Border dynamics and the conflict in Colombia: A Case Study of Arauca-Apure and Nariño-Esmeraldas
Author: Oscar Manuel Sánchez Piñeiro
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 04/01/2012
Intro: border dynamics in the midst of the conflict
The recently improved diplomatic relations between Colombia and Venezuela and Ecuador have only highlighted the damage caused by the neglect of the borders during the previous administrations. Since the mid-1990s, border areas have been of strategic importance for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), paramilitary groups, and narco trafficking gangs. Since then, they have used the borders to escape the military pressure of the Colombian Armed Forces, to rest, re-equip, recruit, train, and further diversify their businesses.
The weak civil institutional capacity in the Arauca-Apure and Nariño-Emeraldas cross border regions has allowed the armed groups to take control and advantage of different profit making ventures. In the Arauca-Apure region, armed groups benefit from the contraband of drugs, fuel, arms, food and other goods. Furthermore, the groups have expanded their use and control of territory, illegal mining practices, and the extortion of local business. The border regions provide a mostly free space for cocaine traffic and an entrance point for materials needed for cocaine production. All these activities, which some classify as a war economy, continuously provide resources for the prolongation of the conflict in Colombia.
The military strategy under the Uribe government pushed the conflict into the peripheries of the country, heightening the strategic importance of the borders. One of these strategies was Plan Colombia, followed by Plan Patriota. Later on the Plan Nacional de Consolidaci-n (PNC) was introduced, covering 15 intervention zones in 100 different municipalities including the border departments of Nariño, Putumayo, Arauca, and Norte de Santander.  These historically neglected regions now faced a diversity of armed actors and weak civil institutional presence, which resulted in a serious humanitarian crisis. Thus, some have argued that borders should be at the centre of our understanding of Colombia’s protracted conflict. Nevertheless, the border situation and its impact on the internal conflict remain ill-researched and existing analyses are limited in scope and mostly impractical as a basis for policy design.
The fieldwork informing this paper took place in the Colombian Department of Arauca, and the Ecuadorian Province of Esmeraldas over the past 4 years, thus this article focuses exclusively on the Arauca-Apure and Nariño-Esmeraldas regions in the context of armed conflict.
The present reflections are intended to bring to light two border dynamics as active contributors to the lingering violence in the region. In the final section, we present some policy alternatives to the current insufficient protection of civilians in these border regions.
Strategies of the irregular armed groups in the border regions
The low state presence and the increased number armed actors have undermined the Rule of Law in Arauca-Apure and Nariño-Esmeraldas. For much of the history of these regions, there was a limited state presence and the state’s approach to counter any structural problems was purely military. According to different news sources, Ecuador has approximately 13,000 soldiers stationed in the border region. For instance, San Lorenzo, a small Ecuadorian border town, has a significant military presence including an infantry battalion. Likewise, the State of Apure in Venezuela is home to a brigade and specialised a battalion to cover the border region. Arauca has over 15,000 soldiers for a population of 250,000. Over the past two years, there was an increase in the number of soldiers in the Department of Nariño (from the previous 6,000) plus the creation of six new battalions and a special police district in Tumaco. The high presence of armed forces contrasts with the low presence of civilian institutions, as the regions Aruaca-Apure and Nariño-Esmerladas have low institutional support, capacity, and competency.
The following non-exhaustive table enumerates characteristics of the irregular armed groups. These characteristics were found and documented in the regions were the field work was conducted.
|Forced displacement (from Colombia to Ecuador and Venezuela, but also within receiving countries)||FARC, ELN, Aguilas Negras, Rastrojos, Fuerzas Bolivarianas de Liberaci-n (FBL), Ecuatorian armed gangs||Nariño-Esmeraldas and Arauca-Apure|
|Forced Recruitment of Minors||Paramilitary groups, FARC, ELN||Pacific Coast of Nariño and Esmeraldas, Arauca-Apure|
|Extortion and kidnapping (this includes extortion of business persons and individuals)||FARC, Aguilas Negras, Rastrojos, FBL||Pacific Coast of Nariño and Esmeraldas, Arauca-Apure|
|Serious violations of international humanitarian law||FARC, ELN||Arauca and Nariño|
|Human Trafficking||Organised crime||Esmeraldas/Carchi|
|Drug Trafficking||Aguilas Negras, Rastrojos||Pacific Coast of Nariño and Esmeraldas, Arauca-Apure.|
|Money laundering||FARC, Cartel de Sinaloa||Emeraldas|
|Land usurpation||Paramilitary Groups (Aguilas Negras), Rastrojos, ELN.||Esmeraldas-Nariño, Arauca-Apure |
|Contraband of weapons||FARC, ELN, paramilitary groups||Esmeraldas-Nariño, Arauca Apure|
|Illegal mining (mainly gold mining)||FARC, paramilitary groups (Aguilas Negras), new groups post demobilisation process (Rastrojos, Urabeños)||Pacific Coast of Nariño and Esmeraldas. State of Bolivar in Venezuela|
|Contract killing (sicariato)/ Targeted assassinations||Paramilitary groups, FBL, FARC, ELN, Ecuadorian armed gangs||Esmeraldas, Arauca-Apure|
|Contraband of petrol||ELN, FARC, FBL, Ecuatorian armed gangs (los Panezo y los Casquete)||Pacific Coast of Nariño and Esmeraldas, Arauca-Apure|
|New forms of slavery||Organised crime||Esmeraldas|
Description of the irregular armed groups’ strategies
The fourteen categories above could be used as part of a taxonomy for the different armed groups and their activities in the border region. Each of the categories will require its own individual study to fully understand their social and economic impact. The next paragraphs analyse some of the key issues as they relate closely to border conflict dynamics.
Forced displacement (from Colombia to Ecuador and Venezuela, and within receiving countries)
Ecuador is the largest recipient of Colombian refugees, which originate mainly from Putumayo, Nariño and Caquetá, as these areas are subject to Colombia’s recently invigorated military offensive against the guerrillas, and areas of continuous armed confrontation. About 3,800 asylum seekers live in the Province of Esmeraldas and over 6,000 recognized refugees, which constitute 11% of the total refugees recognized by the Ecuadorian Government. Close to 70% of asylum seekers come from Nariño, especially from the municipality of Tumaco. Nariño itself has displaced over 200,000 persons. According to Socorro Ramirez of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, border regions receive a disproportionate amount of forcibly displaced persons:
Between 1995 and 2004, 64 of the 79 border municipalities of Colombia expelled 11.69% total displaced population in the country and received 12.25% of the national total. The regions close to Venezuela registered 70.84% of the expulsions and 76.35% of the receptions, the regions close to Ecuador received 20.26% and 26.29% of the expulsions, and border municipalities with Panama, 4.05% of the expulsions and 1.5% of the receptions.
By late 2009, UNHCR reported 1,313 recognised refugees in Venezuela and 14,372 asylum seekers. UNHCR estimates the number of persons in need of international protection in Venezuela at 200,000, but many don’t seek asylum for fear of being identified by the armed groups or because they don’t know this protection might be available. Arauca, on the other hand, has displaced over 69,000 of its citizens from 1997 to 2011 and received over 45,000 during the same time period.
There are also documented cases, albeit limited, of internally displaced persons in Ecuador and Venezuela by the different armed groups operating in these regions.
Forced Recruitment of Minors
The forced recruitment of minors continues to be one of the main reasons for displacement. Although the number of minors in the different irregular armed groups is almost impossible to document, some NGOs estimate the number to be between 11,000 and 14,000. If we just focus on the causalities among the different groups and their continued influence on the ground, we begin to approximate the scale of the problem. Since 2004, according to government data, the FARC has suffered the loss of at least 49,609 of its fighters, including the death of 10,806 rebels in military operations, the capture of 26,648 members between 2003 and 2009, and the demobilization of 11,615 fighters between 2002 and 2009. The post-demobilization groups also experienced a similar impact. According to the Vice-presidency’s Observatory on Human Rights, in the first quarter of 2011, the government captured 800 illegal armed group members, which would add to the 10,400 imprisoned between 2006 and 2010.  Given that these groups still have a considerable impact and given the different reports of recruitment, it is clear that the groups are filling their ranks with children. In Arauca-Apure and Nariño-Esmeraldas, children are constantly at risk of being forcibly recruited. During the field work conducted, we encountered Venezuelan and Ecuadorian children as well as Colombian refugees, minors and adults, recruited by the different armed groups.
Extortion and kidnapping
Extortion is one of the most profitable practices of armed groups. Companies that conduct business in their territories are often charged a tax (vacuna), and if they refuse to pay, workers are often kidnapped or the vehicles are burned. In the border areas, the low capacity of law enforcement allows this crime to go unchecked. The law enforcement agencies that are present can be avoided by crossing the borders, a problem compounded by low international collaboration.
Serious violations of international humanitarian law
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’ annual report draws special attention to the serious violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) in Colombia. The report finds that borders have a compounding effect on breaches to IHL, and that the lack of civil institutions to document these cases result in total impunity.
During the field work we encountered significant human trafficking in the Mariño-Esmeraldas region, mostly involving women who are being sexually exploited, but also other forms of trafficking aimed at labour exploitation. Again the border serves as a safe haven for armed groups and criminal gangs to operate with impunity.
Drug trafficking is perhaps the most lucrative activity and a primary reason why armed groups initially populated Arauca-Apure and Nariño-Esmeralds. Along the Ecuadorian border areas, cocaine is produced in FARC controlled territory and then sold to other groups such as Rastrojos, Urabeños, Cartel del Valle, etc. who in turn sell the cocaine to the Mexican Cartels (Zetas, Cartel de Sinaloa, Golfo).
With the increased control and surveillance and fumigations funded by Plan Colombia, irregular armed groups found alternative routes, often subcontracting or breaking down different components of the drug trafficking business. In Ecuador, the cocaine arrives via Esmeraldas and is mainly transported via ship or improvised submarines. The entry of cocaine into Venezuela happens along the entire border. However, as surveillance has increased, the Arauca-Apure access point has become increasingly important: “since at least 2007, the vast majority of light airplane flights have originated in Venezuela’s state of Apure, across the border from Arauca, Colombia.”
The immense profits of the cocaine trade places the illegal armed groups under pressure to justify the funds to tax authorities. The armed groups try to launder the money through legitimate business undertakings: some buy property, some invest in agro-industrial ventures such as African palm oil plantations, and yet others carry out money lending. These practices are particularly evident in Ecuador where a large number of money lending business has proliferated in the last few years, making record profits. Pawn shops are also utilised to justify gold deposits often arriving from illegal mining.
Land usurpation is a phenomenon widely documented in the Pacific Coast and in Eastern Colombia. There is growing evidence that the same method of extortion, threats, assassination and coercion with the ultimate aim for land seizure is also happening in Esmeraldas. Property held under collective titles belonging to Afro descendents and indigenous communities is illegally obtained and utilised for agro-industrial businesses, oil exploration, or mining. As with other illicit businesses, evidence shows that different actors are involved in this practice and that armed groups are usually subcontracted to pressure communities to sell their land. This often leads to the mass displacement of communities and prolonged disfranchisement. The phenomenon is also happening along the Venezuela border with Arauca, where ELN is buying up large plots of land.
Contraband of weapons
As internal sources of weaponry have been closed off within Colombia, the borders have become more important. Arms trade continues to be a very profitable venture for all groups, including for the regular armed forced of the neighbouring countries.
Illegal mining (mainly gold mining)
FARC, Rastrojos, and other groups operating in the Colombian Pacific Coast and Ecuador either control the territory directly or they control all access to the extraction sites. Besides collecting vacunas, armed actors are known to conduct and invest in their own mining and trading activities. By doing so, the armed actors establish “legal” operations of private businesses or operate in partnership with others. At times, the armed actors supply machinery and transport, as well as a protection. Frequently, the armed groups provide the means for the workers to do the mining who in turn earn a daily wage; if they find gold they are given a bonus. During field work, we spoke to persons who asserted that the stealing of gold in these mines is severely punished. There are also published reports documenting severe human rights abuses committed in mining zones.
The problem has become of concern to the national and local authorities as they seek to contract plots of land to international companies. The increase of control by the state has already caused conformations between gold miners and law enforcement agencies in Ecuador and Colombia.
Contract killing (sicariato)/ Targeted assassinations
In some cases, armed groups also provide services for companies seeking to displace communities from their lands. The homicide rates per 100,000 people confirm that the borders identified in this study are some of the most violent places in the world (Esmeraldas: 53 per 100,000 persons, San Lorenzo: 115 per 100,000 persons, Tumaco: 136 per 100,000 persons, Nariño: 30 per 100,000 persons). The figures in Venezuela are not very reliable, but some estimate the figures as high as 67 per 100,000 in the country. In addition, one must take into account that many deaths go unreported and are not investigated.
Contraband of petrol and gas
For many years, people along the Ecuadorian and Venezuelan border have lived off the petrol and gas trade, taking advantage of the sometimes enormous price difference between Colombia and its neighbours. These differences are largely a result of the fuel subsidies that Venezuela and Ecuador provide. The armed groups usually control the whole trade or impose a tariff/vacuna.
Along the Colombian and Ecuadorian Pacific Coast, there is an increasing number of cases of piracy at sea. At the time of writing, in early 2012, more than 10 cases of piracy were documented as part of our field work.
New Forms of Slavery
The UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Gulnara Shahinian, documented cases of labour exploitation, inhuman and degrading treatment, as well as discrimination during her mission to Ecuador in 2010. These human rights violations amount to contemporary forms of slavery and are encountered in particular among the vulnerable Colombian refugees and asylum-seekers, as well as among sectors of the Ecuadorian population, including afro-Ecuadorians, Montubios and indigenous peoples.
The Colombian conflict is not an endogenous matter. The over 45-year long conflict is fuelled, prolonged, and spread by actors operating in the border regions, primarily through the activities discussed above. The borders and the armed actors stimulate what some have called Colombia’s war economy. The armed actors formalize and invest their illicitly gained dividends into the local economy, thereby increasing their control over the local wealth and political affairs.
One might legitimately ask about the usefulness of analysing the different conflict dynamics at the border, given the presence and similar activities conducted by most of these irregular armed groups in most Colombian regions. This is precisely why this paper highlighted the diversity of activities and actors operating with impunity under an institutional void along the borders.
From an academic viewpoint, there remains an acute need to study more profoundly the economic impact of the borders on the Colombian conflict. Through our field work and data analysis we have seen that the Colombian conflict has not only “spilled over” into neighbouring countries, but is fuelling a regionalization of the conflict. In particular, irregular armed groups are extending their presence and control in neighbouring countries. Colombian irregular armed groups have been brought into Ecuador to settle disputes between rivalling criminal families or to train local armed groups, as the case in Venezuela. Today, a multiplicity of loosely connected groups form temporary alliances to profit from different illicit activities, reflecting the economics of opportunity derived from the conflict more than a common political goal.
The policy recommendations presented below build on the proposition that greater institutional support must be part of a broader intervention encompassing human security and greater economic development. The combination of greater Rule of Law and development of opportunities will not only decrease the violence in the border areas but will also cut the legs of Colombia’s war economy.
Decentralisation of the Rule of Law and its institutions.
It is important to restore social cohesion in affected communities through policies designed to ensure access to justice, and the development of public institutions based on inclusion and integration. This must involve an equitable distribution of resources and establishing mechanisms for conflict resolution and dialogue with public entities.
Strengthen Prosecution of Armed Groups
Specialized civil security organs and judicial authorities should be professionalized and equipped to gather evidence on armed groups and their economic associates’ ?nancial strategies and illegal activities, which should lead to effective prosecution.
Increase the presence of Civil Society
Civil society needs to have more presence in the border regions where gross violations are occurring. The documentation and follow-up of cases of human right violations should bring further light into the region. Cross border protection networks should be established to help the victims fleeing the violence.
Bio: Oscar Manuel Sánchez Piñeiro is a humanitarian worker with more than 10 years of experience in the field. For the past 4 years has worked in the Colombia and Ecuador. Special thanks to Petra Heusser for her review and comments to the first draft of this article. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.