At least 27 people died in fighting between armed Colombian groups on Sunday, January 2, in Arauca, a region in eastern Colombia on the border with Venezuela. Although soldiers were deployed to this rural area, residents say they feel trapped and abandoned. They say they are living in a "climate of terror", with some hiding at home, while others have decided to flee.
The fighting was between members of the National Liberation Army (ELN), the last guerrilla group still active in the country, and members of a dissident faction of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which broke a peace agreement with the government in 2016. The groups are fighting for control of both territory and cocaine smuggling routes.
According to the attorney general of Colombia, Francisco Barbosa, 27 bodies, including those of two women, two minors and at least seven Venezuelan citizens, were found between January 2 and January 6. The Colombian Ministry of Defense reported that the dead included two leaders of Frente Décimo, a prominent dissident group that split off from the FARC, as well as eight people with criminal records for offences including extortion, kidnapping, hostage-taking and domestic violence.
According to preliminary reports by the police, the victims were forced out of their homes and killed at point-blank range. Their bodies were then abandoned far from their homes. Conservative Colombian President Ivan Duque said that it is likely that civilians were also killed in the clashes.
On January 3, the day after the clashes, dozens of people dressed in white protested in the towns of Tame, Arauquita and Fortul, pleading with the government and armed groups to put a stop to the violence.
'We are living in terror, we don’t go out'
Mayerly Briceño, 25, lives in the rural area of Tame. He is also a human rights activist. He participated in one of the marches for peace:
We want civilians to stop being caught up in the conflict. We are asking for the armed groups to respect our right to live, our integrity. We don’t want it to be like it was 13 years ago, when a similar conflict took place. Back then, there were thousands of civilian victims. People were killed by armed groups and many more were displaced.
We are asking for human rights organisations to intervene in the conflict, to help establish humanitarian corridors for safe passage in rural zones. What we know from the statements that the armed groups put out is that the war between them isn’t over. They say that they will keep fighting.
'We are ready to leave if the conflict intensifies'
I live in a rural zone. The fighting here began on January 2. At around 8am, we were informed that we needed to stay home because fighting was about to break out. Throughout the day, we got the news that people had been killed. We also heard gunfire. We are living in terror, we don’t go out. We aren’t going out to work, we stay at home. The streets are deserted.
We know that around 80 families from Tame and another 100 families from Saravena already fled. These families are heading to urban centres in an attempt to escape from the conflicts engulfing rural zones. My family is just waiting, ready to leave if the conflict intensifies.
'We don’t think the solution is a military one'
According to the Colombian authorities, 50 people were reported missing and a further 3,000 have been displaced since January 2. On January 3, more than 600 soldiers were deployed to the department in an attempt to increase security. But Mayerly Briceño says "militarization" isn’t a solution:
What we’ve been saying to the Colombian government since the beginning is that we have been abandoned, that the government has abandoned this department. We don’t think the solution is a military one, the government needs to establish a presence in this region with social investments, by guaranteeing access to healthcare and employment opportunities. The peasants here don’t get any support. The population of this department is very young on the whole and we don’t have a public university. We are lacking access to education.
Government presence and a reduction in poverty are real responses to armed groups. Lack of opportunity, poverty and inequality all open up the doors to armed groups, which have since taken control of the territory.
In Arauca, where the main industries are petrol and agriculture, one out of every three residents doesn’t have work, according to the Colombian daily paper El Espectador, which cites official statistics from 2021. The town of Arauca has the highest unemployment rate in the country, a factor that helps local armed groups recruit members.
Colombia frequently accuses the Venezuelan government of Nicolas Maduro of sheltering and protecting illegal armed Colombian groups. Colombian President Ivan Duque says these clashes are a result of the “porous border” between Colombia and Venezuela.
There are about 5,200 fighters with the FARC dissident group and about 2,450 fighters in the National Liberation Army (ELN), according to the Research Institute for Development and Peace (Indepaz), an independent Colombian think-tank.