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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