By Diana Durán Nuñez, El Espectador, January 22, 2020
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, Assistant City Attorney)
This Wednesday the organization released a critical report that documents how the guerrillas and the former members of the FARC are increasing in strength while the authorities both in Colombia and in Venezuela do little or nothing about it. Murders, recruitment and disappearances are increasing.
While there is a permanent campaign throughout the country for motorcyclists to wear helmets for protection while they drive—wearing the certified helmet can reduce deaths in accidents by up to 42% according to the Health Ministry—, in Arauca, a province bordering with Venezuela, the opposite is happening: “Here wearing a helmet can be dangerous,” a community leader told Human Rights Watch. The guerrillas in the area demand to be able to see the faces of motorcycle riders.
In 2019, the NGO was in Arauca and Apure (Venezuelan state on the other side of the border with Colombia) and carried out 105 interviews with leaders, victims of abuses, humanitarian workers and judicial officials, among others. They asked for information from Colombian and Venezuelan authorities. And the result was a 69-page report released today, titled “The Guerrillas Are The Police”; Social Control and Serious Abuses By Armed Groups In The Colombian Province Of Arauca And The Venezuelan State of Apure.”
The organization’s conclusion is that both Arauca and Apure live in a complex panorama because of the illegal groups that have become deeply embedded there: the ELN and FARC dissidents known as the Martín Villa Tenth Front. They operate mostly in Arauca but have also committed crimes in Apure, and there are also the Patriotic Forces of National Liberation (FPLN in Spanish), which has been in Apure since the ‘90’s and, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), “have a close relationship with the Venezuelan authorities” in that region.
The Venezuelan entities refused to provide information to the organization, indicating that, apparently, “the armed groups have much more freedom of action in Venezuela than they do in Colombia. On numerous occasions, the groups have transferred victims kidnapped in Arauca to encampments and other installations that they have in Venezuela. Instead of confronting them, the Venezuelan security forces and the local authorities have acted in connivance with the armed groups in at least some cases.”
The trail of violence with which these guerrillas are putting pressure on both the Colombian and Venezuelan civilian population is extensive according to HRW: “The armed groups control the civilian population in Arauca and Apure by threats, kidnappings, recruitment of children, forced labor, and murders. In Arauca, the groups have also installed land mines and have committed acts of sexual violence, among other serious abuses ( . . . ) and have ferociously imposed a series of rules.”
For this reason the people interviewed by HRW insist that, in those regions, the guerrillas are the same as the Police. According to Human Rights Watch, “the Colombian authorities have tried to reduce the power of the armed groups, mostly by sending the military.” Those soldiers, however, don’t come to protect the people but rather to protect the oil company’s infrastructure, so that “in numerous parts of the province there is, practically speaking, no protection at all for the residents.”
The point is, more or less, that the ELN and the FARC dissidents that operate in Arauca are committing every kind of attacks and abuses against the civilian population on the border between Colombia and Venezuela, in Arauca and Apure, without the Colombian armed forces being able to stop them and without the Venezuelan authorities giving so much as a sign that they are doing anything to stop them. Venezuela’s lack of interest in helping HRW collect information was predictable; ever since 2008, the organization is not welcome there.
That year, HRW itself recalls in this report, one of their teams was arrested and expelled from the neighboring country, and ever since then, their investigations in that country have been limited for the sake of security. Besides that, “the Venezuelan authorities don’t divulge information or reliable statistics on crime in Venezuela and, because of the lack of judicial independence in that country, there aren’t any reliable statistics from the legal system on investigations, cases or sentences,” stated HRW.
Arauca has historically been no man’s land. Not for nothing has the ELN, in spite of being so small in terms of its ranks of combatants, made that province of northeast Colombia its rearguard and its empire. This Human Rights Watch report is a warning bell about what is happening there after the signing of the Peace Agreement: every day it’s more evident that the government isn’t able to fill the spaces that it needs to fill in order to avoid the recycling of the conflict.
The HRW complaint is concerning: “The armed groups enjoy wide power and they exercise an iron control over the population in Arauca and Apure;” and their abuses, that go from murders to forced labor, are perpetrated on both sides of the border. These are some of the subjects that the organization documented.
HRW emphasizes that murders have increased in Arauca to this extent: while there were 96 murders in 2015, there were 160 murders in 2018 ( Arauca’s murder rate is twice the national rate) and, between January and November of 2019, there were 161 murders. “The ELN and the FARC dissident group are responsible for the majority of the murders in Arauca, as well as for the increase in the rate of murders in the province,” says HRW, based on statistics from the Attorney General’s Office of Forensic Medicine. That entity states that, in 2018, the two groups were responsible for 58% of those murders.
In this paragraph, the NGO once again criticizes the absence of data from the Venezuelan government, claiming that it does not prepare “complete or reliable statistics on the rate of criminality in the country.” In conclusion, it states, it is “impossible” to know the real magnitude of the murders in Apure. HRW did find there were ELN in that state. In September of 2018, those guerrillas had ordered the murder of the chief of the Scientific, Penal, and Criminal Investigation Service Corps (CICPC in Spanish) in Guasdualito.
Between 2018 and 2019, in addition, 19 dead bodies were found in Arauca with what seemed to be the justification for their killing: signs that said “informant”, “drug trafficker”, “rapist”, among others. And sometimes the bodies showed signs of torture. Between January and August of 2019, Forensic Medicine found 23 cases of that kind; in 2018 there were 20 and in 2017 there were three. The executions of defenders of human rights also increased; while in 2017 there was only one case, in 2019 there were six.
- RECRUITMENT OF MINORS
Neither Colombian nor Venezuelan children are safe, either in Arauca or in Apure: the dissidents and the ELN are recruiting vigorously. From Venezuela there is no information and it appears that the FPLN don’t recruit; in Colombia, however, 14 cases were documented between 2017 and 2019. The problem in this area is also the underreporting. In 2017, the Attorney General’s Office opened 21 files on recruitment, but it appears that just in Saravena, from January to March of 2019, 15 minors were recruited by former FARC guerrillas.
With money or access to weapons and motorcycles, the armed groups in Arauca are doing this successfully. Sometimes the minors are recruited to be in the ranks and take part in combat; sometimes, so they can go into urban areas and collect extortions or pick up information for those that are in rural areas. A significant example of what happened in that area took place last July: sixteen members of Martín Villa turned themselves in. Of those, six were under age, one was Venezuelan and almost all of then were indigenous.
And, above all, “the children recruited by the FARC dissident group faced an uncertain situation if they wanted to escape from the armed group once they came of age. According to Colombian law, there is no legal way for adults to demobilize and, unlike the members of the ELN, they are not eligible for the reintegration programs. The FARC dissidents have retaliated against guerrillas that have tried to escape.”
- KIDNAPPINGS AND DISAPPEARANCES
“The ELN and the FARC dissident group (Martín Villa Tenth Front) kidnap civilians in Arauca and Apure and even subject the victims to forced labor as punishment for violating their “rules”, warns Human Rights Watch. In Arauca there have been 24 kidnappings between 2017 and September 2019. In some cases they were for extortion and in others they subjected the victims to forced labor, especially in Apure. Likewise, some of the victims of this plague were members of the Colombian Armed Forces.
At the same time, reports HRW, “the number of people that have been ‘disappeared’ has increased in Arauca.” In 2017, according to statistics from Forensic Medicine, eight cases were reported. By the next year there were already 14. The Attorney General’s Office has different numbers, because there are 46 cases of alleged forced disappearance under investigation in that province since 2017. “Some of the people complained of as ‘disappeared’ have reappeared after months of forced labor on ranches or at guerrilla camps” as a form of punishment.
For all of this, the NGO has some recommendations to Colombia’s President Duque and his government. For Duque, the first thing they ask is “include in the Strategic Integral Intervention Zone for Arauca a strategy for the security forces to respect human rights and to be oriented toward protecting the civilian population from the actions of the armed groups.” And also to give more support to the prosecutors working there and assign more personnel to the National Protection Unit in Arauca, among other things.
They also ask for advancing campaigns with local authorities and civil society organizations to eradicate the xenophobia, the rejection of the Venezuelans which “is particularly evident in Arauca,” to the point that ordinary people are blamed for the increases in crime statistics. “Xenophobia is a phenomenon that is very widespread in Arauca and has been the source of some incidents of violence against Venezuelans,” the NGO reports.
For the Attorney General’s Office, Human Rights Watch proposes the appointment of more prosecutors and investigators to investigate the crimes that are documented in this report, such as investigating the complaints of local corruption or of the alleged alliances between the authorities and illegal groups. And the asked that the United Nations Independent International Mission to Determine the Facts about Venezuela, above all, “investigate the collusion between the Venezuelan security forces in abuses committed by the armed groups.”