Venezuela: a humanitarian and security crisis on the border with Colombia

Crossing the river to Colombia. EPA/SCHNEYDER MENDOZA

As the crisis in Venezuela continues, aid trucks are being blocked at the border with Colombia. But this development isn’t only about the two men claiming to be the country’s rightful president: it’s also about the borderlands themselves.

The Colombia-Venezuela border is home to some of the worst violence and organised crime in the region. Aid blockages can be seen as yet another manifestation of these problems, with armed groups playing power games at the expense of vulnerable local people.

Concerns that Venezuela’s instability could extend beyond its borders have already materialised – 3m citizens have left the country. Most of them are “absorbed” by borderland communities, pressurising already strained governance systems.

As our research shows, the pressure on basic services in these communities that have been deficient anyway – health, access to food and jobs – fuels crime, prostitution, and begging, and deepens social tensions. Together with the xenophobic discourse of right-wing politicians, this becomes an explosive mix.

Venezuela’s crisis is also fuelling the expansion of criminal networks that have ruled the region for decades, as they take advantage of the economic crisis along the border.

Take cocaine production, for example. Colombian coca cultivation has increased, especially near the border with Venezuela. As one civil society leader from Colombia told our research team, a “labour force from Venezuela is arriving at the coca cultivations”.

The money Venezuelans can make in coca farming exceeds normal salaries back home, and may be the only income option available. This constant availability of labour then allows armed groups to keep the cocaine business going.

Yet this is not just about drugs. As I show in my new book Borderland Battles, the Colombia-Venezuela border features many illicit flows, including of weapons, gasoline and people. These are boosted by the crisis, with more Venezuelan women and children being trafficked.

Furthermore, according to interviewees from the Venezuelan state of Táchira, it is increasingly common to hear Mexican accents in Venezuelan border towns. This reflects the steady expansion of Mexican drug cartels into the region, intensifying violent competition over the business.

Risking peace in Colombia

Upheaval in Venezuela has also intensified the cross-border violence related to Colombia’s armed conflict. While Colombian guerrillas have used Venezuela as a safe haven for decades, their presence in the country has now become more complex.

Despite Colombia’s peace deal with the leftist guerrilla group, FARC, there is ongoing conflict with the ELN rebels, who are believed to operate in 12 Venezuelan states. At the same time, FARC dissidents have expanded their control over gold mining in southern Venezuela, and Colombian right-wing groups occupy Venezuela’s border regions. They gain strength in Venezuela to strike Colombia, while adding to Venezuela’s internal violence as they clash with state forces.

Further afield, incidents such as the US national security advisor writing “5,000 troops to Colombia” on his notepad serve only to escalate tensions.

Back in 2012, a human rights defender in Venezuela explained to me that the country needs to prepare itself for a US invasion, which would start via Colombia. For that reason, there are some who would welcome a FARC presence in Venezuela – as a “buffer”. Such a scenario was engraved in many of my interviewees’ minds, exposing the irresponsibility of reviving such fears.

Meanwhile, bodies of Venezuelan nationals killed in combat between Colombian state forces and guerrillas reveal that young Venezuelans in search of a better future have become easy recruits for the ELN, FARC dissidents, and other Colombian armed groups. Moreover, Venezuelan “colectivos”, radical left-wing groups, have expanded into Colombia’s border region.

Further violent escalation in Venezuela may give rise to a messy cross-border conflict, rather than civil war. Instead of the emergence of clear front lines, the Venezuelan state forces might fragment into factions loyal to Maduro, others supporting Guaidó, and yet others picking their own local leaders whose illicit business interests do not stop at the border, as the aid blockages may indicate.

With Colombia’s peace on shaky grounds and the ELN’s armed struggle continuing, both organised and “disorganised” violence could develop across the two countries.

Border control

The need for action is clear, but there are no easy fixes. Shutting Venezuela’s borders to avoid insecurity from “spilling over” would be irresponsible.

A border bridge blocked to prevent the arrival of aid. EPA/RAFAEL HERNANDEZ

At long borders with rough terrain, such as the Colombian-Venezuelan one that extends 1,378 miles (comparable to the 1,954-mile US-Mexican border), porous areas are inevitable. Violent entrepreneurs use them to their advantage, while suffering people are stuck. This happened in 2015 after Maduro closed the border: illicit flows kept thriving, but people’s needs remained unmet.

Even a complete border closure serves to incentivise more illicit cross-border activities, because with increased risk comes increased prices and profits. Instead, curbing people’s insecurity amid Venezuela’s turmoil requires a dual approach.

In Venezuela, calls for unity and democracy need to extend to the military to contain violence effectively. In the borderlands, humanitarian assistance to Venezuelan refugees must be combined with long term support for communities to “absorb” them by stepping up the provision of services and sustainable job opportunities.

Sadly, violence knows no borders. But nor do humanitarian principles and solidarity. Venezuela’s political future may still be uncertain, but one thing is sure: turning a blind eye to the border region is no longer an option. Borderland communities’ security must come first.