The 64-page report, “‘The Guerrillas Are the Police’: Social Control and Abuses by Armed Groups in Colombia’s Arauca Province and Venezuela’s Apure State,” documents violations by the National Liberation Army (ELN), the Patriotic Forces of National Liberation (FPLN), and a group that emerged from the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Abuses including murder, forced labor, child recruitment, and rape are often committed as part of the groups’ strategy to control the social, political, and economic life of Arauca and Apure. Impunity for such abuses is the rule.
“Residents in Arauca and Apure live in fear, as armed groups recruit their children and impose their own rules, threaten residents, and punish those who disobey, even with murder or months of forced labor in the fields,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The groups operate with near-to-absolute impunity on both sides of the border, and especially in Venezuela they sometimes are in collusion with security forces and local authorities.”
Human Rights Watch visited Arauca in August 2019 and interviewed 105 people, including community leaders, victims of abuses and their relatives, aid workers, human rights officials, judicial officials, and journalists. Human Rights Watch also sent information requests to Colombian and Venezuelan authorities and consulted an array of sources and documents.
Human Rights Watch found that armed groups in both countries have established a wide range of rules usually imposed by governments, and that the groups brutally enforce them. 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 motorcycle helmets so that armed group members can see travelers’ faces. The groups routinely extort money from virtually anyone carrying out economic activity.
The groups have committed unlawful killings in Arauca, including of human rights defenders and community leaders. In 2015, when the FARC declared a ceasefire to advance peace talks with the Colombian government, the authorities recorded 96 homicides in Arauca. Homicides have increased, reaching 161 between January and late November 2019. Armed groups are responsible for the majority of these killings.
Human Rights Watch has also received credible allegations of killings by armed groups in Apure, but Venezuelan authorities have not released reliable, comprehensive statistics.
At least 16 bodies of civilians found in Arauca in 2019 had scrawled scraps of paper accusing the victims of being “informants,” “rapists,” “drug dealers,” or “thieves.” Some were signed by the FARC dissident group operating in the area.
Armed groups in Arauca and Apure also punish residents with forced labor, sometimes requiring them to work for months without pay, farming, cleaning roads, or cooking in the armed groups’ camps, which are often in Venezuela.
“Here we have to do as they say, or you die,” said a resident who fled her town after being threatened by armed groups. “The rules are… you can’t talk to the army; you can’t leave the house late at night… If we don't comply with the rules, the penalty is death.”
About 44,000 Venezuelans live in Arauca. Most have 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. Thousands have also set out on foot from the border region, often unaware of the dangers along the way, including the predatory armed groups.
Venezuelans have also suffered abuses that are not directly associated with armed groups. There are credible reports that women are trafficked, sexually exploited, and coerced to sell sex. In some cases, once they arrive at a brothel in Arauca, their documents are withheld, and they are given clothes, food, and “housing” for which they must pay with sex.
Venezuelans also face xenophobia in Arauca and are often blamed by residents for crime.
Colombian authorities have tried to wrest power from armed groups, but impunity for serious abuses remains the norm and protection for residents is limited. As of September, the Colombian Attorney General’s Office had secured convictions for only eight killings committed in Arauca since 2017, out of more than 400 under investigation. None of the convictions were of armed group members. Nor has the government convicted armed group members of other crimes such as rape, threats, extortion, child recruitment, forced displacement, or the criminal offense of “forcible disappearance” since 2017.
Armed groups appear to feel even freer to operate in Venezuela. Groups have kidnapped people in Arauca and taken them to their camps in Venezuela. Apure residents, community leaders, journalists, and aid workers said that in at least some cases, armed groups act in collusion with Venezuelan security forces and local authorities.
The Human Rights Watch findings suggest the situation in Arauca is unlikely to improve if the Colombian government continues to deploy the military there without simultaneously strengthening the justice system, improving protection for the population, and ensuring adequate access to economic and educational opportunities and public services. Conversely, local development programs – 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.
A United Nations fact-finding mission created in September 2019 to investigate atrocities in Venezuela should scrutinize abuses by armed groups in Venezuela with the tolerance or connivance of security forces.
“Increased international pressure on the Maduro regime remains key to preventing abuses and ensuring accountability in Venezuela,” Vivanco said. “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 in Venezuelan territory.”
Selected Cases from “‘The Guerrillas Are the Police’”
On April 27, 2018, armed men kidnapped María del Carmen Moreno Páez from her farm in rural Arauquita, Colombia, two relatives told Human Rights Watch. The kidnappers sent her family videos and photos of Moreno Páez blindfolded and then demanded money but killed her hours after kidnapping her. Firefighters found her body five days later. Soon afterward, a video appeared on social media showing two men, with their hands tied and chains around their neck, who confessed to the kidnapping and murder. Later that day, their bodies were found with a note reading: “These are the authors of the kidnapping and killing of María.… We are applying justice. FARC-EP. The people’s army.”
Lina and Natalia (pseudonyms), both 15, took the bus home from school one day in rural Arauca in April 2019. When they got off the bus, ELN members convinced the girls to go to a guerrilla camp to become fighters. Lina’s mother went to the camp as soon as she found out, accompanied by another community leader. She was able to convince the commander to free her daughter, but not Natalia. The commander stated that if Lina ever came back to the guerrillas, she would stay there for life. According to government officials who spoke with Lina, guerrilla members asked the two girls if they were virgins and took pictures of them in their underwear. Both Lina and her mother later fled Arauca.
Miguel Escobar (pseudonym), a 31-year-old Venezuelan, told Human Rights Watch that in May 2019 he was summoned to a FARC dissident camp in Venezuela to speak to “Jerónimo,” the commander. Escobar’s wife had told the group that he had mistreated her, he said. Escobar said that after a short discussion with “Jerónimo,” he was forced to work without pay as a cook in the dissident camp with two other civilians who were subjected to the same treatment, he said. After two months, one commander told him that they were planning to hold him there for two years. Escobar escaped shortly thereafter.
Rafael Ortíz (pseudonym), 20, worked with a local community organization in Arauca. In early 2019, FARC dissidents called him, saying he would be held to account if any member of his organization got out of line. Later, ELN members forcibly took him to a village in rural Arauca, he said, where a commander offered him 700,000 Colombian pesos (about US$210) for every child 12 years old and over that he recruited for the group. When he rejected the offer, the commander told him that he would have to “face the consequences.” Ortíz left the meeting and immediately fled Arauca.