"Here we have to do as they say, or you die”

Fighters of National Liberation Army (ELN) in the jungles of Colombia Fighters of National Liberation Army (ELN) in the jungles of Colombia Raúl Arboleda/Getty Images

11 February 2020

Human Rights Watch documents the “brutal violence” at the Venezuelan-Colombian border perpetrated by armed groups

On 22 January 2020, Human Rights Watch  (HRW) published the new report entitled “The Guerrillas Are the Police” which documents how armed groups control people’s lives in the eastern Colombian province of Arauca and the neighboring Venezuelan state of Apure. The Arauca River, on the border with Venezuela, is under control of the National Liberation Army (ELN) as well as the “Martín Villa 10th Front”, a group that emerged from the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the Patriotic Forces of National Liberation (FPLN) that operate in Venezuela.

As reported, the activities of armed groups have intensified in both countries. The 105 interviewed people described abuses, unlawful killings, kidnappings, forced labor, child recruitment, extortion. Girls kidnapped and later escaped from armed groups reported to have been victims of sexual exploitation, rape and forced abortion.  The report also provides  that fighters imposed several rules in some areas, such as “the groups forbid wearing helmets while riding motorcycles, so that fighters can see travelers’ faces”. This situation in Arauca and Apure is caused by the complicity of authorities, especially in Venezuela, with regard to abuses inflicted by the armed groups. Juan Pappier, one of the authors of the report, describes the collusion of local authorities and security forces with fighters which allows the continuing human rights violations. As the military presence is heavier in urban areas, residents of  Arauca and Apure suffer from a lack of protection while “ the guerrillas are the police”. In fact, humanitarian actors, residents and victims described to HRW how fighters control the social, economic and political life. Namely, the armed groups have benefited from the limited presence of state institutions: they “offer payment, motorcycles, and guns to children to lure them to join”. The residents of such zones, as reported by HRW, suffer from poverty and “live in precarious economic conditions, sleeping on the street or forming makeshift settlements, struggling to earn money, and lacking access to public services such as comprehensive health care”. This is why the Colombian-Venezuelan border became strategically important for human trafficking, drug trafficking and other criminal activities. Even activists and humanitarian actors risk their lives in these areas. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), six human rights defenders have been killed in Arauca between January and July 2019.

HRW urged the governments to take action to protect human rights including taking adequate preventive measures to protect individuals and guaranteeing the rights of victims. Governments are expected to apply international humanitarian law because both situations in Arauca and Apure are classified as armed conflicts by HRW. In addition, the report called on UN Agencies to build a comprehensive plan to support individuals affected by the conflict.


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Author: Silvia Luminati; Editor: Aleksandra Krol.

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