Arauca, the return to blood and crossfire in Colombia



Fear reigns here. On the border between Colombia and Venezuela, in the oil region of Arauca, two guerrillas wage a merciless battle with a population caught in the middle.

The year began under the crossfire of the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the dissidents that were marginalized from the peace agreement with the extinct FARC.

“What is at stake is the territorial control of the department and the multiple traffic with neighboring Venezuela”, through the Arauca River, sums up a political scientist based in the region who spoke confidentially.

There are almost 50 deaths in less than four weeks. Assassinations, kidnappings, threats and settling scores occur daily.

On January 19, a car bomb exploded in the municipality of Saravena in front of a headquarters of social activists, in an attack attributed to dissidents who see local leaders as ELN collaborators.

Simeón Delgado, a 45-year-old guard, father of three children, died in the attack. “This damn war took it from us. A war where we do not ask to be. We are not part of that conflict”, says his sister Alba.

By means of small cylinder boats, people move from one point of the river to another on both borders. AFP/J. Barreto

the law of silence

Only last weekend there were five homicides. The modus operandi is almost always the same: targeted killings carried out by motorcycle gunmen. “Every day they kill. Many times we don’t even know why. How not to be afraid?” says Andrés Prada, an indigenous leader.

The conflict is concentrated along the Arauca River and plains within the department. Almost as big as Haiti, Arauca It has the oil fields of Caño Limón, protected by the army. Agriculture and smuggling complement its economy.

In Arauca there is “a local executive power devoured by corruption, and a border region that is a gold mine for the guerrillas,” illustrates an independent source that also demands confidentiality.

“Everything is transported through the river: men, merchandise and, of course, drugs,” he adds.

Venezuelan military forces control the migration post. AFP/J. Barreto

If it weren’t for some threatening graffiti or the nervousness of the military, no one would notice the conflict. “Don’t be fooled, everyone spies on everyone,” says a driver and ex-soldier.

No one wears a helmet on the motorcycle, “the guerrillas prohibited it,” according to the same driver.

Few people agree to speak or be quoted. “We are afraid”, they repeat as a mantra. “If you give my name, tomorrow I am a corpse”, says the relative of a victim.

In Saravena, the streets empty at night due to the nightly curfew imposed by the authorities and the order of the FARC dissidents.

Death walks through the towns of Saravena, Fortul, Tame, La Esmeralda and Arauquita.

The “legal” crossing is guarded by elements of the army of both nations. AFP/J. Barreto

revolutionary tax

The ELN plays at home. Arauca is a historical bastion of this movement born of the Cuban revolution and liberation theology, which imposes its law and a “revolutionary tax”.

It has a strong social base in the region, with many local networks. “Nothing is done without the approval of the THE N, which benefits from a considerable income from organized extortion of oil wells”, explains the analyst.

“Everyone pays, one way or another. The ELN is invisible, but its men are everywhere,” he adds.

The conflict shakes both sides of the border while the two governments continue without reestablishing relations, broken since 2019. Colombia accuses Venezuela of protecting the guerrillas in its territory.

“The violence began last year in Venezuelan territory, when the 10th Front of the FARC dissidence began to fight against the ELN for its bases and income, and then directly confronted the Venezuelan forces,” says the director of the center of Colombian studies Indepaz, Camilo González.

After a war of several years, both organizations agreed on a non-aggression pact in 2011. Five years later, the FARC signed peace, but some fronts withdrew from the negotiation and remained in arms. The dissidences grew stronger and today they have some 5,000 combatants.

“The dissidences of the FARC They have been very active in recent months trying to take control of drug trafficking routes to Venezuela and Brazil.”said a security expert in Bogotá.

Before the outbreak of violence, the Colombian government sent more troops. Their presence is barely noticeable around oil installations.

The two groups also clash in propaganda. Both claim to be “ombudsmen” and accuse each other of collaborating with the State, their common enemy.

“The problem with all this is that each group is attacking sympathetic populations or those that supposedly support the opposing group,” points out the director of Indepaz.

“There have already been many murders in 2021,” recalls a religious leader. “But the dynamic suddenly accelerated. This is only the beginning”, he resigns.

The boats are dedicated to carrying merchandise of “all kinds” across the border. AFP/J. Barreto

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