Bogota, Jan 3 (EFE).- Fighting between two guerrilla groups for territorial control in the Colombian province of Arauca, bordering on Venezuela, has resurged recently, with the wave of violence leaving at least 24 people dead.
The killings in the first few days of 2022 have been taking place in the municipalities of Tame, Fortul, Saravena and Arauquita, in western Arauca, which historically has been a bastion for the National Liberation Army (ELN) and where after the government’s signing of the peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) the ELN began fighting with dissident FARC members for territorial control.
“As of Sunday at about 5 pm we already had an official report of 17 people murdered. However, during the night (the figure kept rising) and now we have 24 people officially reported as having been murdered,” Tame government spokesperson Juan Carlos Villate, told W Radio on Monday.
Villate is one of the few local officials to provide figures regarding the killings that, according to Arauca residents, have been perpetrated as part of a turf war that has broken out in recent days over the ability to collect extortion payments in the area.
According to the spokesman, complaints have also been received about the disappearances of some 50 other people while more than 3,000 residents in the four municipalities are “confined, hidden on their farms, in their homes” because illegal armed groups are not allowing them to go elsewhere to seek protection.
Arauca is an oil-producing and agricultural province where for decades the ELN’s Eastern War Front, the most powerful element of the guerrilla group, has held sway, but that dominance is now being challenged by Front 10 of the dissident FARC members, who never adhered to the peace agreement and finance themselves mainly via extortion, kidnappings and drug trafficking.
“The center of the conflict is the territory, since both the FARC and the ELN have been here for … four decades … and unfortunately the FARC has once again gained dynamism in the territory,” Luis Eduardo Celis, an armed conflict analyst and adviser to the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (Pares), told EFE.
The Colombian government complains that members of both groups are taking refuge on the other side of the Arauca River, which marks the border with Venezuela.
“Arauca, sadly, is a province that – since it has a porous border and on the other side illegal armed groups are allowed to settle – is having confrontations,” said Colombian President Ivan Duque in an interview with La FM radio.
The Ombudsman’s Office – which two years ago warned via the Early Warning System of the risk to “approximately 69,000 members of the civilian population, of the 174,135 who live in the urban and rural areas of the municipalities of Saravena, Arauquita, Tame and Fortul” – said that now its representatives are continuing to support the communities that are the victims of the wave of violence.
Ombudsman Carlos Camargo Assis said that his institution has received reports of 16 people murdered, with those bodies in morgues in Saravena (10) and Tame (6).
He also said that some families have been forced from their homes by the violence.
International entities and human rights defense groups have also spoken on the social networks of their concern over the violence in Arauca, a province that has never enjoyed peace as a result of the 2016 peace pact between Bogota and the FARC.
Juan Pappier, with the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch, said that his organization had received reports of 24 deaths, along with forced displacements and kidnappings, and he urged that measures be taken to protect the public and aid the victims.
Meanwhile, Duque on Monday ordered two army battalions to Arauca province to deal with the violence between the FARC dissidents and the ELN.
“I have ordered two battalions to deploy in the next 72 hours to support the task of territorial control,” said Duque about the situation affecting the municipalities of Tame, Fortul, Saravena and Arauquita.
“These groups have been operating comfortably in Venezuelan territory and with the consent and protection of the dictatorial regime,” said Duque, referring to the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.