SARAVENA, Colombia—On Jan. 19, Sonia Lopez was working late in the office of the Joel Sierra Foundation, a human rights group based in the city Saravena, Colombia, just south of the Venezuelan border. It was hot and muggy, and she was exhausted. Normally, she wouldn’t have been working so late, but intense conflict between armed groups in the department of Arauca, where Saravena is located, had left 83 dead and more than 2,000 displaced since early January, putting a premium on her organization’s work.
At 10:45 p.m., shots rang out. Armed men had fired pistols from two cars approaching the front of the office building, before abandoning one of the cars on the corner and fleeing the scene. Lopez, in the rear of the building, was unsure of what was happening—but attacks on civilians had become common in Arauca in previous weeks. She feared the worst.
Simeon Delgado, the security guard on duty at the complex that evening, emerged from his post after the gunfire stopped to investigate the abandoned car. That was the moment the car bomb exploded. He was killed instantly. The explosion destroyed the nearest building and tore holes in the exterior of Sonia’s, leaving offices exposed to the open air as flames danced in the previously quiet street. Five of Sonia’s colleagues were also injured in the blast and required hospitalization.
The attack in Saravena was part of a terrifying escalation of violence on the Venezuela-Colombia border, where two rebel groups are locked in conflict: the National Liberation Army, or ELN, and the 10th Front, a splinter group of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—better known as the FARC, which officially disarmed in 2017 after signing a peace deal with the Colombian government.
The two groups rang in the new year with a bloody massacre in Arauca on Jan. 2, in which ELN and FARC forces killed 27 people in one day and dumped their bodies on the region’s main roads. By the end of the month, according to the Colombian government and humanitarian organizations, the conflict had resulted in 53 deaths and 530 internal displacements in Colombia. At least five indigenous communities in Arauca are still affected by public safety restrictions in Saravena, as well as the neighboring towns of Arauquita, Fortul and Tame.
For Arauca’s residents, the fighting resembles that of the early 2000s, the deadliest period of Colombia’s 52-year-long civil war. The last time that ELN and FARC forces butted heads in the area, the conflict lasted more than eight years and left as many as 2,000 people dead.
“People in Arauca are still traumatized by FARC-ELN fighting” during the civil war, said Adam Isacson, the director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America. “The pace of killing in Arauca in January — more than 2 murders per day — exceeds that period.”
“It is a moment of terror for us,” said Aide Francisca Castillo, director of the Foundation for Human Rights in Eastern and Central Colombia, or DHOC, in an interview with WPR. “We have lived this experience [in Arauca] before. As armed groups war with one another, it is the civilian population that suffers.”
Movement restrictions and checkpoints have been imposed on the communities of Arauca by both the government and armed groups alike. During WPR’s visit, Arauca’s governor was enforcing a 9 p.m. curfew, and by day, Colombian soldiers maintained the checkpoints on major roads. By night, though, the rebel groups were the ones maintaining points of control, sometimes on the very same roads. In the words of Junior, a former member of the FARC, “The only thing that changes are the uniforms.”
The New War
Arauca may represent the most dramatic case of open conflict in Colombia, but it is far from the only one. Since coming into office in 2018, President Ivan Duque has worked to dismantle aspects of the peace deal signed in 2016 between the Colombian government and the FARC, and his efforts have borne fruit: War has returned to the Colombian countryside.
In the northern coastal region of Choco, the ELN is fighting with narco-paramilitary groups descended from the “self-defense forces” that aided the government during the civil war. The clashes there have already displaced or confined more than 2,000 people this year, according to Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group.
“The only thing that changes are the uniforms.”
Meanwhile, the central-western department of Cauca is reeling from a Feb. 6 car bomb explosion in the town of Padilla, which killed one and wounded four. Ongoing conflict in that region has also killed hundreds of indigenous activists since 2016, including most recently the Jan. 26 murder of Albeiro Camayo. Camayo was a well-known leader of the region’s Indigenous Guard, a nonviolent community protection network, and his killing has caused widespread popular outrage.
The recent escalation of attacks, though shocking, is merely a continuation of a trend that has seen violence worsen since the start of Duque’s presidency. Between January and September of last year, the United Nations’ humanitarian affairs office recorded more than 72,000 displacements in the country—a 196 percent increase compared to the same period in 2020.
Indepaz, a nonprofit organization that monitors the peace process in Colombia, also reported 96 massacres—which the Colombian state defines as the murder of more than three people in a single incident—in 2021. It is the most since 2014, two years before the peace deal was signed. The recruitment of children by armed groups has also risen, as has the forced recruitment of adults.
In response to the violence, leading actors in Arauca—including the governor, the public defender’s office, demobilized FARC communities, local governments and nongovernmental organizations—have all called for the state to declare a humanitarian emergency in the region. That status would provide Arauca with immediate disaster relief in the way of food and medical supplies.
In the meantime, Tame’s human rights ombudsman has called for the international organizations that already work in the region, like the Norwegian Refugee Council, the American Red Cross and Oxfam, to increase their support and help coordinate emergency food deliveries.
“The food security of hundreds of people is at risk,” said Juan Carlos Villate, an investigator in the ombudsman’s office. “The crisis exceeds the capacity of the state.”
Caught in the Middle
The ELN and 10th Front share similar ideologies, and for nearly a decade they coexisted in Arauca under an informal mutual non-aggression pact. But that relationship began to fray after the 2016 peace deal. When the vast majority of its fighters disarmed, the FARC left behind a power vacuum in its former territories that could have been filled by the Colombian state. Instead, the ELN and new bands of FARC dissidents, like the 10th Front, began fighting for control of the valuable smuggling, extortion and coca-growing territories that once belonged to the FARC.
Violence and conflict have surged and receded in the region alongside political changes in both Colombia and neighboring Venezuela. Last year, the 10th Front, which also holds territory in Venezuela, fought a war with security forces there that sent thousands of refugees into Colombia and resulted in the deaths of nearly a dozen Venezuelan soldiers. The ELN, which operates in the same borderlands, stayed out of that conflict and even suggested publicly at the time that the 10th Front’s fighters were “not true revolutionaries,” but rather members of a narco-organization.
Naturally, the 10th Front maintains that it’s fighting a Marxist revolution. Back in 2016, it had justified its rejection of the peace deal by arguing that “armed revolution is the only way the corrupt capitalism system can be ended.” But virtually all security experts agree that the conflict in Colombia is now about economics, not ideology.
As fighting worsens, civilians are increasingly under attack, targeted by rebel fighters for their perceived support of, or sympathies for, the opposing group. Demobilized FARC members have also found themselves in the crosshairs of both the ELN and 10th Front, which do not see the ex-fighters as neutral parties, in part because of the FARC’s history in the region.
Junior, a demobilized FARC member who now breeds pigs and chickens, participated in the regional conflict with ELN between 2004 and 2011. He says his seven-year-old son and his neighbors in Filipinas, Arauca, have become targets. Their home, Villa Paz, or “peace village,” is one of the communities created by the peace deal to ease the transition of demobilized rebels into civilian life, known formally as a Training and Reincorporation Community. Its 200 residents, who are all former fighters or their relatives, grow food and produce shoes and other commercial goods as part of their peace-making activities. Junior takes notable pride in what they have accomplished. “Six years ago, I was at war here,” he said in an interview. “Now, I just want to be a farmer in peace.”
Amid the ongoing crisis, many of Villa Paz’s residents have fled to other departments. Those who remained have decided to confine themselves to the property for their own safety. “Of course I’m a target,” Junior told us. “Ten years ago, I was shooting at those guys. They don’t care that we left all that behind.”
He was particularly worried about the safety of his son, who was born well after the regional conflict in Arauca. “What does he have to do with any of this?” Junior asked. “But there are those in Colombia who would want him dead for the sins of his father.”
His fear is far from unfounded. Since the 2016 accord, 300 demobilized rebels have been killed, according to Indepaz. Just days after WPR visited Villa Paz, Juvenal Gomez, another of the peace deal’s signatories, was killed by armed groups in neighboring Saravena.
‘Peace With Legality’
When it signed the 2016 peace deal, the administration of then-President Juan Manuel Santos committed to address the poverty and social inequities that drove the FARC’s rebellion by implementing new social programs and infrastructure projects in rural areas and by reforming state institutions, like the judiciary. During the civil war, the FARC had stepped in to fulfill state functions in rural regions like Arauca that have long been neglected by the central government. The rebel group imposed its own laws, ran community centers and even acted as mediators for conflicts between residents.
“Maybe two farmers were having a dispute over land. We would step in and try to achieve a solution,” Mello, another former FARC fighter, recalled. “You have to understand: There was no government.”
Santos’ plan had been to address that neglect by connecting remote territories to city centers and increasing the presence of the Colombian government. But when Duque entered office in 2018 after winning a razor-thin election, he broke from the peace deal’s promises, putting an end to the social programs and reforms in favor of securing the “rule of law” through force.
This “peace with legality” policy has emphasized militarization and increased troop deployments to rural conflict zones. It has not stopped the wave of violence. Major cities like Bogota have seen a dramatic drop in homicides in the past decade, but rural areas, which enjoyed two years of relative peace after the signing of the peace accord, have become increasingly violent and destabilized.
Prominent human rights advocates have warned for years that a purely military solution would be unlikely to achieve lasting results. In early 2020, for instance, Human Rights Watch investigators in Arauca wrote that the situation there “is unlikely to improve if the Colombian government continues to focus its strategy on deploying the military without simultaneously strengthening the justice system, improving protection for the population, and taking steps to ensure adequate access to economic and educational opportunities and public services.”
As the Arauca public defender’s office warned in five separate communiques to the national government since 2018, the state’s neglect of rural areas has led to an environment of lawlessness that is known to fuel increased violence. And Indepaz has called Duque’s preference for military solutions over social strategies to contain armed groups “a critical omission that has cost Colombians their lives.”
Prominent human rights advocates have warned for years that a purely military solution would be unlikely to achieve lasting results.
“Militarization isn’t working,” said Castillo, the DHOC’s director. “What we need is investment in civil society and roads for farmers to transport their harvests. As it stands, because transportation is so unreliable, it costs more for farmers to transport crops to market than the harvests are worth.”
At this point, she continued, “Dialogue between the armed groups, civil society and the government is the only way to avert more bloodshed.” But the Duque administration does not appear to be interested in dialogue. Santos had made tentative efforts to engage the ELN in peace talks, but Duque suspended them within months of taking office and formally abandoned them after the group took credit for a bombing at a Bogota police academy in 2019.
A Second Chance
With parliamentary elections scheduled for March and a first-round presidential election in May, Colombia may soon have a chance to change course. A new government could honor the Santos administration’s promises, open new rounds of peace talks with the ELN and make real investments—both politically and economically—in conflict regions that have been neglected for decades.
Colombia’s closest ally, the United States, should pressure the new government to do exactly that, and the United Nations, which has denounced human rights violations under the Duque administration, must continue to support peace processes. It should also continue to press the Colombian government to make reforms to its security forces, which have allegedly perpetrated grave human rights abuses in recent years.
The current front-runner in the presidential race, Gustavo Petro, a senator and former mayor of Bogota, seems more than willing to make these changes. He has proposed renewed dialogues with insurgent groups and the re-implementation of the 2016 peace accord. On the other hand, although the country’s constitution prevents Duque from running for a second term, his legacy could be continued by right-wing candidate Federico Gutierrez, the ex-governor of Antioquia who, after visiting Arauca, proclaimed, “For these bandits, it must be jail or death.”
But Colombia has tried to stifle conflict with military force for five years. That strategy has only fed the flames of violence with more violence, setting off a slow march back toward civil war.
“We did what we promised. The government can’t say the same,” Junior told us at Villa Paz. “After the way they treated us, I’m not surprised at all that the ELN doesn’t trust the government enough to enter talks.”
This spring, the choice will come down to Colombian voters. They can either opt to sow peace, as was the dream of so many activists in 2016, or to continue harvesting war.
Joshua Collins is a freelance journalist based in Bogota, focused on migration and violence. Follow him on Twitter at @InvisiblesMuros.
Daniela Díaz is a journalist based in Bogota, Colombia, who focuses on women’s issues and the implementation of the country’s 2016 peace deal. She has previously been published by VICE News and NACLA, as well as a host of Colombian media companies.