By César Giraldo Zuluaga, EL ESPECTADOR, August 25, 2021


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Streams of irregular immigrants are converging in the frontier province. They are controlled by illegal groups and armed organizations that are trying to control the cocaine economy and also coal mining. Their presence and their territorial disputes are deteriorating security noticeably in a region where the rate of homicides has increased by 11%. Here is an interview with Jorge Mantilla, an expert in security.

Nearly 50 social, regional, and national organizations issued an alert this week because of the increase in the rates of violence being registered in Cúcuta and Norte de Santander. In their statement, they pointed out that, according to statistics from the Progresar Foundation’s Observatory on Human Rights, since January of last year until now, 22 social leaders in the province have been murdered, besides the 36 people that were killed in the eight massacres that were committed in the same period.

In the middle of August, Border Lab, a laboratory of social innovation dedicated to investigating the issues of migration, security, human rights, and justice in Norte de Santander, published an assessment of security in the province for the first half of this year. Even though in Cúcuta homicides were reduced by 6% compared to the same period of last year, they increased by 11% in the province. The most alarming figure has to do with homicides against women: they increased by 92%.

EL ESPECTADOR talked with Jorge Mantilla, co-founder of Border Lab and expert in matters of security and armed conflict. He explains the security situation in the province, in which there is also a presence of the ELN, the dissidents of the FARC, and the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, as well as regional armed groups like the EPL and Los Rastrojos.

What is the current picture of conflict in Norte de Santander and Cúcuta?

What we have in the region is the convergence of three forms or systems of conflict, and we can explain them separately, but they are related. The first has to do with the frontier and its being closed. The second is all that involves Catatumbo and the illegal plantings in that sub-region, and finally, all of the violence that’s cincentrated in Cúcuta, with some specific dynamics.

Let’s start with the frontier. What were the implications of closing the frontier?

First we have to mention that the closing generated a repositioning of some of the armed groups on the Venezuelan side. The closing also represented a window of opportunity for organized criminal groups and armed groups in terms of the economies of the trails, because it stimulated a whole series of illegal crossings. The control of those crossing routes is becoming almost as important in terms of the illegal economies as the control of gasoline smuggling, the control of certain drug trafficking routes, and the control of human trafficking.

And what’s going on in Catatumbo now?

There we have to mention three aspects. The first two are the illegal plantings and the armed groups that are present in the region and are working to profit from that economy, but they are fragmented. Here there are two highlights: the first is the war between the ELN and the EPL, going on since 2018, marked by an expansion and the important growth of the ELN in the region. The second is the build-up of the 33rd Front of the dissidents, which seems to be passing unnoticed. Recently, because of the attempt on the President and the 30th Brigade, there has been a phase of military build-up toward one of more activity, more operations. And that’s related to the attempted incursion by the Second Marquetalía. There is a risk of eventual conflict among the FARC dissidents there.

The third aspect has to do with the forced eradication that the government has resumed. That has generated some very important tensions in the higher part of Catatumbo, in the case of Sardinata, where two leaders of the coca growers were even killed during the demonstrations and the protests, presumably by the Army.

And what’s the situation in Cúcuta and its metropolitan area?

What’s going on there, besides the traditional dynamics of a city, such as common crime and drug trafficking, among other things, there is pressure on the city where there is displacement of certain groups because of the conflict systems that I mentioned. For example, Los Rastrojos were displaced by the ELN in Puerto Santander, and they concentrated in the rural part of Cúcuta. That also has to do with the incursion of the AGC at the end of last year into the same area, and finally, with the ELN’s decisive attempt to get those groups out of the territory.

That pressure on Cúcuta has resulted in a mentality where, to say it colloquially, there’s no bed for so many people to sleep in. There’s not enough room for local criminal groups, plus groups that are more organized and associated with the traffic and exportation of chloral hydrate of cocaine from Catatumbo by the armed groups. That, basically, is what has us in a context of generalized deterioration of security in the region.

In that context, how can we understand that in the first six months of this year the homicides in Cúcuta were reduced by 9% in comparison with the same period of 2020?

Even though Cúcuta has not been a city that has a robust security policy, it does have an Integrated Plan for Security and Living Together (PISC in Spanish). Thanks to that, there have been some operations by the Cúcuta Metropolitan Police to strengthen security. So, for example, there is a strategy of intervening in territories that are highly complicated, but what happens is that we are seeing a sort of displacement of certain groups toward the rural part of Cúcuta and bordering municipalities. That displacement of armed groups will help us understand why the homicides increased in the province and in the rural part of Cúcuta during the first half of 2021.

Did the arrival of the AGC in December also have an effect?

It did.  What’s happening is that Norte de Sandander, and especially in Catatumbo, is a region where the Community Action Boards (JAC in Spanish) are very important in social and political life. And you have to remember that now the armed groups are less structured and associated with illegal economies. So then, the capacity of a group to take control of a particular territory is measured by its capacity to control local leadership. That has been translated into homicides, displacements, and threats to those leaders.

There is a statistic that is both lamentable and alarming: homicides against women have increased by 92% in comparison with the first half of last year. Why?

That’s a discussion that’s difficult to confront, but here are two approaches. For one thing, the authorities say that it comes because there is a greater participation in criminal activity by women. Another perspective is that the increase in victimization just has to do with social control, since the leadership of women has been very important in the region. In Tibú, for example, so far this year there have been 11 or 12 homicides of women. It’s not really clear what’s behind that. But you also have to remember that the women that are migrating, because of the frontier dynamics, are especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation, and being used by criminal groups for human trafficking.

What kind of interventions are needed in the province in the area of security?

First of all, I have to point out that the militarization of the region has not translated into an improvement in security, and the government’s drug policy is inefficient. Focusing on the number of plantings, which is their gold standard, and not on laboratories, money laundering, or the economic build-ups by the armed groups generates conflict in the communities. It leads to an erosion of the legitimacy of the government and to a more consolidated positioning of the armed groups. So it’s necessary to return to ideas like the Complete National Program for the Substitution of Illegal Plantings (PNIS in Spanish), and things like the coordination that just now emerged from the local agenda of the National Strike. Besides that, we need strategies to put an end to forced recruitment, and that has been increasing, and to recruitment of migrants, as well as developing the whole issue of fortifying the protection of leaders and former combatants.

And, with regard to the frontier, how would re-opening it help to diminish the conflicts in the region?

The main consequence is that the government could recover its authority over customs and migration on the frontier. Besides that, it would help to reduce the amount of money that the illegal groups are earning because they control the crossings. So, controlling the crossing, the government would be able to differentiate the migrant flow associated with the strong dynamic of criminality, such as drug and weapons trafficking and human trafficking, from people that are crossing because they need to and doing it legally.

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