BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Illegal armed groups operate with virtual impunity along the border between Colombia and Venezuela, and civilians are suffering as a result, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.
Researchers said in a report that they found credible allegations that Venezuelan security forces have colluded with Colombian armed groups that have built camps across the border where kidnapping victims are taken for forced labor.
“The groups operate with near-to-absolute impunity on both sides of the border,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch.
The border between Colombia and Venezuela has become a focal point for tensions as droves of migrants flee, illegal armed groups flourish and drugs, gas and other contraband are trafficked.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s critics – including the Trump administration – have accused him of allowing Colombian rebels and other militias to operate in Venezuela.
Maduro denies the allegations, though Venezuelan human rights groups often report the presence of Colombian illegal armed groups along the border.
Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed several Colombians who said they were kidnapped by groups like the National Liberation Army from the eastern province of Arauca and taken across a river into Venezuela.
In Arauca, the rebels impose curfews and establish regulations for debt repayment, closing times for bars and other matters.
In some areas, the combatants forbid motorcycle riders from wearing helmets, so that the rebel armies can easily identify their faces.
Despite a landmark 2016 accord with Colombia’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the benefits of peace are not yet apparent for those living in Arauca.
The number of homicides there rose from 96 in 2015 to over 160 in 2019, according to government data cited in the report. At least 16 bodies of civilians found in Arauca last year were discovered with scraps of paper announcing the “justification” for the killing. Some of the murder victims were accused of being “informants” while others were brandished as “rapists,” “drug dealers” or “thieves.”
“Residents in Arauca and Apure live in fear, as armed groups recruit their children and impose their own rules, threaten residents, and punish those who disobey,” Vivanco said, referring to provinces in Colombia and Venezuela.
Human Rights Watch notes that in Arauca soldiers are often dedicated to protecting oil infrastructure, which is frequently attacked by rebels.
In some parts of Arauca, there is little to no official state presence.
Camilo Espinel, who serves on a city council in Arauca, said political and social leaders like him have been routinely threatened, making their work difficult. At least 107 human rights defenders were killed in Colombia in 2019, according to the United Nations, which characterized the tally as a “staggering number.”
Espinel said a group called the Aguilas Negras – or Black Eagles – threatened him in a pamphlet last May as he was embarking on his campaign. Authorities eventually provided him a security escort – about six months after the threat took place.
He said that while there was relative tranquility in the aftermath of the 2016 peace accord, the situation in Arauca deteriorated as dissident guerrillas organized and preliminary peace talks with the National Liberation Army broke off.
“It’s the civilian population that suffers,” he said.