“The Guerrillas Are the Police” - Social Control and Abuses by Armed Groups in Colombia’s Arauca Province and Venezuela’s Apure State
In the eastern Colombian province of Arauca and the neighboring Venezuelan state of Apure, non-state armed groups use violence to control peoples’ daily lives. They impose their own rules, and to enforce compliance they threaten civilians on both sides of the border, subjecting those who do not obey to punishments ranging from fines to forced labor to killings. Residents live in fear.
Human Rights Watch visited Arauca in August 2019, documenting a range of abuses on both sides of the border. We interviewed 105 people, including community leaders, victims of abuses and their relatives, humanitarian actors, human rights officials, judicial officials, and journalists. We sent information requests to Colombian and Venezuelan authorities, and consulted an array of sources and documents.
We found that armed groups on both sides of the border exercise control through threats, kidnappings, forced labor, child recruitment, and murder. In Arauca, armed groups have also planted landmines and perpetrated sexual violence, among other abuses.
Two armed groups impose social control over the residents of Arauca: the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN), a guerrilla group formed in the 1960s, and the “Martín Villa 10th Front” dissident group, which emerged from the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo, FARC-EP or FARC) after the 2016 peace accord, and sometimes identifies itself as FARC-EP.
These two groups also operate in Venezuela’s Apure state, where the Patriotic Forces of National Liberation (Fuerzas Patrióticas de Liberación Nacional, FPLN) operate as well. This group, whose origins date back to the 1990s, reportedly has a close relationship with Venezuelan authorities in Apure.
The armed groups in both countries have established and brutally enforce on civilians a wide range of rules normally associated with criminal laws enacted and enforced by governments. Members of armed groups do not hold themselves to the same standards.
These include curfews; prohibitions on rape, theft, and murder; and regulations governing everyday activities such as fishing, debt payment, and closing times for bars. In some areas, the groups forbid wearing helmets while riding motorcycles, so that fighters can see travelers’ faces. The groups extort money from residents who carry out virtually any type of economic activity.
Some of the armed groups’ rules are included in a 2013 manual of “Unified Rules of Conduct and Coexistence,” which the FARC and ELN created before the 2016 peace accord.
Fighters communicate other rules through megaphones or signs posted along roads.
As part of their strategy to control the social, political, and economic life of Arauca, the groups have in recent years increasingly committed unlawful killings, including against human rights defenders and community leaders. In 2015, when the FARC declared a ceasefire to advance peace talks, the government recorded 96 homicides in Arauca. Since then, homicides have gone up, reaching 161 between January and late-November 2019.
Armed groups are responsible for the majority of these homicides, according to Colombia’s Institute of Forensic Science and the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office.
Human Rights Watch has also received credible allegations of killings by armed groups in Apure, but Venezuelan authorities have not released reliable, comprehensive statistics on killings there.
In 2019, at least 16 bodies of civilians found in Arauca had scrawled scraps of paper on them announcing the supposed “justification” for the killing. The texts accused the murdered victims of being “informants,” “rapists,” “drug dealers,” or “thieves,” for example. Often, the papers were signed “FARC-EP,” suggesting that the Martín Villa 10th Front FARC dissident group claimed responsibility. Residents reported similar killings in 2018.
Armed groups in Arauca and Apure also punish residents with forced labor, requiring them to work for free, sometimes for months, farming, cleaning roads, or cooking in the armed groups’ camps, which are often in Venezuela. Human Rights Watch documented at least two cases of forced labor and received credible allegations of three additional cases. Humanitarian actors, human rights officials, residents, and victims told Human Rights Watch that coerced labor is a common punishment for even minor infractions.
The ELN and FARC dissident group also recruit Colombian and Venezuelan children in both Arauca and Apure, according to human rights officials, humanitarian actors, and residents.
Armed groups often offer payment, motorcycles, and guns to children to lure them to join.
Girls who escaped from armed groups’ ranks have reported members of the groups committing sexual violence against them, including rape and forced abortion.
Some 44,000 Venezuelans live in Arauca, most having arrived since 2015, fleeing the devastating humanitarian, political, and economic crisis in their home country.
Venezuelans in Arauca often live in precarious economic conditions, sleeping on the street or forming makeshift settlements, struggling to earn money, and lacking access to public services such as comprehensive health care. Thousands have also set out on foot from the border region, hoping to reach destinations such as Bogotá, Colombia’s capital. They are often unaware of the dangers along the way, including predation by armed groups.
Venezuelans, many of whom arrive in Arauca from areas without armed groups and who are ignorant of the armed groups’ “rules,” have numbered among the murder victims.
Between January and November 2019, the Colombian National Police recorded 30 Venezuelans killed in Arauca. Community leaders, humanitarian workers, and human rights officials told Human Rights Watch that armed groups murdered many of them for violating the “rules.”
Venezuelans have also suffered abuses that are not directly associated with armed groups. Many women are sexually exploited and coerced to sell sex, and often face additional violence. Humanitarian actors have reported cases of human trafficking.
Xenophobia in Arauca is notably prevalent and has led to cases of violence against Venezuelans, who are often blamed by local residents for crimes committed there.
Colombian authorities have tried to wrest power from armed groups in Arauca, principally by deploying the military. Several of the military units on duty in Arauca, though, are dedicated to protecting oil infrastructure, which armed groups often attack. In parts of the province, protection of residents is almost entirely lacking.
Security forces are especially ineffective in the countryside. Police presence is often limited to certain urban areas while much of the army presence in rural areas is focused on oil infrastructure. As one police official told Human Rights Watch, in the remaining areas the guerrillas “are the police.”
Protection for human rights defenders, community leaders, and others particularly at risk of attack by armed groups has been limited. Colombia’s National Protection Unit (Unidad Nacional de Protección, UNP) has only one official in Arauca, who is in charge of assigning protection schemes for people at risk. This generates delays and makes it hard to carry out thorough and timely risk assessments. The UNP in Arauca does not itself have protection, or even a car, so is rarely able to visit rural areas.
Security forces in Arauca have also been involved in serious abuses. In one incident in March 2018, soldiers opened fire on four civilians who had gone hunting, killing one of them.
Armed groups appear to feel much freer to operate in Venezuela than they do in Colombia.
Groups have at times taken victims kidnapped in Arauca to camps and other facilities they maintain in Venezuela. Rather than combatting them, Venezuelan security forces, as well as local authorities, have colluded with them in at least some cases, according to multiple sources we interviewed, including Apure residents, community leaders, journalists, and humanitarian actors.
Impunity for abuses remains the norm. In Arauca, the Colombian Attorney General’s Office has secured convictions for only eight killings committed since 2017, out of a total of more than 400 now under investigation. None of the eight convictions was of a member of an armed group. Since 2017, the office has not charged, let alone convicted, any member of an armed group for rape, threats, extortion, child recruitment, forced displacement, or the criminal offense of “forcible disappearance,” which under Colombian law covers abductions and involuntary disappearances carried out by armed groups.
The Venezuelan government did not respond to an information request from Human Rights Watch regarding the status of investigations into alleged abuses in Apure. The lack of judicial independence in Venezuela, coupled with widespread fear of reporting crimes, strongly suggests there is little, if any, accountability for crimes committed by armed groups in Apure. Given our sources’ testimony that local authorities and security forces in Apure tolerate and often collude with armed groups, there is no reason to believe that serious investigations into abuses by armed groups have been conducted or will be in the near future.
The implementation of two policies announced in recent years by the Colombian government could decisively influence the human rights situation in Arauca.
In four municipalities of Arauca, the national government has committed to implementing a “Territorial Development Program” (Programas de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial,
PDET), an initiative created by the peace agreement with the FARC.
As part of the PDET, residents of the four Arauca municipalities have already participated in designing projects to increase accountability, improve protection for community activists, and address the poverty and lack of educational opportunities that have, for years, made it easier for armed groups to thrive. Implementation of the projects in Arauca could help undermine armed groups’ power and prevent human rights abuses.
On the enforcement side, the government announced in August 2019 a “Strategic Zone of Comprehensive Intervention” (Zona Estratégica de Intervención Integral) for Arauca, which is currently being designed. In such zones, authorities commit to deploying the military alongside police to dismantle armed groups and improve security. Simultaneously, the government aims, in safer parts of these areas, to improve access to public services and strengthen civilian, including judicial, institutions.
Our research suggests that the situation in Arauca is unlikely to improve if the Colombian government continues to focus its strategy on deploying the military without simultaneously strengthening the justice system, improving protection for the population, and taking steps to ensure adequate access to economic and educational opportunities and public services. Conversely, thorough implementation of PDET provisions—especially those related to strengthening the judiciary, protecting community activists, and providing economic and educational opportunities—could help undermine armed groups’ power and prevent further human rights abuses in Arauca.
Increased international pressure on the government of Nicolás Maduro remains key to preventing abuses and ensuring accountability in Venezuela. A United Nations fact-finding mission created in September to investigate human rights violations in Venezuela should scrutinize abuses committed by armed groups in Venezuela with the tolerance or connivance of security forces. Relying on findings by the UN fact-finding mission and other credible sources, international organizations and foreign governments—in the Americas and Europe—should impose targeted sanctions, such as asset freezes and travel bans, on senior Venezuelan officials who have been complicit in abuses by armed groups.