Earlier this month, a member of Colombia's ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional) guerilla force was killed and dismembered just across the border, in Ureña, Venezuela. Body parts were scattered throughout the city, including in front of a local Venezuelan army outpost, where the victim's head was found.

The murder confirms two things: First, that the ELN has expanded all along the Colombia-Venezuela border, a process that began in April 2018; and second, that a number of criminal organizations are realigning to challenge that expansion.

In the past two months, the urban portion of the border — namely Cúcuta and its surrounding communities — has become the epicenter of a new violent conflict that includes constant threats, selective killings and harassment against both Colombian and Venezuelan citizens thought to be linked to one or the other side in the dispute: the ELN and the criminal groups.

The escalation is taking place in an area that, since 2012, had already seen at least 9,000 murders: more than 4,000 on the Colombian side and 5,000, maybe more, on the Venezuela side, where official numbers aren't available. Right now the violence is most acute in Colombia's Norte de Santander department and in the state of Táchira, in Venezuela.

Until 2017, it was believed that the ELN only controlled the border crossing in Catatumbo. But the map has changed now that the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) guerillas signed a peace deal with the government and withdrew, and the ELN — concentrated before in just one area — has strengthened and spread out all along the border.

Adding to the dangerous mix is the expansion of Venezuelan military forces into certain states where the majority of people oppose the government of President Nicolas Maduro. The mission is to strengthen territorial and social control in those areas.

The Clan del Golfo is also present still in the border region, where it was the dominant player until 2017 following a difficult dispute with the Rastrojos, which maintains a small foothold. And then there's the Línea gang, which is heavily involved in criminal activities ranging from contraband to arms and drugs trafficking, extortion and contract killings in the cities of Villa del Rosario, San Antonio and Ureña.

There's an ideological affinity between the Colombian guerillas and pro-government forces in Venezuela.

This explosive cocktail came to a head this year with the expansion, on the one hand, of the ELN, and, on the other hand, with the increased presence, on the Venezuelan side, of military forces and other pro-government militias with which the ELN was quickly able to establish agreements.

It's no secret that there is an ideological affinity between the Colombian guerillas and pro-government forces in Venezuela. They also share a common goal, which is to corral criminal organizations they see as being "paramilitary gangs." In this way, the ELN has been able to push into certain areas at the direct expense of the Clan del Golfo.

Clash between demonstrants and security forces. — Photo: Elyxandro Cegarra/ZUMA

In the meantime, there's been an increase in the amount of money to be made from illegal and informal economic activities in the area, including the cross-border transit of people. As formal relations between Venezuela and Colombia went from bad to nonexistent, criminality increased, as did competition between various groups — the ELN, the Clan del Golfo and others — trying to control the various rackets.

Finally, it appears that, with the goal of combating the ELN, there's been a realignment among the various criminal groups. In April and May a series of violent episodes occurred in border-crossing areas. In addition to six different shootouts on bridges and in surrounding areas, there was also a series of selective assassinations around Cúcuta.

The person now thought to be responsible for at least some of those killing goes by the alias "El Paisa" and claims to be a member of the Clan del Golfo. Last month he released an audio recording announcing that he would take back control of the Clan's lost territory "with blood and fire."

"El Paisa" openly challenged the ELN, warning that if it doesn't leave the area, it'll be "chopped up and disappeared" — precisely what just happened to one of its members. In Ureña, where the ELN fighter was killed and quartered, curfews have been ordered, slowing commerce. And as the number of selective killings rises, life on both sides of the border is being affected, with schools and businesses shutting, and transportation services cutting back.

*The authors are researchers with the organization Fundación Ideas para la Paz

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