What’s new? Crime and violence have simmered along the lengthy Colombian-Venezuelan frontier for decades. But the regional spillover of Venezuela’s political conflict and economic collapse has caused ties between the two states to fray as well, amid border closures, a migrant exodus and rival military exercises.
Why does it matter? Numerous armed groups clash with one another and harm citizens along a border marked by abundant coca crops and informal crossings. High bilateral tensions could spur escalating border hostilities while perpetuating the mistreatment of migrants and refugees whose movements have been restricted by COVID-19.
What should be done? Colombian and Venezuelan authorities should urgently establish communication channels to resolve violent incidents along the border, possibly with international backing. They should reopen formal border crossings as planned, but also increase humanitarian aid to help ensure that migrants and refugees are healthy and can move safely.
The border between Colombia and Venezuela is the site of Latin America’s most prominent inter-state standoff and its worst humanitarian emergency. More than 2,000km long, the line dividing these countries is a magnet for guerrilla groups and organised crime, particularly on the Colombian side. Poverty, corruption and booming black markets – including trade in the world’s largest concentration of coca crops – drive the creation of new armed factions and instil ferocious competition among them. But the frontier is now caught up in turbulent regional politics as well. Venezuela’s political conflict has led to a feud between the governments in Caracas and Bogotá, putting both militaries on high alert; its economic woes have forced millions of Venezuelans to flee across a Colombian border now closed due to COVID-19. Rebuilding trust between the neighbours, restoring cooperation on health and security, restarting talks between the Colombian state and the country’s last guerrillas, and ensuring that migrants receive humanitarian aid will be vital to preserving peace on the frontier.
Low-intensity conflict has tormented the borderlands for decades, reflecting their neglect by the state as well as the illicit riches there for the taking. Since the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) demobilised after the 2016 peace accord, a panoply of armed actors has vied for a share of the border spoils, whether production and trafficking of coca and cocaine, contraband, extortion rackets or illegal mines. The largest remaining Colombian guerrilla force, the National Liberation Army (ELN), has seized the opportunity to expand on both sides of the frontier. Colombian paramilitary remnants and upstart gangs prowling indigenous territories, FARC rebel dissidents, Venezuelan para-police and Mexican drug cartels complete the shifting patchwork of armed outfits. Clashes among these groups and killings of civilians in contested zones have continued throughout the pandemic.
This tide of violence is now inseparable from international tensions, above all the breakdown of relations between the two neighbours. Venezuela’s internal political conflict has diffused across the region, bringing President Nicolás Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian government into heated dispute with centre-right Colombian President Iván Duque, who insists that Maduro be removed ahead of a fresh presidential election in Venezuela. Severed diplomatic ties, mutual accusations of support for “terrorists” and military exercises along the frontier mark a dangerous nadir in bilateral relations. In the absence of communication channels and trust between the sides, the risk persists that a violent incident on the border could escalate into a full-blown inter-state crisis.
For most people along the border, this bilateral estrangement has meant a painful rupture in cross-border family, kin and business ties. But for some, it has brought profit. Repeated closures of official border points since 2015 enriched larger armed groups and local entrepreneurs smuggling fuel, goods and people over illegal crossings. Coca crops have continued to grow in Norte de Santander state, which according to the UN boasted in 2019 the largest area under cultivation in the whole of Colombia – itself the largest coca supplier in the world. Some Venezuelans living on the frontier even express gratitude that the ELN, now backed or at least tolerated by the Venezuelan state and security forces, has become the new dominant armed group in their area and helped stamp out petty crime.
But there is no doubt as to who has suffered the most from this border debacle. Over five million migrants and refugees have fled Venezuela, the majority in search of economic opportunity; close to two million, including some of the poorest migrants, have settled in Colombia. Corrupt officials, predatory armed groups and calculating locals have fleeced many of their savings. Others face the menace of sexual exploitation. Now the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed them to further hardships. Those returning to Venezuela face a dismal quarantine in state facilities, with authorities labelling them “biological weapons”. Those leaving for Colombia have no option for the time being but to brook the extortion of armed groups manning the illegal crossings.
Poverty and ailing state institutions along the border will require sustained attention over years, ideally through fulfilment of rural development provisions in the Colombian peace accord and broad economic reconstruction in Venezuela. In the meantime, the two neighbours should take urgent steps to curb the risk of worsening violence and instability. The pandemic fleetingly promised a thaw in relations as both governments set up a channel to exchange health information. They must now do far more to prevent misunderstandings along the border and their potentially lethal consequences. Colombia and Venezuela should agree on a joint method for monitoring the border, perhaps through the creation of a mechanism for resolving incidents under international auspices. Both countries should support efforts to return to negotiations between Bogotá and the ELN, shelved early in 2019 after a deadly bomb attack. Meanwhile, increased humanitarian aid will be crucial to preventing the border’s formal reopening from generating huge movements of poor and unprotected people in both directions.
Despite their determination to resist aggression from the other side, authorities in Colombia and Venezuela know that armed hostilities along the border would prove catastrophic for both nations. Reestablishing channels of communication while attending to the victims of crime and violence at the frontier will be vital to preventing a disaster neither side wants.
Bogotá/Caracas/Brussels, 14 December 2020