Human Rights Watch issued a report stating that armed groups have committed aberrant abuses against Venezuelan and Colombian civilians in their dispute over territorial control in Catatumbo, in northeastern Colombia.
The 69-page report “The war on the Catatumbo: Abuses of armed groups against Colombian and Venezuelan civilians in northeastern Colombia”, records the murders, disappearances, sexual violence crimes, recruitment of children as soldiers and forced displacement committed by the National Liberation Army (ELN), the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) and a group that emerged from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Armed groups try to control the population through threats, including against social leaders and human rights defenders. Several of them have been killed. The victims of these aberrant abuses include Venezuelans fleeing the humanitarian emergency in their country.
“While the armed groups dispute the void left by the FARC in the Catatumbo, hundreds of civilians have been left in the middle of a brutal conflict”, said José Miguel Vivanco, director for the Americas of Human Rights Watch. “The Venezuelans in the Catatumbo are caught at a crossroads between the war in Colombia and the desperation to get out of the humanitarian emergency in their own country.”
In April 2019, Human Rights Watch advanced a field investigation at the Catatumbo. In total, we collected testimonies from more than 80 people, including victims and relatives of victims, social leaders, church representatives, human rights officials, local authorities, judicial officials and members of humanitarian and human rights organizations working in the area.
Human Rights Watch also had access to official reports and statistics, publications of non-governmental and international organizations, and testimonies taken by public officials to approximately 500 victims of abuse committed by armed groups. It is highly likely that the total number of cases will be even greater than that recorded by the authorities, due to the fear of the victims of reprisals from armed groups if they report the abuses and the fear of the Venezuelan victims to be deported.
At least 25,000 Venezuelans live in this region, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Several vulnerable and often undocumented Venezuelans have been victims of forced displacement, murder and recruitment of minors by armed groups.
Armed groups have killed nine human rights defenders in the area since 2017, according to the Office of the Attorney General and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
Armed groups in Catatumbo have also committed kidnappings, disappearances and sexual crimes.
The groups have forced, with threats, children as young as 12 to join their ranks. In some cases the children joined the groups for promises of money. Human Rights Watch had access to testimony about a dozen cases of families who moved after an armed group tried to recruit one of their children or threatened to do so.
Armed groups have also planted antipersonnel mines in rural areas of Catatumbo, where the FARC had used mines in the past. Four people have died and 65 were injured due to antipersonnel landmines in the Catatumbo since 2017.