Semana, August 11, 2019

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The Catatumbo situation is getting out of hand. This week, two events showed how serious the situation is. A report by Human Rights Watch revealed the impact of the violence that is devastating the area, and, for the first time, Ecopetrol had to suspend its operations.

Catatumbo is trapped with no way out. And, incredibly, the world knows what is going on there.  The Public Defender’s Office has already issued five alerts since 2018; yet it has not been possible to stop the bloodbath. On the contrary, it seems to be growing. In the last three years, according to the Victims Unit, more than 40,000 people have been displaced; the Attorney General’s Office is investigating more than 180 disappearances; and there have been 27 reported cases of forced recruitment, as well as 1,000 threats. All this is without counting the nine murders of human rights defenders since 2017, in a region with a homicide rate three times higher than the rest of the country.

Last week Human Rights Watch sounded its most recent warning about the horrors being carried out by the ELN, the EPL, and the dissidents. In an 18-page report titled “The War in Catatumbo”, the international organization, directed by José Miguel Vivanco, denounced those responsible, reported where they are operating, and detailed the abuses to which they are subjecting the communities. The investigation gathers more than 100 interviews and 500 victim testimonies. It served to give the country a deep understanding of what is happening there, and to urge the national government take some action to contain the violence.

The region is living without any control, so that the business sector is paralyzed as never before, even in the worst years of the violence. Ecopetrol has decided to close down its hydrocarbon wells because of the confrontations between the Army and the gangs that are dedicated to stealing gasoline. As is well known, that fuel is a component for processing coca.

The appetite for gasoline and the battles for it increased in Catatumbo because of the shortage on the other side of the border. So far this year, the authorities have disconnected 783 illicit valves that were used to steal 86,900 barrels of crude. With Ecopetrol’s decision to suspend its operations, 76 producing wells were left inactive, along with the gas plant in Sardinata. Around 432 workers have been hurt and the company estimates losses of 5,500 million pesos (just under USD2 million). That doesn’t count the ways in which the resulting shortage affects the financers of the customers.

A few weeks ago, for example, four FARC dissidents were killed by the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB in Spanish) of Venezuela.  That incident created a blanket of doubt about the role played by the Caracas government. And if that were not enough, a few days ago, right on the border, five men were surprised carrying three human heads in a sack.

The Horror

For three years, the ELN and the EPL dissidents known as Los Pelusos were involved in a war without quarter for the control of the territory and for the resources and illegal profits that were available there. Specifically, it was the contraband, illegal mining, the 15,298 hectares of coca, the drug trafficking routes that connect with Venezuela, and the clandestine airstrips that are hidden on the border.

In Catatumbo, the FARC’s departure after the negotiations in Havana was no big deal, because the war never ended. After the demobilization, the residents only saw how the armed actors divided up the territory that the guerrillas had occupied and that now the dissidents are trying to recapture.

Today the ELN seems to be the winner, because they control almost all of the 11 municipalities that make up Catatumbo. Because of that, the risks to and the abuses committed against the 295,000 inhabitants of the sub-region are increasing. Displacements, disappearances, express kidnappings, and armed stoppages are the order of the day.

In Catatumbo, funeral home employees, not forensic experts, take care of the bodies at a crime scene. When a member of the community disappears, s relatives first consults the commanders of the armed groups about his whereabouts. If anybody has any doubt about who’s in charge in the sub-region in Norte de Santander, he needs to know that no stranger, whether Colombian or Venezuelan, can stay in the territory without a recommendation from somebody who lives there and is supported by the criminal system, and that also pays the person who vouches for him.

Back to Hell again

The Human Rights Watch report, besides confirming the abuses of the communities, raised a problem of Colombian security in an international context. More than 25,000  Venezuelans live in this region now because they have fled the humanitarian crisis. In many cases they end up working for the armed groups and in illegal economies, often just in exchange for a meal. Now they are just as trapped as the Colombians.

It’s been 20 years since the massacre at La Gabarra, where 200 paramilitaries, arriving to impose their authority in Catatumbo, killed 100 people. That set off displacement toward the neighboring country. Now the ones who seek refuge on this side of the border are the Venezuelans, who leave in search of food, medicine, and opportunities. They come through Norte de Santander, taking advantage of the minimal immigration controls. But they are fleeing so desperately that they don’t care what’s waiting for them.

Surprisingly, it’s been for little or nothing that the Army activated nine battalions of land operations, or that they brought the Rapid Deployment Force No. 3 (Fudra 3 in Spanish). There are 13,000 soldiers there who have not been able to contain the wave of violence and they remain confined to quarters. “We want to have a real unified action of all the agencies of the government,” said General Nicacio Martínez, Commander of the Colombian Army, to W Radio.

Nine of the 11 municipalities don’t have any officers of the Technical Investigation Corps (CTI). In Tibú there are only three prosecutors, so that each one of them has to manage 2,400 cases. In Sardinata there is only one; and in Ocaña, only three who investigate the abuses committed in the context of the armed conflict. The institutional shortage hinders the preparation of the cases and, by the way, it gives the community no reason to have confidence in the legal system.

Furthermore, the Colombians and the Venezuelans in the region suffer forced displacements, murders and recruitment. There is no difference between them. The problem is more dramatic and complex than many analysts believe. For a few months now, the Municipal Clerks are starting to collect the stories of the victims in the neighbor country. Will they be listed in the Unique Registry of Victims? Some people are asking if the Venezuelans ought to be indemnified by the Colombian government. While we look at the answers, the numbers increase. In this region, many young Venezuelan girls between 12 and 15 years old charge around 5,000 pesos (a little less than USD2) for sexual services. On that same shore, youngsters like Enrique Pérez (not his real name) worked on coca plantations from 5:00 in the morning until 4:00 in the afternoon

In Catatumbo, the communities keep asking that the government intervene to pull them out of this spiral of violence. It’s a region where 92 percent of the farms don’t have formal titles. The situation is delicate, not just because the community is in the middle of the armed actors who threaten and kill them, supposedly for collaborating with one or the other. It’s also because the government has not been able to confront the humanitarian crises that provokes the confrontations between the armed groups and also with the Army.

Without doubt the illegal crops will have to be eradicated and authority will have to be imposed. But there also has to be a large and permanent social investment program. If that happens, the government could win the hearts of the campesinos and reactivate the social dynamics in the region. Can the government achieve this?

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