Colombia: Forced Disappearances Remain High in Norte de Santander

By Jessica Spanswick and Javier Ochoa*

Event in Cúcuta, Colombia, hosted by Fundación Progresar and UNDP – a book release featuring stories of 100 disappeared people.

Event in Cúcuta, Colombia, hosted by Fundación Progresar and UNDP – a book release featuring stories of 100 disappeared people.

The Colombian department of Norte de Santander, along the most heavily traveled part of the national border with Venezuela, has the highest rate of forced disappearances in the entire country – increasing as implementation of the historic peace accord signed in 2016 has faltered. Homicides, kidnappings, and other disappearances have all surpassed national averages. Fundación Progresar, an NGO based in the province’s capital, Cúcuta, estimates that one person in the area was forcibly disappeared every three days in 2018. During fieldwork with the NGO in 2019, we interviewed surviving family members and heard their accounts of suffering. Some of the reasons for these disappearances have deep historic roots, such as the perennial absence of sustained, trusted government presence in the area, but others reflect trends that have grown in importance since 2016.

  • Armed groups filling the void left by the formal demobilization of the FARC have proliferated. In the last two years, the criminal activity of at least a dozen armed groups was registered in Norte de Santander, ranging from enduring guerrilla groups (National Liberation Army, ELN; the Popular Liberation Army, ELP, also known as Los Pelusos; and dissident FARC groups); armed groups resulting from the demobilization of paramilitary groups in 2004 (including Los Rastrojos); and organized criminal groups (including purported affiliates of the Sinaloa Cartel). Most are engaged in highly profitable cocaine production, narco-trafficking, and gas-smuggling activities in the area.
  • Our analysis of data from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) indicates that the number of hectares under coca cultivation in Norte de Santander grew from 6,944 in 2014 to 33,958 in 2018, with no sign of abating. The government abandoned voluntary eradication programs and did not honor agreements to help communities within the framework of the peace accord. The province provides a strategic corridor for smugglers to bring in Venezuelan oil products for transportation and to make drugs – more than 100,000 gallons a day when it’s available – and exfiltrate the finished cocaine.

A massive influx of Venezuelans fleeing crisis back home has also led to a spike in disappearances. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that nearly 5 million Venezuelans (many of Colombian heritage) have fled the country, the vast majority passing through or staying in Colombia. Many, distrustful of both countries’ officials at formal ports of entry and without a proper channel to receive refugee status, transit informal trocha crossings controlled by criminal groups, where they are at risk of extortion, human trafficking, sex trafficking, murder, and forced disappearance. Our research shows that even those paying a fee to pass through these areas are subjected to abuses.

  • Many Venezuelans, including children, are forced to work as raspachines (coca leaf pickers), who have told human rights groups that they want to go to school but are working essentially as indentured slaves. Older youths have been recruited as soldiers. According to five military commanders, as many as 30 percent of the insurgents in that region are Venezuelans who take up arms “in return for food and pay.” They receive more than 27 times the monthly minimum wage in Venezuela. Others are pressured by criminal groups to join. Another problem is that an increasing number of Venezuelan women and girls are victims of human and sex-trafficking rings in the province. According to local organizations interviewed by Refugees International, they “are often forced to ‘pay’ for passage by providing sexual services.” UN Humanitarian Affairs officials (OCHA) say that “fear of being deported or arrested keeps [[victims]] from seeking help from local authorities.”

The standard solution for reducing the influence of criminal groups in situations like this – establishing state control – remains elusive. The Colombian government has the resources and institutions to address the problem, but it has been slow to take action. Some 99 percent of complaints remain in the initial phase of the criminal process (indagación) – with little chance of moving toward deeper investigation and prosecution. Of 1,106 cases, only six are on, or approaching being on, trial. Having met face-to-face with the families of victims, we know how difficult – and unsatisfying – it is to tell them that governments, NGOs, and others are “doing all they can” to find justice for them.

June 9, 2020

* Javier Ochoa and Jessica Spanswick are recent Master’s graduates of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University. Ochoa interned with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and Spanswick interned at Fundación Progresar, the Colombian Truth Commission, and the Guernica Center for International Justice. The full text of their study is here.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: