Peace is war as armed groups roil Colombia's lawless border region

A peace deal with Farc guerrillas was meant to end decades of conflict but in Catatumbo violence is worse than ever

Camilo Pérez lost two brothers to Colombia’s long war. One was murdered by state-aligned militias, who falsely accused him of collaborating with leftwing guerrillas. The other was riddled with bullets outside his home; Camilo found the body, but never discovered who was responsible.

“The war hit us hard here, it killed our communities, extorted people and forced us from our homes,” said Pérez, who asked to use a pseudonym after receiving death threats.

A 2016 deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Farc, was supposed to put an end to five decades of bitter conflict that killed at least 260,000 people and forced 7 million from their homes.

But with the ink long dry on the deal, many Colombians are discovering that little has changed.

Ocaña map

In the vast and lawless Catatumbo region near the border with Venezuela, armed men and women still roam the villages, imposing nightly curfews, handing out threatening pamphlets and regularly exchanging gunfire. An increased military presence has only exacerbated the violence – and civilians are caught in the middle.

“We all hoped that things would get better and it hurts to say it, but now things are worse,” said Pérez. “The winds have blown from peace to war.”

Catatumbo takes its name from the indigenous Barí word for lightning, owing to the spectacular thunderstorms that form above Lake Maracaibo across the frontier. It seems particularly fitting nowadays, as those nightly displays are matched by squalls of violence on the ground.

About a third of Farc combatants are believed to have taken up arms again: some claim that the government has not held up its end of the bargain; others simply recognize that there is more money to be made in drug trafficking, extortion and illegal mining.

After the peace deal, another rebel group, the National Liberation Army (or ELN), stepped into the power vacuum left by the Farc, and is now taking advantage of turmoil in Venezuela to expand as far as Guyana. Venezuela’s embattled president, Nicolás Maduro, sees the ELN as kindred ideological spirits and turns a blind eye to criminal activities in the countryside.

Yet another faction – the Popular Liberation Army (or EPL) – has long held out in Catatumbo and is now in open warfare with the ELN and Farc dissidents.

Pérez has come to Ocaña, the chaotic city at Catatumbo’s western frontier, to update humanitarian organisations on the situation back home in the village of Otaré. To do so by telephone would put his life at more risk – you never know who may be listening in.

National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas, seen here in training in the Chocó jungle, have taken advantage of the power vacuum in Catatumbo since the peace deal.
National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas, seen here in training in the Chocó jungle, have taken advantage of the power vacuum in Catatumbo since the peace deal. Photograph: Raúl Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images

The road to Ocaña – a national highway – is dotted with military checkpoints and armoured personnel carriers. Soldiers patrol in full combat gear.

Roadsigns are plastered with graffiti, staking claims for the EPL, Farc and the ELN.

On one weekend earlier this month, ELN fighters attempted to blow up a bridge along the highway. The same night, another group of insurgents lobbed grenades at the local state prosecutors’ office in Ocaña.

Prosecutors speculated that the assailants were ELN, but unlike before, the gunmen often operate without the insignia of any rebel group. Heavily armed men go house to house in balaclavas, intimidating locals and warning against collaborating with the authorities.

Pérez has no idea who to be afraid of.

“Before we knew that it was the Farc in their territory and the ELN in theirs – but now people show up in Otaré with a rifle and we don’t know who is in control,” said Pérez. “We are living under a cloud of fear and confusion.”

Catatumbo’s blessing and its curse is the fertility of its land that allows farmers to grow an abundance of crops. But conditions are also perfect for cultivating coca, the key ingredient in cocaine, and the dense canopy of trees is ideal for hiding the clandestine laboratories used to process the drug.

Venezuelan migrants working as ‘Raspachines’ (coca leaf collectors), work at a coca plantation in the Catatumbo region on 9 February 2019.
Venezuelan migrants working as ‘Raspachines’ (coca leaf collectors), work at a coca plantation in Catatumbo on 9 February 2019. The region’s fertile soil is ideal for coca. Photograph: Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images

The region’s proximity to Venezuela, makes it a strategic corridor for rebels and drug traffickers. Venezuela’s subsidised petrol is smuggled into Colombia for use in the drug industry. A major oil pipeline also runs through Catatumbo, offering another source of stolen fuel and extortion.

In the hamlets of Playa de Belén, a municipality in west Catatumbo, residents go through a nightly ordeal. As the sun sets, more than 800 people – including infants and the elderly – leave their homes to hide out in the houses of their neighbours to escape skirmishes between the ELN and EPL.

When day breaks and the fighting stops, they return home, only to repeat the exercise the following night.

“It’s terror that we live in,” one community leader said. “People are just looking for somewhere safe.”

The fear and bloodshed has been further compounded as the military ramps up operations in the region. “We had always lived among these armed groups but when the military increased its presence, of course it would be met with an eye-for-an-eye response,” said María Ciro, who works with the Committee for Social Integration of Catatumbo (or Cisco), a human rights organisation based in Ocaña.

The peace deal promised legal alternatives for coca farmers and more state presence in the rural areas, which would provide security and jobs. But so far, little of that has arrived in Catatumbo.

Government officials came and signed people up for a crop substitution programme – but that was the last anyone heard of the scheme. Many of the roads remain unpaved and impassable in rainy months, while the promise of more state presence has only been fulfilled militarily.

“The main failure was the government’s failure to establish a presence in Farc-dominated zones, even the most strategic ones. A huge window of opportunity opened up and the government failed to take advantage of it,” said Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, a thinktank.

A police officer and a soldier patrolling the streets of Tibu, in Catatumbo. The military is the main presence of the state in the region.
A police officer and a soldier patrolling the streets of Tibu, in Catatumbo. The military is the main presence of the state in the region. Photograph: John Vizcaíno/AFP/Getty Images

The current government looks very different from the one that negotiated the peace deal. President Iván Duque, who took office in August last year, has long voiced skepticism of the deal while his political mentor, ex-president Álvaro Uribe, led the no campaign during the 2016 referendum. Uribe’s presidency, from 2002 to 2010, was marked by a brutal military campaign against the Farc that often ignored human rights concerns.

Duque, like his patron, is no dove. He ordered 2,500 troops to the Catatumbo region late last year, while at a national level the army is encouraged to double its kill stats, according to media reports.

“They are on a war footing,” said Isacson.

Santiago used to farm red onion, potato and raise chickens on his farm in San Calixto, a small town in the north of the region. But he was forced to flee earlier this year: two of his cousins were murdered by the ELN, then Santiago received death threats for speaking out over the killings.

“This isn’t the first time I’ve had to run. I’ve lost count of the times I left my house thinking I won’t come back,” he said.

“But this is something we have to live with,” Santiago said. “The military are patrolling and people are scared to speak out, our leaders are threatened, and we are finding more landmines every day. In Catatumbo, the peace process has been a failure.”


Joe Parkin Daniels in Ocaña, Colombia

The GuardianTramp

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