By Geraldine Garcia
Cucuta, Colombia, Feb 2 (EFE).- Violent territorial disputes among illegal armed groups in the Colombian city of Cucuta, which borders on Venezuela, got worse in January 2023, leaving 36 people dead in the metro area last month alone.
Cucuta, the capital of Norte de Santander province, is the site of the main border crossing points between the two countries and there are also many routes along which people circulate and the smuggling of merchandise, weapons and drugs is conducted, authorities say.
Those activities are undertaken by guerrillas, paramilitary groups and criminal bands that have expanded their activities from the turbulent region of Catatumbo, one of the largest coca-production areas in Colombia and where some years back the armed conflict forced hundreds of people to flee to the regional capital.
Due to this cocktail of social problems, the metro area – which includes the municipalities of Cucuta, Villa del Rosario, Los Patios, El Zulia, San Cayetano and Puerto Santander, which together have about 1.2 million residents – over the past few years has experienced an elevated homicide rate, even higher than in other big Colombian cities like Cali and Medellin.
“Cucuta, being a city that’s growing, always had a rather high murder rate. Up till seven years ago it was among the world’s 50 most violent cities and has now gone off the scale,” Cucuta Metropolitan Police (Mecuc) chief Col. Carlos Andres Garcia told EFE.
He said that among the groups operating in the area are the National Liberation Army (ELN), which is currently in peace talks with the government; the Tren de Aragua, a Venezuelan criminal group that has spread out into several South American countries, and other organizations, including dissident members of the now-disbanded former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
“There are four organized criminal groups. They’re in a third category, and are related to local traffic, theft and crimes against public safety. The four groups are fighting over control of the (drug sales points),” he added.
Garcia said that intelligence sources report that “since December there’s been a territorial dispute going on in Catatumbo” in which members of armed groups “had to hide in Cucuta,” where “they are better structured than common crime, and that’s where the clashes are occurring.”
However, Cucuta Citizen Safety Secretary Alejandro Martinez said that despite the wave of murders, up through the third week of January there had been a reduction of 0.5 percent in homicides compared with the same period last year.
“It was a situation that occurred above all within a period of nine days, a complicated situation of lots of murders,” Martinez told EFE, adding that things are tending to be brought under control by the action of local law enforcement authorities.
Garcia said that “extraterritorial” homicides are also being perpetrated, with people being killed on the Venezuelan side of the border in microtraffic score settling but the killers dumping the bodies in Colombia.
“Last year there were 23 murders that we investigated and this year it’s been two, and those were on the border with Puerto Santander,” he said.
With the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Colombia and Venezuela last year, the two countries also revived their judicial cooperation to combat crime.
Despite the action by the authorities, the director of the Fundacion Progresar NGO, Wilfredo Cañizares, warned that there is “a very serious risk situation that residents of the rural area of Cucuta and Puerto Santander are experiencing because of paramilitary expansion.”
He said that more than 10,000 people in 35 communities located between Cucuta and Puerto Santander are having to deal with the paramilitary Gaitanista Self-Defense Units of Colombia (AGC), also known as the Gulf Clan.
Cañizares said that the AGC is pushing from the rural areas to get into the border zone despite the fact that this group is ostensibly participating in a six-month bilateral ceasefire proposed by the government that began on Jan. 1.