Sixteen months after the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group signed an agreement in Bogotá ending a half century of fighting, the promise of peace is a far cry from reality in territories still struggling with the social, political and armed conflicts that have plagued them for so long. The Catatumbo region, which consists of 11 municipalities in the department of Norte de Santander near the border with Venezuela, is one such territory.
Since March 14, disagreements between two guerrilla groups in the area -- the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Popular – EPL) -- have resulted in an ongoing, armed confrontation unprecedented in either group’s history. And it has local communities on high alert.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has been documenting the impact of this confrontation on the civilian population. In a press release published on March 16, OCHA reported clashes between the ELN and EPL affecting people living in the municipalities of San Calixto, El Tarra, Teorama, Convención, Hacarí, El Carmen and Tibú.
People living in the area were affected by massive displacement, mobility restrictions and the closure of businesses and schools, which affected 11,836 students and 553 teachers. Two civilians were injured, and a number of both civilians and UN medical personnel were temporarily kidnapped.
All of this constitutes violations of international humanitarian law.
In a second press release, the OCHA reported on March 20 that in San Calixto's rural settlements of Villanueva and La Primavera, and in the village of Mesitas in Hacarí, approximately 1,350 people were gathered in “humanitarian shelters” to escape the crossfire. The organization also reported that the regional Ombudsman's Office in Ocaña and municipal authorities in Hacarí received 18 reports of forced displacement.
Also on March 20, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), a humanitarian organization with a presence in the Catatumbo region, issued a statement urging a de-escalation of the conflict and asking the national government "to respond to this emergency quickly and to guarantee the protection of the civilian population."
The crisis, however, had already been brewing for months without authorities intervening to put a stop to it.
Humanitarian and human rights organizations with a presence in the Catatumbo region point out that the current confrontation between the ELN and the EPL is related to the disappearance of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) as a military organization. The president of the Norte de Santander branch of the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (Comité Permanente por la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos – CPDH), Rafael Jaimes, explains that “the EPL used to maintain a nucleus of military and political activity in Hacarí, La Playa and Ábrego. However, as the FARC left the armed confrontation, an expansion process began in 2016."
An illustration of this shift in dynamics is the January 2016 assassination of Nelly Amaya, the president of the Community Action Board in the Guamalito neighborhood of San Calixto and a member of the Catatumbo Small Farmers' Association (Asociación Campesina del Catatumbo – ASCAMCAT). Local sources believe the EPL committed the crime in retaliation for Amaya’s refusal to obey the organization's orders. It had demanded that businesses not sell food to the police, but Amaya did so at a restaurant on his property.
"The EPL broke with tacitly established rules. For example, armed units did not wear uniforms when in the rural villages and settlements, and they began to disregard local community organizations, which generated tensions with the ELN," Jaimes said.
Wilfredo Cañizares, director of the Fundación Progresar human rights group in Norte de Santander, agrees with this analysis. According to him, "the EPL arrived in ex-FARC territory two years ago to establish methods for punishing the population, gathering the community together and saying, 'These are the new rules and whoever doesn't follow them will die.' This is happening under very complex circumstances because there are communities in the Catatumbo region that have already organized and politicized themselves, and the EPL has imposed itself on them through violence, even assassinating community leaders. That's how the problems with the ELN began."
Aiming to evade military intelligence activities, the EPL’s new punishments included firing warning shots at alleged thieves and recreational drug users, imposing curfews and prohibiting community activities. Cañizares and Jaimes agree that this violent territorial control has increased the region's murder rate. Figures from Colombia's national forensic medicine institute back up this argument. The organization reports that 87 homicides were committed in 2015 in Catatumbo’s 11 municipalities, while in 2016 the total jumped to 156, an increase of 79 percent.
The EPL’s methods of expansion have caused concern throughout the region regarding its leadership, especially because various sectors of the Catatumbo community had granted it political status despite the national government considering it an organized armed group.
Until 1991, when the bulk of the EPL demobilized after negotiations with the Colombian government, it was under the direction of the underground Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of Colombia (Partido Comunista de Colombia Marxista Leninista - PCC-ML).
The group took another hit with the October 2015 death of then-leader Víctor Ramón Navarro, alias "Megateo," credited with the group's increased participation in the drug trade.
Cañizares says that "security forces conducted a series of specialized operations against the EPL after the death of Megateo to the point where, little more than two years later, all its commanders are dead or in prison, leaving the group with political and military leadership difficulties." He adds that "the PCC-ML defines political and social life in the region, but its members do not possess the qualities necessary to manage its armed wing."
All this has generated violence against the local population, rooted in the EPL's growing participation in the drug trade, which is booming due to an explosion in the amount of coca crops being grown in the region. While in 2015 there were 11,527 hectares of coca growing in the Catatumbo region, in 2016 the figure more than doubled to 24,587, according to the latest monitoring report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Discord between the ELN and the EPL intensified on January 20, when, according to the Association of Traditional Authorities of the Barí People, ELN guerrillas shot at a canoe traveling on the Oro River along the Colombia-Venezuela border. Its passengers included Chief Leonardo Catsú and two other residents of the indigenous village of Bokshí.
In response, the Barí on the Colombian side of the border destroyed an ELN camp and expelled militants "who were living in houses on the banks of the Oro River," which they described in a press release issued last February as "a legitimate act of resistance and defense of the territory."
After that event, the EPL issued a statement denouncing the attack on the Barí and directly challenging the ELN. In the document, the EPL stated that "prohibiting the communities' transit on traditional routes, taxing purchases and crops, permanent extortion and continuous disrespect towards activities carried out by organizations on the Venezuelan border show that in the Catatumbo region this organization is not pursuing a just war against the enemy but rather [a war] against the people."
This bulletin may have instigated the ELN’s subsequent actions, which on March 14 consisted of attacks on the EPL in at least eight locations across five municipalities in Catatumbo. As of March 22, it remains unknown how many combatants have died in the clashes that triggered the humanitarian situation described by the OCHA, the NRC and other human rights organizations.
Fears have heightened in the face of increased guerrilla presence from both groups and an ELN incursion in the village of Filo El Gringo, where guerrillas specifically "sought EPL militants," according to sources who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons.
Photos of dead and mutilated combatants circulating on social media networks are further exacerbating the tensions. Sources said that they "are very shocked by the hatred and brutality of the attacks, which resemble the actions of the paramilitaries."
According to the Attorney General's Office, the ELN and EPL had maintained cooperative relations in the Catatumbo region since before the 1990s, successfully "undertaking not only joint operations, but entire campaigns to repel attacks from security forces and paramilitaries." Moreover, following the 1991 demobilization, the ELN protected EPL combatants who did not join the government negotiations.
Over time, myriad connections between individuals in the region and both organizations have complicated the relationship to the point where the same family can have members in both structures. In fact, in a March 22 joint statement, community leaders from El Tarra, Tibú, Hacarí, Teorama and San Calixto repudiated the confrontation because the ELN and EPL "are creating more resentment and enemies among the people of the Catatumbo region" and urged them to "remember that there are families and friends who could have members in both organizations."
However, public finger-pointing has exacerbated the situation. On March 20, the ELN described the EPL as "a guerrilla group disfigured in its revolutionary conception and out of touch with popular sentiments, aggressive and imposing towards the population, degraded by its alliances with the banditry of the drug cartels." The EPL countered with accusations that the ELN had "an uncompromising attitude paving the way to war, taking aggressive positions against our base, slandering our organization with language similar to that of the country's paramilitary and economic elites."
The director of the NRC in Colombia, Christian Visnes, told Verdad Abierta that "when the FARC demobilizes, the armed actors in the area reorganize, because unfortunately the state does not come in and establish control, a situation that has also occurred throughout the Pacific and the southern regions of the country." He added that "it is clear [the ELN and EPL] have not agreed on who has control where and over what," which leads to violence and puts the civilian population at risk.
ASCAMCAT Vice President Juan Carlos Quintero says that "since the clash started, there has been a very strong social mobilization in every village and city, which shows that the people of the region do not agree with this war." He added, "We've had marches in capitals and demonstrations in central squares combined with community action boards, social movements and churches of all creeds constantly analyzing the humanitarian situation and keeping on the lookout for opportunities for dialogue between the two parties."
Organizations joining the cause include the San Pablo community action board in Teorama, which has demanded the departure of all armed actors from the municipality; the Catatumbo Social Integration Committee (Comité de Integración Social del Catatumbo – CISCA); the CPDH; community leaders; and an assembly of community action board presidents from various villages within the Tibú, El Tarra and Sardinata municipalities. On March 23, the community action boards asked the ELN and the EPL to reach an agreement and denounced the road blockades, threats that "have led to the displacement of people and families" and forced businesses and schools to close, as well as "the anonymous publications on social networks that cause anxiety to families."
There have been complaints that -- unlike the community organizations -- local, regional and national authorities have not yet demonstrated a willingness to find a non-military solution to the dilemma. For Jaimes, the president of the Norte de Santander branch of the CPDH, “the community action boards have taken on a leadership role that the mayors haven't. So far, the security forces have handled everything, and at times like this, their presence makes things more dangerous. We're worried that the territory will become even more militarized in a context where a great absence has replaced the national government, which should be addressing the humanitarian situation and promoting community initiatives."
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Planning for the long term in dealing with the difficult circumstances facing the region, the CPDH and several women's organizations, many of which have ties to Colombia's Communist and Marcha Patriótica parties, have asked the government to push forward with peace talks with the ELN in Quito, Ecuador, and to reconsider its position on the status of the EPL in an effort to reach a political solution with the organization, all of which would help improve the humanitarian situation in the Catatumbo region.
Quintero also draws attention to delays in the implementation of certain parts of the peace deal that could have contained the current situation, such as the implementation of comprehensive security measures for rural communities and the timely development of the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos de Uso Ilícito – PNIS). So far, only one pilot program for the latter has gone into effect in the village of Caño Indio, in Tibú, where there is a Training and Reincorporation Space for ex-FARC combatants.
When asked about the progress made in implementing the agreement in the Catatumbo region, Visnes says, "It’s been disappointing because we haven't seen an increase in civil actions by the state regarding the peace agreements, nor have we seen actions aimed at facilitating the reinstatement of ex-combatants, so the agreement has been a great frustration for the local population, who in 2016 had high hopes that the government would come in and bring all its institutions to the rural areas.”
As has been the tradition in the Catatumbo region, the task of de-escalating the conflict has fallen to communities, human rights organizations and social movements, at a time when the war and the impact of weak institutions are hitting them the hardest.