Colombian crime leveraged the COVID-19 pandemic to consolidate its control on the Venezuelan border in cahoots withVenezuelan security forces. The National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group, together with other smaller criminal groups, has been taking advantage of the humanitarian emergency in Venezuela to engage in human trafficking and exploitation of minors along the border with Colombia.
This situation is occurring with the complicity of members of the Venezuelan military and police forces, Bram Ebus, a researcher with the International Crisis Group, a Brussels, Belgium, think tank dedicated to analyzing conflict areas around the world, told Diálogo on August 13.
“The ELN during the pandemic made a fairly large advance on the border and with the help of Venezuelan state security services took [Colombian criminal gang] Los Rastrojos out of [the towns of] La Fría and Boca de Grita, in [Venezuela’s] Táchira state,” Ebus said. “They’ve also consolidated their control in [the Colombian department of] La Guajira by taking out some gangs […].”
Ebus took part in the preparation of a Crisis Group report released on August 9, which highlighted the strengthening of the ELN in the border region through different illicit activities, such as planting and harvesting coca or collecting extortion payments. All these activities are carried out with the useof Venezuelan labor, most of it forced and recruited on the border, where Venezuelans arrive fleeing the humanitarian crisis caused by the Nicolás Maduro regime.
The guerrilla group also controls informal border crossings due to its increased presence. “The ELN is the one that charges for the crossing,” Ebus said.
A July report from the U.S. State Department also highlights the involvement of the ELN and other criminal organizations in human trafficking in the border area.
According to the report, Venezuelan police and armed forces officials “provided support and a permissive environment tonon-state armed groups that recruited children for armed conflict and forced criminality. These non-state armed groups grew through the recruitment of child soldiers and engaged in sex trafficking and forced labor.” The document indicates that the ELN has set up 36 camps in Venezuela on the border with Colombia.
Another organization that points to theexistence of a criminal alliance between this guerrilla group and the Venezuelan military is Human Rights Watch (HRW). In a February report, HRW says both participate in “disappearances, kidnappings, and forced recruitment” in the state of Apure, bordering the Colombian department of Arauca.
Among the problems associated with the trafficking of Venezuelans is exploitation in prostitution centers or forced labor. “For every girl or woman who is a victim ofsexual slavery, or who is taken to armed groups, there is a lot of money involved,”Alejandra Vera, director of the Colombian nongovernmental organization Corporación Mujer, Denuncia y Muévete (MDYM), which supports women’s rights, told Diálogo.
According to Vera, women are recruited on the Colombian-Venezuelan border for sexual exploitation, with the cooperation of armed groups. “Pornography through webcam is currently generating billions of dollars. One of the territories that exports the most child pornography and women is Norte de Santander,” she said.
For Ebus, the complicity of security forceson the Venezuelan side will make dismantling these groups more challenging. “It’s difficult to imagine how Bogotá and Caracas will be able to resolve these human rights issues on the border, knowing that often times state representatives, local public officials, and armed police forces of Venezuela, are accomplices of these trafficking networks,” he concluded.