ARAUQUITA, Colombia — A new campaign by the Venezuelan military near the country’s lawless western border is sparking a surge of refugees, with thousands defying the spiking pandemic to pack into makeshift shelters and tent settlements in this Colombian town.
The sudden outflow is amplifying a renewed wave of Venezuelan refugees and migrants — the world’s second-largest group of internationally displaced people — from the broken socialist state. Concern is also rising about mounting tensions between the left-wing Venezuelan and right-wing Colombian governments, which are blaming each other for the uptick in violence in Venezuela’s western Apure state.
The Venezuelan military launched a campaign two weeks ago against a rogue faction of Colombian guerrillas in a region with heavy jungle along the Arauca River. The guerrillas, known as the 10th Front, appear to have run afoul of the government in Caracas, which allegedly has had long-standing profit-sharing and protection deals with other leftist fighters in the area engaged in narco-trafficking and extortion.
The Venezuelan government “doesn’t seem to be defending its sovereignty, but protecting its drug-trafficking business,” Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano told Colombian National Radio last week.
Venezuelan officials put the death toll from the ongoing offensive at nine, including four soldiers, with 32 people arrested and nine camps destroyed. But refugees and human rights groups say Venezuelan security forces are falsely targeting civilians in their quest to find dissident guerrillas and their allies, and are engaging in extrajudicial killings as well as beatings and arbitrary detentions.
One refugee, Ana Maria Vásquez, 30, said a large group of Venezuelan soldiers arrived on March 21 at a slaughterhouse in the Venezuelan town of La Capilla where she and her husband worked. They accused male laborers, including her husband, of being in league with the guerrillas. Her husband was dragged into the street, she said, where he was severely beaten and later detained.
Vásquez said she fled hours later, risking Venezuelan military patrols to cross the fast-flowing Arauca River to reach Colombia. She told her story beside the tent here where she and her five children had slept for the past 10 days.
On a recent afternoon, the sounds of explosions from the fighting across the border could be heard from the tent settlements.
“It’s hard, especially with the children,” Vásquez said.
Over the past two weeks, local officials say, nearly 5,000 refugees, roughly 40% of them children, have fled the fighting. Most are Venezuelans, along with a substantial minority of Colombian nationals who had settled across the border.
Olga Sarrado, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said the organization is providing the new arrivals with tents, mattresses, hygiene kits and face masks and is in contact with both Colombian and Venezuelan authorities.
“We are working with local partners and authorities to respond to the needs of the civilians that are being displaced,” Sarrado said. “We are on the Colombian side. The security situation remains quite difficult” on the Venezuelan side.
Venezuela’s Apure state is a hive of various armed groups and narco-traffickers, including a faction loyal to Luciano Marín, a senior leader of the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) better known by the nom de guerre Iván Márquez.
In 2019, Marín broke with the Colombian peace deal of 2016, which has gradually unraveled in recent years. Observers say he fled to Venezuela with the blessing of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who publicly invited him to seek shelter in the country.
Colombian and Venezuelan opposition officials say the 10th Front, a longtime group of FARC dissidents in the area, appeared to object to Marín’s return and his close alliance with the Venezuelan government. Other observers suggest the 10th Front may have simply crossed a line by extorting powerful landowners in the area.
“Our belief is that the 10th Front refused to respect the pax mafioso,” or informal peace among criminal elements, said Jeremy McDermott, co-director of InSight Crime, a think tank that studies organized crime in Latin America. “They may have offended [Marín’s faction], or elements of the Venezuelan regime, by extorting the wrong person.”
The result: a military campaign that is boosting a broader outflow of Venezuelan migrants, 5.6 million of whom have already fled a nation racked by food and medicine shortages, criminal violence and government repression.
The pandemic had begun to reverse that trend, with an estimated 130,000 Venezuelans returning between March and October of 2020 as lockdowns imposed throughout the region left many of them unemployed and homeless. As those restrictions have begun to ease, however, the outflow has resumed. UNHCR estimates that as many as 1,500 Venezuelans a day have fled the country in recent months.
On March 21, the Venezuelan forces attacked members of the 10th Front in Apure, raiding six camps. The group responded by attacking a local tax office with explosives, prompting Caracas to deploy to the area a special elite fighting force known as the FAES.
As images of the destruction went viral on social media, Maduro went on national television to blame the attacks on “illegal armed groups” he claimed were being orchestrated by Colombian President Iván Duque.
“They want this to escalate into a military conflict between Colombian and Venezuelan forces,” Maduro said. Colombian officials have rejected Maduro’s claims, attributing the violence instead to his government’s shadowy dealings with narco-traffickers.
Maduro did not address allegations of excessive force by Venezuelan’s military against civilians. His attorney general, however, has said he will open an investigation into the claims.
Duque does not recognize Maduro’s presidency as legitimate, and the two countries have not had diplomatic relations since February 2019.
José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch, said the organization has found “credible evidence” that Venezuelan forces have carried out extrajudicial killings of three men and a woman during the offensive.
Maduro’s defense minister, Vladimir Padrino López, insisted in a news conference Sunday that all of those killed were “terrorists,” calling the campaign evidence that Venezuela is moving to eradicate armed criminal groups and narco-traffickers from its territory.
Last year, the U.S. Justice Department indicted Maduro, Padrino and other senior members of the Venezuelan government on alleged “narcoterrorism” charges.
“We are called to expel any group of any ideology or foreign nationality, whatever it’s called,” Padrino said.
Refugees in Colombia interviewed by The Washington Post spoke of beatings and detentions in Apure as the Venezuelan military went from house to house.
Jegner Matus, 54, from the indigenous Kuyba community in the Venezuelan town of La Victoria, said soldiers broke down his door and stole personal belongings, including his motorbike and a supply of gasoline.
“They gave us a beating, then put us in a truck with our hands tied,” Matus said. After seven days in jail, he was released and fled to Colombia amid the sounds of shooting and bombs, he said.
“They asked if we were guerrillas, if we collaborated with the guerrillas,” he added. “They made us hold weapons, bullets and other things and then took photos.”
In Arauquita, a hub of the regional cacao trade, some refugees, fearing exposure to the coronavirus — cases of which are spiking in both Colombia and Venezuela — have built their own makeshift shelters by the river. But even many of those are now crammed.
Ismer Corredor, 18, was helping build an extension to a small house where 50 Venezuelans are now living.
“I want to go home, but it’s frightening,” he said. “People are being beaten and taken away.”
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Faiola reported from Miami and Herrero from Caracas.