On the border between Colombia Y Venezuela an armed conflict is consolidating. Its protagonists, its causes and its possible scope are not entirely clear. But the toll of deaths, victims and clashes increases.
On Sunday, January 2, clashes between the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the 10th Front of the dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) They left at least 22 dead, as reported by the authorities.
The epicenter of the fighting was the municipalities of Tame, Saravena, Fortul and Arauquita, in the western part of the department of Arauca, on the central border with Venezuela, which borders Apure state.
The government of Iván Duque cited two security councils, sent two battalions and promised to strengthen intelligence to contain an outbreak of violence that puts the lives of some 2,000 people living in the area at risk.
It is not, however, the first time in the last year that the war of the past seems to be reissued with new actors, but with the same causes, in the same scenarios as always.
Following the peace agreement signed between the Juan Manuel Santos government and the FARC guerrillas in 2016, the conflict in Colombia has fragmented, different armed groups emerged, and cocaine production soared.
The experts refrain from talking about a new war in Colombia, because the State is not threatened by a specific and centralized group. But the violence is escalating.
Here are three keys to understanding the rivalry between the ELN and the FARC dissidents.
1. A historic rivalry
Three of the six guerrillas that emerged in the 1960s in Colombia demobilized in the 1980s, a fourth lost power or was placated by the state, and the remaining two were strengthened and expanded during the drug trafficking boom of the 1990s.
These are the FARC, of peasant origin, and the ELN, created by communist students inspired by liberation theology.
The big difference between the two is their form of organization: the FARC was vertical and centralized, while the ELN operates as a kind of federal organization. The first used to say that it was a guerrilla that did politics and the ELN, which is a political group that took up arms.
Although both movements, installed in the jungles, sought to overthrow the liberal order based on a Marxism inherited from the Cuban revolution, the differences and competition between them were clear from the beginning. And that has manifested itself in confrontations, coexistence and, sometimes, collaboration over half a century.
In Arauca, to give an example that many cite with the outbreak of violence on Sunday, the clashes between the two guerrillas between 2004 and 2010 left at least 500 civilians and 600 subversives dead and more than 50,000 people displaced, according to official figures.
In 2010, the two guerrillas agreed to end the conflict in Arauca and shared control of illegal spaces and rents. This region, since then, has ceased to be an epicenter of violence, although not of illegal activities, especially the export of cocaine and smuggling through Venezuela.
In 2016, with the peace process, the FARC ceased to exist as a group articulated at the national level and dissident groups emerged –it is estimated around 30– who recruited new members and grew stronger during the pandemic.
This kind of peace, product of the agreements between the two hegemonic guerrillas, was broken when the largest of them, the FARC, disappeared and dissident groups emerged that had little to do with the old insurgency.
“The breaking of the agreements between the 10th Front and the ELN They are the product of several factors: disagreements about extortion and abuses by the 10th Front, differences on how to face the pandemic, and complaints about the recent conflict between the dissidents and the Venezuelan security forces, “says Juan Pappier, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, a human rights group.
Arauca, then, as well as the rest of the border with Venezuela, is today a disputed space between not only guerrillas, but also the armies of both countries and dozens of paramilitary groups and drug traffickers who took advantage of the power vacuum left by the FARC.
2. What governments say and do
President Duque, in addition to announcing the security councils, described the situation as “complex” because “many of these clashes take place practically on the edge, on the edge of the border.”
For years Duque has argued that the validity of these groups is due to “the consent and protection of the dictatorial regime” from Venezuela.
But the Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, has blamed the Colombian rulers for “abandoning the border” and has said that “Venezuela is a victim of the irregular armed groups (…) who came to apply the formula that they apply to part of the Venezuelan territory. in collusion (alliance) with Duque against the people of Colombia. “
The bilateral relationship is frozen, especially after Duque stopped recognizing Maduro as the legitimate president of Venezuela. This, according to specialists, limits actions against armed groups on the border.
The border crossing has also been restricted since 2015 and closed since 2019, which encourages the emergence of illegal economies and actors.
An opening was announced in October 2021, but in practice most border crossings remain fenced off.
3. What happened to peace
The peace process signed in 2016 reduced violence, but since then the numbers of political homicides and the forced displacement of citizens have increased.
Last year registered the highest homicide rate (12,787) in Colombia since 2014 (12,060).
Massacres, displacement and killings of demobilized social leaders and ex-combatants also reached record numbers.
And the technification of production, fueled by the arrival of Mexican investors, allowed produce more cocaine with less coca leaf base sown.
Duque says that his implementation of the peace process has prioritized the productive development of the regions most affected by the conflict and denies the criticism that his government missed the opportunity to strengthen the state and mitigate the causes of the conflict.
Peace, in any case, today seems like a dream that ended very quickly. And the clashes between the FARC and ELN dissidents only make the situation more complex.
“This outbreak of violence is traversed by the confrontations of the dissidents with the Venezuelan army, by the control of illegal income and by the logic of power in the municipalities, where the guerrillas have social, economic and even political control”, says Jorge Mantilla, director of conflict dynamics at the Ideas for Peace Foundation, a study center.
The Venezuelan government has always denied that its army is related to illegal activities on the border.
In April 2021, clashes between FARC dissidents and the Venezuelan army caused massive displacements in Arauquita. A month later, in the northern part of the border, the FARC guerrilla leader Jesús Santrich was killed. And in the following months, several other guerrillas from different fronts, among them alias “El Paisa”, were assassinated.
“All this upset the balance of power in these areas (…) Conflict between the two groups has been increasing not only in Arauca, but in other areas of the country, so the challenges in humanitarian terms for 2022 are enormous for the Colombian State “, concludes Mantilla.