to 500 Venezuelans within the ELN and FARC dissident groups each. As the crisis deepens, these numbers will only continue to grow. The Colombian government has responded by creating a special trans-national unit of the army, Fuerza Despliegue contra Amenazas Transnacionales, which will be tackling trans-national threats such as drug trafficking, contraband, and tightening security at the border. The armed forces have doubled up on their hard security approach in the borderland region but until now there have been few results. A hardline security approach has proven to have a “balloon effect” where armed groups are displaced further into Venezuelan territory only to re-group once the armed forces moves out.

Tough approach

On more positive note, President Duque released his Plan Impacto, a US$228 million plan which aims to address the critical situation at the border through investment in education, health and institution building. Although it looks promising, there is not much hope that this plan will be successful, especially due to low levels of trust between the state and local communities. The armed forces will first have to clear many of these areas from armed groups before increasing state presence, and as long as this is done through a hard security approach and the current administration continues to refuse to initiate a dialogue with armed groups, it is likely that this will not tackle the roots of the borderland’s crisis.

Unfortunately, the situation is likely to get worse before it could become better. As Venezuelan suffering deepens because of Maduro’s growing strong hand, more migrants are choosing to seek a better life in Colombia.

Comprehensive approach

As Colombia struggles to implement peace, the consequences of the Venezuelan crisis on the border region must become a priority for policy makers. The Colombian government, in a joint effort with national and international civil society organizations, must tackle the structural causes leading to the growth of Colombian armed groups. Redressing the state’s security first approach towards its peripheral territories, and beginning to view these areas as opportunities for peace are a pivotal step forward. The Colombian state must first focus on increasing humanitarian assistance to communities managing the burden of the migration crisis, and then on increasing and maintaining a state presence within these rural territories in the long run, in order to develop these regions. Comprehensive policies which include the voices of local communities and refugees alike, are essential in addressing the border crisis.

Public pressure for a peaceful transition in Venezuela will not only lessen human suffering but also help implement stability in the entire region. It is imperative that the international community continue to play its role in assisting host countries and their communities as they continue to mitigate with this unprecedented crisis in the region.

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