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Interview: The War in Colombia’s Catatumbo Region

Colombians, Venezuelans at the Mercy of Armed Groups

A flag of the ELN (National Liberation Army) armed group in the Catatumbo region.  © 2018 Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images

More than two years after Colombia signed a peace agreement ending a 50-year civil war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerillas, other armed groups have moved into many rural areas. These groups have turned Colombia’s Catatumbo region, near the Venezuelan border, into one of the country’s most violent. Since 2015, the number of murders in Catatumbo has doubled. Armed groups have carried out disappearances, committed sexual violence, and recruited children as soldiers. More than 40,000 people have been displaced. Additionally, the region is now home to at least 25,000 Venezuelans who fled their own country’s humanitarian crisis only to face terrible abuses in Catatumbo. Amy Braunschweiger speaks with Human Rights Watch’s researchers – who are remaining anonymous for security reasons – about the crisis.

Who are the armed groups and what are they fighting over? 

F: There are three armed groups in Catatumbo. The largest one and most powerful is the Army of National Liberation (ELN), a left-wing guerilla group formed in the 1960s. The second largest is the Population Liberation Army (EPL), a hold-out from a larger guerilla group that demobilized in the 1990s. These two groups are fighting each other and the Colombian army. Then there is a smaller and less-organized group formed by former FARC members. 

The area is important for several reasons, but especially because it gives armed groups access to drug trafficking routes into Venezuela. And it allows for control of the coca fields where they can produce cocaine. This is one of Colombia’s regions with the highest cultivation of coca, plants that are used to make cocaine. 

Why are Venezuelans coming here? 

S: More than 4 million Venezuelans have left their country in recent years because they are hungry, can’t access medicines, or need work. Colombia has received the largest number of Venezuelans. Many Venezuelans use border crossings controlled by armed groups to enter Colombia.

They go to Catatumbo because they can earn a living there, in many cases working for armed groups or an illegal industry. And they stay there because it’s hard for them, in practice, to get a work permit and leave Catatumbo to find safer work. Yet they are exposed to abuses by armed groups, some worse than they suffered in Venezuela. 

What was it like in Catatumbo in terms of the violence? 

F: When you visit this area and you talk to community leaders or residents, you can feel the insecurity. People will tell you about the killings, the fear they generate, how they don’t report abuses to the authorities because they fear retaliation. How justice officials won’t even pick up the bodies of people who get killed. They just send workers from funeral homes.

S. In one of the places we visited, the police station was barricaded behind sandbags and plastic sheeting. Yet this station is half a block from the town’s main plaza. People will tell you that police don’t even go four or five blocks away from the station, that they don’t feel safe enough. 

A barricaded police station in Convención, Catatumbo, April 13, 2019.  © 2019 Human Rights Watch

A motorcycle loaded with oil containers in Catatumbo, April 12, 2019. Illegal transportation of oil is one of the primary activities in the Catatumbo region. © 2019 Human Rights Watch


F: We interviewed a woman whose husband had been killed at 10 a.m., a few blocks away from the police station, allegedly by armed groups. People were around when it happened, and the killers still got away. 

S: The other thing is the desperation of the Venezuelans there. We interviewed many Venezuelans who were eating in a soup kitchen. All of them had terrible stories from Venezuela and Colombia. Most had crossed into Colombia irregularly, not through formal immigration ports, but instead risking abuse by the armed groups who control informal border crossings. Many told us how members of Venezuela’s National Bolivarian Guard [part of the military] took their belongings as they crossed the border. In Colombia, they ended up working in coca fields, often for nothing more than food. And still they were so desperate to leave Venezuela that they were willing to go through all that. 

Who did you talk to that stood out to you? 

S: We interviewed a Venezuelan 14-year-old boy who had dropped out of school in Venezuela because his parents couldn’t afford to feed the family. He was working in Catatumbo’s coca fields, from 5 a.m. to 4 p.m., under the blazing sun. He told us how Venezuelans sometimes worked only for a plate of food, and he works with Colombian and Venezuelan children who are as young as 8 years old. He said that he’d love to go back to school but couldn’t. He had to work. 

A Venezuelan man holds out his hands to show injuries caused by his work in coca fields, Tibú, April 11, 2019. © 2019 Human Rights Watch

F: For me it was the two men and a woman whose three relatives had disappeared a few weeks earlier and were still missing. When their relatives disappeared, they first went to the ELN and the former FARC fighters to ask them what happened. Initially, they didn’t file a report with the prosecutor or the police. They didn’t ask authorities for help. They thought the best way to solve their problems was to engage with guerrilla groups. It shows how much fear they have. And it shows how much control these groups have. 

Did anything surprise you in your research? 

S: How limited the state presence was in Catatumbo. This armed conflict is a reality for thousands of people in Colombia, and it’s not getting the attention it should. 

Colombia is a country where you have institutions that respond to requests for information. For example, our report includes data provided by the Colombian government on investigations and prosecutions. The government also gathers data on immigration nationally. So how can this country have institutions functioning on that level and still have areas that are so lawless?

F: I was surprised by the migration controls carried out by armed groups in Catatumbo. Essentially, armed groups are requiring Venezuelans – or anyone else not from the area – who want to move to rural communities in Catatumbo to get a “recommendation” from a local. And if these Venezuelans commit any crimes or don’t work, the person who recommended them is “held to account” by the armed groups. I was amazed by that degree of social control. 

Why isn’t the Colombian government more present? 

F: I think areas like Catatumbo have been forgotten, in a way, by national authorities. For decades. It’s not just recent. There are not enough prosecutors or investigators there. Authorities do not have a budget to assist displaced people. There are not enough policemen to protect communities. And when violence breaks out, the national government’s main reaction is to send thousands of soldiers to the area. That’s understandable, and it could protect people from abuses if the military adopts rights-respecting strategies, but local communities need much more. 

What do they need? 

F: They need prosecutors, they need investigators, they need humanitarian assistance, and they need opportunities to work.

People need more protection. A key issue is the murder of human rights defenders and community leaders. It’s a very serious issue in Colombia. Over 280 human rights defenders have been killed since 2016, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Since 2017, 14 community leaders have been killed in Catatumbo – investigations point to armed groups in nine cases – making it one of Colombia’s most dangerous areas for community leaders.

Community leaders are indispensable for Colombia. They are the voice of their communities and tell armed groups that the community opposes their presence. They’re also the ones reporting abuses by armed groups to national, provincial and local authorities. Some are also organizing communities to replace coca crops with food crops. And obviously armed groups that are funded by coca and cocaine oppose their progress. 

What do Venezuelans need? 

S: There’s a lot of international aid going to Colombia to help them deal with Venezuelan exiles. But it is clearly insufficient. In Catatumbo, humanitarian workers also face a hard dilemma. On one hand, you don’t want children or anyone to be in need of food or health care. On the other hand, you don’t want to give them aid and encourage them to stay in an area that is so unsafe. That’s why we are asking the Colombian government to comprehensively assess how many Venezuelans are there, and what their needs are, and to make sure everyone has a work permit so they can work ideally in safer areas of the country. 

A group of Venezuelans wait for lunch at a soup kitchen operated by a Catholic church, with support from the UN World Food Programme, in Tibú, April 11, 2019. The soup kitchen feeds 400 Venezuelans per day. © 2019 Human Rights Watch

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