Venezuelan migrants are among those who have fallen victim to killings, disappearances, sexual violence, forced displacement and child recruitment in the conflict-racked Colombian border region of Catatumbo, according to a report released Thursday by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
José Miguel Vivanco, director of HRW's American division, presenting a report on Colombian region, Catatumbo. EFE/Mauricio Dueñas Castañeda
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Titled "The War in Catatumbo: Abuses by Armed Groups Against Civilians Including Venezuelan Exiles in Northeastern Colombia," the report says those crimes have been committed by National Liberation Army (ELN) and Popular Liberation Army (EPL) guerrillas and former members of the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel outfit who have formed a new armed group.
HRW noted that the 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC offered a landmark opportunity to "halt the serious abuses and atrocities associated with a decades-long armed conflict."
However, the rights group said that the government does not exercise effective control over all territory in particular areas reclaimed from the FARC, allowing other armed groups to step into the breach, fight for control over land and engage in illegal activities.
One of these areas is Catatumbo, where HRW said the government "is not meeting its obligations to protect and vindicate the rights of civilians who are victims of the conflict between armed groups ... and who are suffering serious abuses by the armed groups."
The report said it is not possible to know the precise number of Venezuelans living in Catatumbo because the "state presence is limited and armed groups are exercising immigration controls at illegal crossings" in that region.
Colombian authorities in June 2018 counted only 9,106 Venezuelans in Catatumbo, although HRW, a New York-based international non-governmental organization, said that figure is too low because the government survey did not cover all rural areas and was conducted at a time when vehicular traffic, business and activities were shut down amid an EPL "armed strike."
For its part, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated that as of April 2019 at least 25,000 Venezuelans were living in that region and were spread out over its major urban areas, including Tibu, Ocaña, El Tarra, Abrego, Convencion and Sardinata.
Millions of Venezuelans have fled their homeland's severe economic crisis in recent years, with Colombia having become the main destination and transit country for these migrants.
HRW said many Venezuelan exiles are living in precarious conditions in Catatumbo's urban areas, adding that "some sleep on the streets or in overcrowded buildings, sometimes without access to electricity and running water."
The report said Colombian Defense Ministry figures indicate that 16 Venezuelans were killed in the first six months of the year in Catatumbo, just three fewer than the total number of Venezuelan murder victims registered in that region by the Colombian National Police for all of 2018.
By comparison, five Venezuelans were killed in Catatumbo in 2017 and none in 2016, according to police figures.
The OCHA also has received reports of sexual violence and abuse against Venezuelan women and girls in that region, the report said, adding that these victims told that UN office that they did not report incidents to the Colombian authorities due to fear of retaliation by the perpetrators and deportation.
Citing a humanitarian body working in Catatumbo, the report said that "Venezuelan girls between 12 and 15 years old engage in relationships in which sex is exchanged for 5,000 Colombian pesos (less than $2)."
HRW also expressed concern that both Colombian and Venezuelan children work in coca fields in Catatumbo, saying that "could be a barrier to attending school."
Separately, the report cited government figures indicating that more than 40,000 people in Catatumbo have been displaced from their homes since 2017.
Most of those victims were coerced into relocating last year due to fighting between the ELN and EPN, while in 2019 the main cause appears to be fighting between those groups and the Colombian armed forces.
The number of killings in Catatumbo has doubled in recent years, climbing from 112 in 2015 to 231 in 2018.
HRW analyzed eight of these cases and concluded that "alleged members of armed groups killed civilians after accusing them of cooperating with other groups or the Colombian armed forces, or for refusing to join their ranks."
A further scourge is the recruitment of children as young as 12 by armed groups.
"Children are sometimes forced to join after an armed group threatens to kill them or their families. On other occasions, they are offered pay," HRW said.
The rights group interviewed more than 80 people in researching the report, including abuse victims, community leaders, church representatives, human rights officers, local authorities, judicial officials and members of humanitarian and human rights organizations. EFE