Colombia’s latest frontline on the war on drugs is the oil-rich eastern department of Arauca, where in recent days, intense fighting between ELN guerrillas and FARC dissidents has resulted in at least 23 combatants killed. The fighting between illegal armed groups, which has also caught thousands of civilians in the crossfire, promoted President Iván Duque to dispatch two Army battalions to the Colombia-Venezuela border to regain “territorial control.”
According to Defense Minister Diego Molano, the killings occurred on the Venezuelan side of the border, near the rural township of La Victoria, Apure, where in 1999, the bodies of three Americans (two women and one man), who were hostages of FARC, were found on banks of the Río Arauca. The American environmentalists were taken by FARC while defending the indigenous Uwa peoples from an oil exploration project on ancestral land.
“They were not killed at one site. Their bodies were scattered along the foothills, close to four municipalities (Fortul, Tame, Arauquita, Saravena) of our department,” affirmed Alejandro Navas, interim governor of Arauca, referring to the most recent killings.
The porous border between Arauca and Apure is notorious for drug and weapons trafficking, as well as human rights abuses committed by Colombia’s illegal armed groups and Venezuela’s Bolivarian Guard. During his New Year’s address to the nation, Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro ordered his military commanders to “adapt and improve reaction capacity in real-time,” along the border, “given internal threats or external aggression.”
During the broadcast on the state channel Venezolana de Televisión (VTV), Maduro assured his top brass that there is “danger in what we do not see, in the hidden enemy, in the enemies of peace and stability (…), the false positives in this world, the Colombian oligarchy,” he said. President Duque has repeatedly claimed the Venezuelan regime provides a safe haven to FARC dissidents and ELN guerrilla, with many camps operating inside Venezuelan territory.
In March 2021, Venezuelan security forces attacked an ELN camp near the border, in which two soldiers of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB) were killed after the guerrilla detonated explosives. Venezuela’s Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino has also repeatedly accused Colombia of “neglecting the border” to permit the free movement of criminal organizations. The confrontations last year caused a humanitarian crisis as more than 6,000 Venezuelans fled Apure to seek safety in makeshift refugee camps.
Javier Tarazona of the Venezuelan based NGO FundaREDES, and journalist who has extensively covered the violence on both sides of the border, was detained arbitrarily six months ago by the Venezuelan regime and remains in custody. Tarazona has accused Maduro of silencing human rights organizations working with migrants and displaced populations.
“Let me be very clear: we are going to confront them in Arauca, as we have been doing until now, with the total force in the territory, and we will also be denouncing the collusion and protection that the dictatorial regime of Nicolás Maduro provides these criminal structures,” remarked President Duque during a security council meeting on Monday in Cartagena. The 600-strong military force will be deployed over 72-hours.