A new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on violence in the department of Norte de Santander, Colombia, shows how vulnerable Venezuelan migrants are to the criminal groups that dominate the region.
The report, entitled “The War in Catatumbo” and published August 8, documents abuses by armed groups against Venezuelan and Colombian civilians in Norte de Santander's Catatumbo region in northeast Colombia along the border with Venezuela. It explains that groups like the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación - EPL), and the dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), are responsible for am uptick in killings and other crimes.
The affected Venezuelan citizens live in Catatumbo’s urban areas, including the municipalities of Tibú, Ocaña, El Tarra, Ábrego, Convención and Sardinata. In these areas, the migrants -- including many minors and women -- live in precarious conditions which leave them at the mercy of criminals, according to HRW.
“We have documented on the ground that armed groups in Catatumbo commit all types of abuses: murders, disappearances, kidnappings, recruitment of minors, sexual violations, threats and displacements,” HRW Director José Miguel Vivanco told Semana.
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There are currently close to 25,000 Venezuelans in Catatumbo who, despite being aware of the security risks in the region, have crossed the border in search of work, food and medicine, according to Vivanco. The Venezuelans have arrived as tens of thousands of Catatumbo's residents have been displaced by the conflict among the various armed groups.
Desperate, the migrants find themselves caught in areas where these groups are vying for territory and control of criminal economies.
InSight Crime Analysis
Migratory controls are limited in several of Catatumbo’s towns. Colombian criminal groups take advantage of the poverty and displacement of the Venezuelans flowing across the border, recruiting them into Norte de Santander's criminal economies.
Faced with the need to find work, many Venezuelan migrants end up involved in some part of the drug production chain in order to survive, according to HRW.
On-the-ground sources confirmed to InSight Crime that Venezuelans have largely displaced the local “raspachines” — workers who gather coca leaves — because they will accept lower pay. Payments can range between $100 to $300 per month, an income that is hard to come by in Venezuela.
In many cases, the workers harvesting the coca are minors, both Venezuelan and Colombian, while many young women are recruited into prostitution rings as soon as they cross the border.
Also contributing to the Venezuelans' vulnerability is their immigration status.
Officials with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on the border city of Cúcuta told InSight Crime that fear of being deported or arrested keeps Venezuelan nationals from seeking help from local authorities.
Their near-invisibility, in addition to the deprivations that caused them to migrate in the first place, make these newly arrived Venezuelans all the more vulnerable to the predations of crime groups.