Colombian NGO Fundacion Progresar Monday condemned “serious” human rights violations at the Colombia-Venezuela border, which, according to the organization’s statistics, has seen 16,000 murders and 1,800 disappearances over the last decade.
Fundacion Progresar director, Wilfredo Cañizalez, who works with conflict victims in Colombia’s Norte de Santander department, said that homicide and forced displacement along the border have increased in recent years.
Cañizalez believes that ongoing squabbling between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, “has created a cloak of darkness that covers and hides the reality of the border [region].”
The NGO director describes the border as “permeable, where everything has a price, where criminal activities have been strengthened, where the trafficking of drugs, the smuggling of gasoline, goods, steel, the theft of vehicles, extortion and kidnapping are our daily bread.”
Following a six month investigation, Fundacion Progresar determined that in the last decade Norte de Santander has registered close to 1,800 reported disappearances.
“Of these, we have been able to determine that in close to 200 cases, it is certain that the bodies were dumped on the Venezuelan side,” a habitual practice that ensures that these disappearances do not appear in official statistics and are not covered by the media, Cañizalez said.
Cañizalez said that of the 16,000 homicides recorded in the border region, 70% were registered in Norte de Santander, which he added has seen a “worrying” increase in murder rates in recent years.
The eastern department saw more than 800 murders in 2009, and 1,200 murders in the departement capital Cucuta over the last two years, 85% at the hands of paid assassins, Cañizalez said.
The NGO director said that the 2004 demobilization of the Catatumbo block of paramilitary organization the AUC led to a drop in rural violence, but that this violence relocated to urban centers. Cucuta in particular suffered from a high concentration of guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug traffickers.
“We have not had any response from Bogota nor from Caracas on this phenomenon,” Cañizalez said, adding that both administrations have militarized the zone, but this has not halted the growth of illegal armed groups.
Cañizalez said that illegal activity has infiltrated public institutions in the region.
“The only thing you need to do whatever illegal activity in Colombia or Venezuela is have sufficient resources to pay those who control the borders,” he said.
This situation creates a “climate characterized by terror,” in border municipalities, where illegal armed groups exercize a strict control over the people, via assassinations, threats against organizations, community leaders and trade unionists, and coercion of storekeepers, businessmen and the general community, according to Cañizalez.
In his opinion both governments “continue to under-estimate these problems, prioritizing confrontation and political agression… and are unaware of the dimensions of the damage,” which has contributed to the growth of xenophobia on both sides of the border.
“Border inhabitants have not been able to recuperate peace of mind following the paramilitary demobilization. To the contrary, today we see dynamics that are much more complex to decipher, which are a danger to the lives of the people who live along the border,” Cañizalez said.
The Colombia-Venezuela border region has long been a hot-bed of crime and violence. Terse relations between the two nations exacerbate the long standing problems.
Diplomatic ties between Colombia and Venezuela were severed in 2009, after Colombia signed a controversial pact with the U.S. which grants the Americans access to seven Colombian military bases. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez says that the pact is part of a scheme by the U.S. to undermine sovereignty in the region.
Colombia and Venezuela have intermittently locked horns since Chavez took office more than a decade ago. Venezuela often complains about spillover from Colombia’s long guerrilla war, while Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s government says Chavez has not done enough to stop FARC guerrillas from taking refuge the Venezuelan border.