ARAUCA, Colombia — On January 2, the Colombian department of Arauca, on the Venezuelan border, was plunged into an armed conflict between the National Liberation Army (ELN in Spanish) and dissident members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC in Spanish), two left-wing rebel groups that have waged a guerrilla war against the Colombian government since the 1960s.
The current conflict has displaced 2,687 people, and 56 percent of them are Venezuelan. The regional conflict is one of many in Colombia which Venezuelan migrants must brave as they traverse the country by land. That journey is becoming increasingly risky.
For more than six years, Venezuelans have been leaving their country in record numbers. The diaspora now numbers over six million people, representing roughly 20 percent of the population. Nearly two million of them now live in Colombia, and millions more have passed through to other countries in South America and beyond.
Fighting in Arauca has displaced communities on both sides of the border and killed 76 people so far this year. Residents and migrants alike have been subjected to forced recruitment by armed groups in recent months, including children. The Colombian Family Welfare Institute has reported incidents of kidnapping, killings, and even the recruitment of a nine-year girl on the Venezuelan border as part of the fighting.
Armed groups in the region have also imposed restrictions on movement, complicating transportation.
“We have created very basic line of protection,” Laureano Daza Nieto, who directs church-led efforts in the region to help migrants, tells Latino Rebels. “But whenever a new report of fighting arrives, so do more migrants.”
“The majority that we encounter arrive on foot,” he says, “where we supply them with food, shelter and basic medical care. Then they continue on foot towards the interior of the country and points beyond.”
Nieto says their facilities have been filled to capacity since January. “he numtbers of those we are forced to turn away due to COVID restrictions is rising.”
This is not the first time violence has wracked the Colombian-Venezuelan border.
Last year, the Venezuelan military conducted a massive operation in Apure against the 10th Front, made up of former FARC members. Fighting between the Venezuelan military and Colombian rebel groups sent thousands of Venezuelans fleeing into Colombia, many of whom never returned.
Arauca may represent the most dramatic case of open conflict in Colombia, but it is far from the only one. In the western coastal department of Chocó, near the Panamanian border, the ELN is fighting with narco-paramilitary groups. The clashes there have already displaced or confined more than 2,000 people this year, according to Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Estoy en Chocó esa semana donde la situación está crítica, invisible, y sin fin.
Lo más reciente: 2,300 confinados y desplazados por enfrentamientos. Es un ejemplo de un fenómeno generalizado, con al menos 50-60mil habitantes en confinamiento. Un horror.https://t.co/yQ5vjset1Q
— Elizabeth Dickinson (@dickinsonbeth) January 28, 2022
In 2016, Colombia signed a historic peace agreement with the FARC, ending a 52-year civil war, the longest in the history of Americas. But promises made by the government to invest in long-neglected conflict zones went unfulfilled, and violence has risen dramatically in recent years, in many ways worse than ever in regions like Arauca. Venezuelan women, children and migrants from Indigenous communities are especially vulnerable to these armed groups as they fight in regions that migrants traverse.
In regions such as the Darién Gap on the Panamanian-Colombian border, the site of infamously lawless migrant path, or Cucutá, bordering Venezuela, the tragedy of thousands of migrants has become big business for the criminal groups allied with the armed actors who control those areas.
Panamanian officials have recovered more than 50 bodies in 2021 in the Darién Gap, more than double the number in 2020—though there is reason to believe that this represents only a small portion of those who have died making the trek, as most deaths go unreported and many remains are never recovered.
Panamanian officials reported that Venezuelans outnumbered Haitians in the the Darién Gap for the first time in January. The number of Venezuelans crossing Colombia to head north through Central America has risen dramatically in recent months. In December, 24,819 Venezuelan migrants were detained by U.S. Border Patrol, compared to 205 in December 2020.
In January, under pressure from the United States, Mexico announced visa restrictions on Venezuelans for the first time ever. Officially, the government cited a 1,000 percent increase in irregular Venezuelan entries to the country over the last five years, as well as attempts to fight human smuggling.
“It isn’t clear from the data yet how much of that traffic is due to new visa restrictions in Mexico,” said Adam Isacson, security and border director for the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank that studies human rights in Latin America. “But in the past, most Venezuelans attempting to enter the U.S. flew into Guadalajara and continued north by land.”
In addition to the dangers posed by regional conflict, xenophobia in the region, fueled in part by COVID-induced recessions, has been on the rise as well. Ecuador, Chile, and Peru have all seen anti-Venezuelan protests in recent months, and Colombian politicians like Bogotá Mayor Claudia López have made increasingly xenophobic statements, claiming that migrants are responsible for recent upticks in crime.
Vice President Martha Lucia Ramírez recently told reporters that “Colombia cannot continue accepting Venezuelan migrants.”
Last October, in Catatumbo, another conflict zone on the Venezuelan border, two Venezuelan teenagers accused of shoplifting were killed by armed groups, their bodies left near a busy road with signs that read “thieves” placed around their necks.
The calls for help to the migrant population come from various organizations. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, “It’s necessary to have humanitarian corridors for the Colombian, refugee and migrant victim and at-risk population. Venezuelan that has restrictions on mobility, risk of forced recruitment, and even risk due to the presence of antipersonnel mines.”
Nieto, the priest who coordinates migrant relief in Arauca, says his organization is completely overwhelmed.
“We need immediate help,” he pleads. “We urgently call for assistance from international organizations in dealing with this crisis, and for armed groups to avoid endangering the civilian population.”
Joshua Collins contributed to this reporting.
Daniela Díaz Rangel is a photojournalist based in Colombia whose work focuses on focus on gender, peace, and social issues.