Armed groups are obstructing humanitarian organizations' access to several parts of Colombia, possibly to suppress reports of human rights violations that could disrupt peace negotiations with the government.
Security incidents involving humanitarian workers between January and April 2023 increased by 133% compared to last year, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs (OCHA). These workers were frequently threatened or prevented from accessing areas while responding to forced displacements, confinements of entire communities, and other human rights violations.
The departments most heavily affected are Norte de Santander, Guaviare, and Nariño due to the presence of the country's most powerful criminal groups. These include the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and the ex-FARC mafia, a group of loosely connected criminal groups who refused to disband after the 2016 peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).
These groups are currently involved in complex negotiations with the Colombian government as part of the so-called Total Peace initiative, with the ELN agreeing to a six-month ceasefire on June 9.
This is not the first time such concerns have been reported this year. In February, the Humanitarian Country Team (Equipo Humanitario País), which comprises aid organizations with a presence in Colombia, warned about a rising number of instances where humanitarian access was restricted.
According to OCHA estimates, these limitations left 13,168 people without humanitarian aid between January and April.
InSight Crime Analysis
The increasing constraints placed on humanitarian access by armed groups could be an attempt to prevent reports of systematic human rights abuses from surfacing and jeopardizing their delicate negotiations with the Colombian government.
For example, 117 violent acts were perpetrated between January and May 2023, with civilians being targeted in 93 of these attacks, according to a monitoring report by Colombia's Ombudsman's Office about a ceasefire with the Central General Staff (Estado Mayor Central - EMC) of the ex-FARC mafia. After the recruitment and subsequent killing of four Indigenous children in Putumayo in May, the government suspended the ceasefire in the departments of Putumayo, Caquetá, Guaviare, and Meta.
And although there was a 45% decrease in overall actions by armed groups between January and April 2023 compared to the same period last year, according to the OCHA report, confrontations between these groups and attacks on civilians remain the primary triggers of humanitarian emergencies in the country.
According to OCHA, several factors have led to the increase in cases of restricted humanitarian access, including armed groups’ lack of awareness of international humanitarian law (IHL) and better training for humanitarian workers reporting these types of incidents.
“This occurs amid the expansion and reconfiguration of the GANE [Grupos Armados No Estatales, or Non-State Armed Groups] in the last few years, which has led to both an increase in incidents and to the fact that many of those reported in 2022 were related to threats and violence against humanitarian workers and materials,” an OCHA representative told InSight Crime.
Armed groups have also imposed curfews on residents in parts of Antioquia, Guaviare, and other departments, banning movement between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., according to a May report by the Organization of American States' Peace Process Support Mission (Misión de Apoyo al Proceso de Paz - MAPP).
The ELN has also obstructed the installation of internet infrastructure in Norte de Santander and Nariño, depriving rural residents of access to information. Additionally, Colombian authorities have documented 66 cases of children and adolescents being forcibly recruited by armed groups in 2023.
While OCHA hopes that the situation will improve as government negotiations with armed groups advance, the expansion of some groups in the country remains a concern. “We have observed the consolidation of Non-State Armed Groups in the Pacific and the border zone with Norte de Santander, as well as an increase in violence against civilians in southern Bolívar and the south-central region of the country (Putumayo, Caquetá, Guaviare, and Meta), and an increase in social and territorial control which has restricted humanitarian access in the southern part of the country.”
*This article was updated on June 19 to include statements from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).