This year kicked off with a violent start on the Colombia-Venezuela border, where dissident militant factions have been competing for territorial control of lucrative drug routes that connect the South American country to the US and Europe. At least 23 people were killed in violent clashes at the start of the year, followed by a deadly car bomb and the murder of a local community leader and his wife.
The renewed violence comes more than five years after the Colombian government signed a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), ending a 52-year armed conflict that killed up to 220,000 people and displaced as many as 5 million people.
Colombian President Ivan Duque vowed to stamp out the violence during his presidency. But it continues to plague rural areas, where peace was supposed to bring development and new opportunities – mounting concerns that the country’s most violent days might not be over.
Here’s what you need to know about the simmering conflict on Colombia’s border with Venezuela.
Who is fighting?
Colombian authorities have accused a few groups of triggering the recent clashes in the northeastern state of Arauca: The National Liberation Army – the largest leftist guerrilla group left in the country, known by its Spanish acronym ELN – and dissident factions of the FARC.
The FARC disarmed and disbanded after the November 2016 peace accord. A political party formed using the same acronym, but rebranded to the name “Comunes” last year.
The FARC dissident groups consist of rebel fighters who refused to enter the peace process. Among them are splinter groups, who are also at odds with one another.
While the presence of these groups in the region has been reported since the 1980s, competition between ELN and FARC in Arauca intensified between 2006 and 2010.
President Duque, Defense Minister Diego Molano, and various generals who have all visited Arauca in the past few weeks blame the violence on competition between all these groups, who they say, are bolstered by the support of Venezuela. The Colombian government alleges that Caracas has allowed these criminal groups to take refuge in their territory, allowing them to escape prosecution by Colombian forces – something Caracas has always denied.
The groups are battling over drug smuggling routes from Colombia to Venezeula – a gateway to the lucrative North American and European markets, according to the Colombian government.
The fighting at the border stopped in 2010 after the warring factions signed a truce they called “no more confrontation between revolutionaries.” By that point, at least 868 civilians had been killed and 58,000 people had been displaced, according to a report from Human Rights Watch (HRW).
However, tensions have continued to brew until this year’s violence erupted. It is still unclear what triggered the January 2 clash, but the groups have all accused one another of pulling out of the truce in a bid to gain control over the region.
What’s Venezuela’s role?
Colombia’s government has long accused Venezuela’s embattled president Nicolas Maduro of harboring FARC dissidents and ELN combatants to destabilize and exacerbate Colombia’s internal conflict. Maduro has repeatedly denied those allegations.
However, it wasn’t until last spring that Maduro’s government launched a military campaign to quell violence on its southern border, admitting for the first time that Colombian criminal groups were operating in the area. Venezuela deployed special forces and intelligence units in March 2021.
At least four Venezuelan soldiers were killed in clashes with Colombian criminal groups in Venezuela’s Apure State during that campaign, according to the Venezuelan defense ministry, with thousands of people seeking refuge in Colombia as a result.
The situation leaves Colombia and Venezuela with the same problem: The presence of highly skilled criminal groups that control chunks of their borderland territories.
But as the two neighbors have ceased any diplomatic communication since 2019 – as Colombia, like the United States and most countries in South America, does not recognize the Maduro government – they are unable to develop a common strategy around their porous 2,219-kilometer (approximately 1,400 mile) border.
Who is at risk?
At the heart of the suffering are the people – mostly from indigenous groups – of Arauca, one of Colombia’s poorest areas. People living on both sides of the border have been affected, with Colombia’s ombudsman tweeting last week that a growing number of Venezuelan citizens – particularly from indigenous groups in Apure State – are seeking refuge from the clashes.
“Armed groups in Arauca and Apure routinely threaten people to ensure social control,” according to the HRW report. Those threats are “often directed against people who violate the groups’ ‘rules’ or to pressure civilians to do as the groups want.”
Colombia’s Victims’ Unit has registered over 6,000 such threats in Arauca as of December 31, 2021.
One human rights activist in Apure told HRW that it is like there are two forms of government. “They (the armed groups) threaten you twice and the third time is a death sentence.”
What could stop the violence?
All eyes are on Colombia, where presidential elections are expected for May 2022.
Under Duque’s watch, the peace process has largely stalled.
Part of that pause can be attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic, but the president – who campaigned against the deal in 2016 – has faced harsh criticism over the lack of focus his government has dedicated towards the issue.
According to a recent Notre Dame University study, less than a third of the agreement’s stipulations had been fully implemented by the end of 2021, with the number of human rights leaders murdered in the country – a key statistic that helps indicate the country’s overall security situation – on the rise.
Many presidential hopefuls have vowed to undo Duque’s policies by changing Colombia’s approach towards security.
Leftist candidates are campaigning on a return to the peace agreement framework and investing resources to implement the agreement’s pledges, while right-wing candidates are pledging more support to security operations.
Leftist front-runner Gustavo Petro has signaled he is open to re-establishing diplomatic relations with Caracas and the Maduro government.
However, it is unclear if the two countries could start cooperating after years of diplomatic silence and long-standing mistrust, regardless of the election outcome.
What role does the US play?
The United States is Colombia’s top military partner and the country’s most important ally.
In late 2021, during a visit to the country, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Duque to do more to implement the peace agreement, recommending that he “increase and strengthen the presence of the state in rural areas.”
That recommendation follows years of economic and logistical support from Washington to put an end to the country’s conflicts – from narco-trafficking to guerrilla warfare. The US military is often present in Colombia through training programs and joint operations with the Colombian Armed Forces. In 2020, a US Army brigade was deployed to the country, including Arauca, to strengthen counter-narcotics capabilities.
The White House has also signaled they will not engage with the Maduro government anytime soon.
But to stop the violence in Arauca, the new president will have to walk a fine line: Open up a line of communication with Venezuela, without distancing themselves from the US.