The Gangs That Rule Along Colombia-Venezuela Border

The border of Colombia and Venezuela has become a lawless land where people are kidnaped and killed with impunity.

Clashes at the Colombia-Venezuela border
Clashes at the Colombia-Venezuela border
Carolina Avila

BOGOTÁ — "Forced disappearances," which too often are kidnapping-murders, have risen in the last three years on the border of Colombia and Venezuela. In 2018, the Colombian Coroner's office reported the forced disappearance of 233 people in Norte de Santander, the border department whose capital is Cúcuta. In June 2019 alone, 97 people reportedly disappeared, and relatives are now calling on the governments of Colombia and Venezuela to open diplomatic channels to tackle this plague.

It's "easier to make someone disappear in this region than to kill them," says Wilfredo Cañizares, head of the Fundación Progresar, a civil rights NGO based in Cúcuta. "When there is a homicide, you know about it because it appears on the front pages of newspapers, but when they make someone disappear, nothing is said about the crime."

Cañizares says forced disappearances are not new but their sharp increase on the border is notable. "Every three days they're making someone disappear in Cúcuta."

One of these people was Manuel Zegarra, who disappeared in July 2016 in La Parada, near Cúcuta; he was crossing the border to change money. Similarly, 39-year-old Nelly Martínez disappeared in October 2018 when crossing the International Francisco de Paula Santander bridge. According to Cañizares, during the worst years of Colombia's war with the leftist guerrillas, the chief targets of kidnappings were suspected guerrillas, collaborators or community leaders. Today, however, they are mainly truck drivers, shopkeepers or locals engaged in informal trading.

Inside Cúcuta there were 159 disappearances in 2018, according to forensic officials. PoderPaz, another local NGO, also considers these incidents as unrelated to politics, and more connected "with structures that control the border and illegal trading in goods and food."

New Dynamics in Violence

Three guerrilla forces have historically been present in Norte de Santander — especially in Catatumbo, a region encompassing 11 districts. The first and oldest is the National Liberation Army (ELN), which arrived in the mid 1970s; the second is the Popular Liberation Army (EPL); the last is the FARC, the now disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The ELN's ""turf" included Cúcuta and other neighboring departments: Ureña and Bolívar in Venezuela, and central Catatumbo (although the ELN has also come to control southern parts of the department formerly held by FARC). This land connects them to Arauca, a department on the border. PoderPaz reports that extortion pamphlets have been found in districts removed from the border, like Ocaña, which the ELN use as a "rearguard" for border trafficking.

A number of dissenting former fighters for the FARC rejected the 2016 peace deal and are now pressuring people — in a disorganized way — in several districts. The EPL, in turn, are suspected of working with right-wing paramilitaries by the Association of Relatives of Disappeared Detainees (Asfaddes). Cañizares says the EPL expelled some of its fighters "months ago, as they were coordinating actions with the Rastrojos' in Venezuela, referring to one of Colombia's biggest criminal gangs.

Every three days they're making someone disappear in Cúcuta.

Gangs like the Rastrojos or the Gaitanistas are effectively reconfigurations of right-wing militias like the Catatumbo Block that managed to avoid demobilization. Cañizares says the Rastrojos are not only present in Puerto Santander and Cúcuta, but have expanded to other districts. They have been fighting the Gaitanistas, who control the San Faustino village district and La Mulata in the Venezuelan state of Táchira, since 2014.

Cúcuta hosts other criminal bands like La Línea, La Frontera, Los Cebolleros and Los Canelones. La Línea (The Line), which Cañizares says "is the most violent group we've seen," controls the Santander bridge, "and has been busy dismembering and making people disappear" — and filming it to show the families of its victims. Cañizares posits that the rise in criminal activity is therefore linked to the control of trans-border trafficking and its routes and the extortion of thousands of informal traders and workers.

Asfaddes points out that the border strip from Villa del Rosario to Puerto Santander is not only being used to dump bodies, but people have known about the mass graves there for years. Progresar estimates that 350 Colombians are buried on the border and has located dumps in the area of La Mulata, which is controlled by the Gaitanistas.

A masked protester facing security forces in Cucuta — Photo: Elyxandro Cegarra/ZUMA

The people interviewed for El Espectador noted that political tensions between Colombia and Venezuela have increased the presence of gangs in Norte de Santander. The gangs, they say, act knowing that Colombian and Venezuelan police and military will not intervene. The Cúcuta police did not wish to comment to the paper on disappearances or the issue of coordination between agencies.

The bodies of Colombians found by Venezuela's Bolivarian Guard are, in turn, buried in Venezuela without proper identification. There is also, of course, the problem of Venezuelans disappearing in Colombia.

Over 1.4 million Venezuelans have crossed into Colombia to escape a collapsed economy, braving harsh conditions and often abuse in the process. According to Cañizares, "575 Venezuelans were murdered in Colombia and 32 have disappeared as of December 2018. Half of these instances took place in Norte de Santander, and 16 cases were in Cúcuta." Coroners have counted 64 disappearances this year, he said, usually with no subsequent investigations.

Asfaddes and PoderPaz believe the disappearances of Venezuelans is tied to human trafficking and forced recruitment. Women and girls are typically forced into sexual slavery, and men are forced to join gangs or farm coca.

The gangs act knowing that Colombian and Venezuelan police and military will not intervene.

Before the deterioration of diplomatic ties between the neighboring countries, it was possible — if not easy — to cross the border to inquire about a suspected death. NGOs have recently stepped in as independent intermediaries. Progresar has established lines of communication with Venezuelan authorities for people who think their relatives might be in Venezuela. Asfaddes has informed the Search Unit for Suspected Missing Persons, set up after the peace accords, of the need for a permanent unit in this region. The Unit launched a pilot scheme on July 15, to identify 2,100 corpses (of which 1,600 are in Norte de Santander) and improve identification protocol.

Asfaddes has also asked the National Missing Persons Search Commission, an official, multi-agency body, to try to renew contacts with Venezuela in relation to missing persons. They were told this is a decision to be made by President Iván Duque, which, in present conditions, is not an option. Meanwhile, on the border, people are vanishing and crime is prospering more than ever before.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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