Greetings from Bogotá. I’m here briefly after a few days in the department of Arauca, in northeastern Colombia along the border with Venezuela. We visited the towns of Arauca (the departmental capital), Arauquita, and Saravena, holding 17 interviews with human rights defenders, political office holders, social movements, the armed forces, youth groups, trade unionists, and academics.
Arauca, population less than 300,000, has a tough reputation. It’s a cattle and oil-producing region that since the 1980s has been one of the main strongholds of the ELN (National Liberation Army) guerrillas. Because of that, the 2016 peace accord with the FARC brought only a modest dose of tranquility—and even that is fraying.
The ELN has historically been strongest in Arauca’s north and west, along the Venezuelan border and a frequently bombed oil pipeline. The FARC overlapped in the south and center of the department, coexisting uneasily. Right-wing paramilitary groups entered, and caused a spike in violence and victimization, during the first half of the 2000s—a time when the Bush administration gave Arauca-based Colombian military units more than $100 million in assistance to help guard oil infrastructure. During the second half of the 2000s, the FARC and ELN fought a bloody conflict that, though it drew little media attention, killed perhaps 1,500 to 2,000 people—we don’t know how many, because so many families across Arauca had to bury their dead and keep quiet.
A pact ended the inter-guerrilla fighting around 2010, but the ELN, which has grown deep roots in Arauca, was widely viewed to have “won” that conflict. Its Domingo Laín Front, founded in 1980, may today make up the majority of the ELN’s national membership. This front decreed that farmers must not grow coca, a crop that the FARC had encouraged, and today there is virtually no coca planted in Arauca.
The FARC’s 10th and 45th Fronts demobilized in Arauca after the peace accord’s signature and ratification. Almost 500 fighters turned in their weapons at a village-sized demobilization site in Filipinas, in the center of the department. Araucans recall 2017 and 2018, a period during which the ELN was in peace talks with Colombia’s government, as the most peaceful period in memory: a time when transportation was less risky, businesses could open up, and the guerrillas’ social control was a bit looser.
That began to end in January of this year when, in a plot hatched in Arauca, an ELN truck bomb killed 21 cadets at Colombia’s police academy in Bogotá. The peace talks ended. Meanwhile, FARC dissidents—most of them new recruits, not demobilized ex-combatants from Filipinas—have sprouted up in some of the areas that were previously under FARC control. 2019 has been a year of increased homicides and attacks on military targets; the military says it has also increased its captures of guerrillas.
Just about everyone we talked to said that Arauca is in a state of tense calm. Campaigning for the October 27 mayoral and gubernatorial elections has been peaceful, unlike several other regions of Colombia. Violence levels are still nowhere near a few years ago, though ambushes and IED attacks on military and police targets are increasing. A pact between the ELN and FARC dissidents appears to be in place.
That, however, is an unstable equilibrium; it could collapse at any time, bringing a new wave of violence. ELN units and FARC dissidents are recruiting new members, and aiming to control areas through campaigns of “social cleansing”—murdering petty criminals, drug users, Venezuelan migrants—that underlie a jump in homicides. Social groups worry that paramilitary organizations are trying to insert themselves, citing recent threats; whether that is actually happening is unclear. They also worry that, with the ELN peace process over, a military offensive may be coming. We didn’t see evidence of that, though the government is drawing up plans to increase its presence in a portion of the department billed as a “Zona Futuro,” a plan that will have a military component.
Meanwhile, there’s the 200-plus-mile border with Venezuela. Refugees come south in large numbers, though not as large as in the city of Cúcuta further north along the border. We heard many accusations that sounded downright xenophobic—even from human rights defenders—about these refugees’ alleged participation in crime and crowding out of Colombians from the labor market. Colombia’s armed groups are recruiting Venezuelans, mostly minors. And their leaders are spending most of their time on the Venezuelan side of the border. Kidnap victims are often taken across the Arauca river into Venezuela. And all kinds of contraband crosses both ways: drugs to the north, and weapons, cheap gasoline, and stolen cattle to the south.
I was struck by how much distrust Araucans have for their government: it is nearly total. I heard the word “desconfianza” (mistrust) in nearly every meeting. They feel abandoned to the guerrillas by a government that has done little more than send the military. The military itself devotes most of its resources to protecting oil company infrastructure. We also kept hearing the word “estigmatización” (stigmatization): Araucans believe that the security forces—indeed, the rest of the country—views them as guerrillas or guerrilla sympathizers, as outlaws, and treats them with constant suspicion.
Arauca is badly ungoverned, and its tense calm could flare up into severe violence at any time. Colombia’s government could address this by implementing the Development Plans with a Territorial Focus (PDET), a commitment in the peace accord to bring basic government services into 170 of Colombia’s most conflict-battered counties, including Arauca’s western half. (Colombia has about 1,100 counties.)
The PDETs’ delivery of promised roads, healthcare, and development projects are moving slowly on a 10 to 15-year timeline. Meanwhile, President Iván Duque’s government plans at least to jump-start service delivery in a portion of Arauca’s PDET territory, under the “Zonas Futuro” plan, which some we interviewed fear will be too focused on military action. Government officials respond that the military and police in Arauca’s “Zona Futuro” will hand off responsibilities to the civilian government as quickly as possible. It won’t get going until next year.
Whatever the plan for improving governance and daily life in Arauca, it will need to address the incredibly deep and pervasive mistrust that the population feels toward government institutions. Building relations between state and population will mean honoring commitments already made, keeping one’s word—and doing it by bringing in parts of the government that don’t carry guns and wear uniforms. It will mean formalizing landholdings, a huge bottleneck to any other development effort in Arauca. It will mean punishing corruption that has reached epic proportions in an oil-producing region that exemplifies the “resource curse.” And it will mean an end to stigmatization of a population that, for the most part, is tired of living under armed groups’ constant influence, and just wants to move in from the periphery and be a normal part of Colombia.
We’re leaving Bogotá shortly for another region of Colombia. I’ll post again when we get back.