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Bloody fighting between guerrilla groups is terrorizing Colombian border communities

An aerial view of a building destroyed by a car bomb in Arauca, Colombia, near the Venezuelan border. (Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)
7 min

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Fighting between rival guerrilla groups along Colombia’s border with Venezuela has ushered in a bloody start to the new year, leaving dozens dead and sending residents fleeing from some of the worst violence since the country’s historic peace accords five years ago.

At least 23 people were killed in clashes between leftist armed groups in the northeastern department of Arauca during the first weekend of January. Later in the month, a car bomb exploded in front of a building where more than 40 social leaders were gathered in a self-protection workshop, injuring dozens and killing a security guard.

Last week, Arauca community leader Álvaro Peña Barragán was gunned down in his brother’s home. He was the 12th social leader killed in Colombia this year. The next day, while his widow was grieving at her mother-in-law’s house, gunmen shot and killed her, too.

“They’ve declared war against the social movement,” said Eliécer Calderón, the president of a community action board in rural Arauca who fled to Bogotá last week after being threatened in his home. “We’ve had to leave in fear that we’ll be killed, in fear that we’ll be disappeared.”

Leaders and residents in this border community say they are living in terror unlike any they have experienced since the 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Rebel fighters who split from the FARC over the accords are now waging a turf war with the National Liberation Army, or ELN, the country’s largest remaining leftist guerrilla group. The FARC and the ELN had entered a truce in Arauca after a bloody era of fighting in the 2000s. But as dissident FARC fighters gain strength in Arauca and beyond, they are now trying to take over territory traditionally controlled by the ELN.

The violence underscores the fragility of peace in this South American nation and the failure of the security response by the government of President Iván Duque, said Juan Pappier, a senior researcher on the Americas for Human Rights Watch.

“The lives of many people depend on the alliances between armed groups,” Pappier said. “When these alliances break, their lives become miserable.”

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At least 66 people were killed in January in Arauca, a department with a population of about 260,000, and at least 1,200 people were displaced by the violence, according to Colombia’s ombudsman’s office. The latest wave of fighting threatens to revive a conflict that killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands in Arauca between 2006 and 2010.

“A conflict has been brewing in the department for many years, but not at the level of what is happening today,” said Yessid Robles, a member of a network of human rights defenders in Arauca. “We expected an onslaught of dissident fighters, but not a car bomb trying to kill more than 50 civilians.”

But what makes this moment particularly alarming, civil society leaders say, is the targeting of social leaders and human rights defenders. Both the FARC dissidents and ELN threaten and kill local leaders they accuse, often without evidence, of having links to the opposing side. Seventeen social leaders have been killed so far this year in Colombia, one of the world’s most dangerous countries for human rights defenders and environmental activists.

On Tuesday, armed men entered the home of Arauca community leader Hermán Naranjo Quintero and kidnapped him on the day a Senate Peace Commission visited the department. His body was found Wednesday.

In a video shared by local journalists on social media, Naranjo’s wife is seen moments after her husband was taken from his home, crying next to her children.

“We ask that you please respect his life,” his wife said. “We have nothing to do with this war.”

The dissident FARC and the ELN have both also sought to claim territory across the border in the Venezuelan state of Apure. The Venezuelan government of President Nicolás Maduro launched a military offensive against FARC dissident factions in the jungle region along the Arauca River last April, sending a wave of refugees fleeing into Colombia. Human rights advocates accused Venezuelan security forces of targeting civilians and carrying out extrajudicial killings in their effort to find dissident guerrillas while also allegedly letting the ELN operate freely in the area to profit from their drug trafficking activities.

Maduro has claimed that the Colombian guerrilla groups are part of an effort by the Duque government to destabilize Venezuela. Colombian officials have denied the claim.

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The Colombian military has deployed hundreds of soldiers to Arauca.

“The ELN, fueled by drug trafficking and under the protection of the Maduro dictatorship, has sought to pressure the country with cowardly terrorist attacks on the verge of an electoral campaign to seek peace negotiations,” Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano said in a recent tweet. “Let it be clear: we do NOT negotiate with terrorists.”

The fighting comes as Colombia prepares for presidential elections in May. Leftist senator Gustavo Petro, leading a crowded field of candidates, has called for peace negotiations with both the ELN and FARC dissidents. Petro is himself a former member of a guerrilla group known as M-19, which demobilized decades ago.

Several governments have tried to negotiate with the ELN, but all attempts have collapsed. Former President Juan Manuel Santos organized negotiations in Cuba toward the end of his last term. But in January 2019, a car bomb exploded at a police academy in Bogotá, killing 23 people including the ELN member who drove the car and shattering any hopes of peace with the Duque administration.

Arauca’s guerrilla groups emerged in the 1970s at a time when the department was isolated from the rest of the country, with no roads and little government presence, according to Luis Eduardo Celis, of Colombia’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation. Colombia’s central government began paying closer attention to the region in the 1980s, after the discovery of a highly productive oil deposit called Caño Limón. The oil field, then controlled by U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum, helped transform the country from an oil importer to an exporter. But it also fueled conflict — and became the target of frequent attacks by the ELN and the FARC.

In the late 2000s, the ELN decided to eradicate the region’s coca, the base plant for producing cocaine, triggering a brutal conflict with the FARC. Scores of civilians were killed, forcibly recruited or displaced from their homes before the groups signed a truce in 2010.

In Saravena, the site of the January car bomb attack, at least five doctors at the Hospital del Sarare have resigned in the past month over fears about public safety. One nursing assistant left after receiving a direct threat over the phone, according to Arcenio Gonzalez, a hospital worker tasked with protecting the rights of medical professionals amid armed conflict.

“The fear is that this exodus may continue,” Gonzalez said. “We wouldn’t be able to sustain the demand.”

In recent days, pamphlets have circulated on social media claiming to be from dissident groups threatening local organizations and companies — including Gonzalez’s hospital. Local leaders said the threats were false. But Gonzalez asks: What if the next one is real? Will there be a mass resignation of doctors at a time when Saravena needs them the most?

Gonzalez has worked at the hospital for 21 years but senses more fear now than during the last wave of violence in Arauca. Still, he has no plans to leave.

“Let us do our job,” he said. “Everyone needs it, those who are fighting and those who aren’t. We take care of that sick person. What we’re asking is for them to respect that right.”

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