Just months before elections, Colombia's shadow war rages on
2021 was the deadliest year for residents in conflict zones since the peace accord was signed, and the government seems powerless to stop escalating violence
On January 2nd, confrontations on the Colombian-Venezuelan border between leftist armed groups left at least 27 dead, over 500 displaced, and thousands confined to their homes in Arauca, Colombia. Residents are caught in the middle as rebel groups battle one another directly and execute civilians thought to be sympathizers for the other group.
In the weeks since fighting erupted the death toll has risen to 32 according to Human Rights Watch investigators, and both Colombia and Venezuela have begun massive troop deployments in the hopes of imposing security. Meanwhile, armed groups have imposed restrictions on movement for civilians in the area.
Long-simmering tension between the 10th Front, a splinter group from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the National Liberation Army (ELN) in the region have come to an explosive head as they battle over territory.
The flare up represents only the latest escalation in a year of intense violence between armed groups with their roots in the Colombian civil war. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs recorded more than 72,000 displacements in Colombia between January and September of 2021— a 196% increase compared to the same period in 2020.
Indepaz, a non-profit which monitors the peace process in Colombia, reported 96 massacres, which the Colombian state defines as the murder of more than three people in a single incident, in 2021. It is the most since 2014, two years before an accord between the government and FARC that was supposed to put the country on a road to peace. Child recruitment by armed groups, as well as forced recruitments, have also risen.
The administration of President Iván Duque, who won election on a campaign to dismantle aspects of the controversial 2016 peace accord, has preferred military to social solutions to contain the escalating violence. Current favorite for the May 29 presidential elections Petro Gustavo, is running on promises to re-implement the peace deal.
For residents in places like Arauca, where law is imposed by armed groups rather than police, and there is little to no state presence, it is a peace which never arrived.
I’ve been covering the implementation of the peace process in Colombia for four years, and as part of that job have crisscrossed the country countless times to speak with the people who live in the midst of this low-intensity shadow war. The common denominator in these zones is a complete lack of faith in government efforts— many doubt the government wants peace at all.
Carmen Rojas-Silva, 71, lives in Puerto Lajas, a small farming community in Catatumbo, a coca producing region north of Arauca near the Venezuelan border. In many ways, her story is typical of those who live in the regions where Colombia’s civil war never really ended.
Her husband was killed in the late 1980s by ELN rebels who arrived in Catatumbo during the civil war after territorial losses in other regions, displacing farmers from their lands, demanding extortion payments and executing dissenters as they imposed their rules.
Two decades later, in 2005, the Colombian government accused her son of being a soldier for ELN, a claim Rojas vehemently denies. He fled Puerto Lajas after soldiers visited his family’s house.
“The last time I ever heard from him, he was in Tibú [the regional capital],” said Rojas. “I’m certain he was disappeared by paramilitaries working with the government.”
She explained that her family hates living under ELN, and that after the death of her husband and the arrival of rebel groups, the region went from being a simple agricultural community to one of the biggest coca-producing regions in the world, making her hometown much more dangerous.
“The idea that we are ELN supporters after what they have done here is ridiculous,” she said, sipping coffee on the porch of her small plot, where she raises pigs, yuca and squash.
But when asked if she believes the government can bring peace, her countenance changed to one of anger. “The government isn’t any better than the guerillas.”
It isn’t only leftist rebel groups that fight in the Colombian-Venezuean borderlands. Right-wing paramilitary groups descended from “self defense” forces that fought on the side of the government during the civil war battle for control of extortion and smuggling territory as well.
In Norte de Santander, near Cúcuta, the Rastrojos, a paramilitary force originally from Cali, have been fighting ELN since at least 2019 in a war that has left them decimated. In 2020, after heavy losses, they allied with the largest criminal structure in the country, the Urabeños, also known as the Gaitanista Self Defense Forces (AGC), who have since expanded the conflict into Catatumbo as well.
Ana Teresa Castillo runs a shelter for women in La Parada, the border town at the foot of the Símon Bolivar Bridge on the Venezuelan border. She has been thrice displaced by armed conflict. Originally from Antioquia, her husband died of a heart attack as soldiers from FARC sexually assaulted her in front of him in 1995. From there she fled to Meta and Catatumbo, each time displaced by violence, either between armed groups or committed by the Colombian state.
Castillo’s shelter offers counselling for victims of gender-based violence and sexual assault, and she has no shortage of women in need of help. “We see a lot of violence against women in the trochas, from sexual assault, to robbery, to murder,” she said, using the local slang term for the smuggling paths across the border that armed groups fight over.
Castillo has had run-ins with guerillas and paramilitary forces alike, and gunfire can often be heard from the neighborhood of La Parada. She played me a message circulated by AGC in March declaring war on ELN in the region.
Trumpets blare a patriotic march as the narrator, who calls himself “El Paisa”, reads a list of municipalities in Norte de Santander. “To all those guerilla sons of bitches who come here to fuck with us, this an affirmation that this is our territory,” he exclaims. “And we have returned to take it all back.”
The announcement, like those of the ELN and 10th Front in Arauca, demanded citizens stay in their houses, shutter business and avoid public areas, and that anyone violating these rules would be presumed to be an enemy, subject to death.
As long as these peripheral areas of the country continue to be neglected, a trend that goes back much further than the current administration, these wars in the shadows will continue, and it is people like Carmen Rojas-Silva who are caught in the crossfire.
Many residents in places like Catatumbo, where there is no running water, hospitals, government built schools or law, feel that the only time they encounter the Colombian government is during military operations into their communities.
“More soldiers and more bombs aren’t going to solve our problems,” she said from her home in June. “Colombia could be a paradise, but instead it seems our politicians want to make it a battleground.”
Spanish words of the week:
pipocas/cotufas/pochoclo/palomitas/crispetas - all of these words mean popcorn, depending on which country you go to. We like to imagine that they're engaged in a Highlander-style fight to be the only one, but the truth is that different words for popcorn can coexist peacefully. If only humans could do the same.
Abudinear: "to steal absolutely everything". This became a word after a Colombian politician was convicted of massive embezzlement and is based on her last name.
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