Shifting Security Patterns on Colombia’s Borders

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Over a year after Colombia repaired diplomatic relations with Venezuela and Ecuador, the border areas remain some of the worst affected by conflict and drug trafficking.

Just three days after Santos’ inauguration in August 2010, he made a joint annoucement with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez that the two countries would increase cooperation on security issues. Reconciliation with Ecuador followed shortly afterwards, after Santos gave President Rafael Correa computer hard drives seized during the bombing of a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) camp on Ecuadorian territory.

As detailed in a new report by think-tank the International Crisis Group (ICG), making good with Chavez and Correa is vital for Colombia’s security interests. As the FARC’s power has weakened in central Colombia, the rebels have been driven to the periphery, growing more reliant on their encampments and supply networks abroad. Homicide rates, drug crops and displacement have also risen disproportionately in Colombia’s border regions, even as the numbers decline nationwide.

As laid out by the ICG, there have been a few significant policy changes since 2010 which may yet transform security dynamics along Colombia’s borders. These include:

1. Venezuela and Ecuador appear to be cooperating more with Colombia against the FARC.

Under the terms of a security agreement signed between Colombia and Venezuela in April 2011, the two countries are meant to increase joint security operations and intelligence sharing. So far, there have been some clear pay-offs. As of July 2011, Venezuela had captured 14 suspected guerrillas and drug traffickers. Those arrested included the man accused of running the FARC’s website, a songwriting political leader and another alleged key operative for the rebels’ drug trafficking networks.

However, none of those arrested have included the top FARC commanders like Luciano Marin Arango, alias “Ivan Marquez,” who still use Venezuela as a refuge, according to Colombia authorities, including ex-President Alvaro Uribe.

On Ecuador’s side, another bilateral agreement signed in June also promised more intelligence sharing and joint operations between Ecuador and Colombia. Shortly afterwards, Ecuadorian forces arrested a top commander for the FARC’s 48th Front. The Ecuadorian military has long been tolerant of the FARC, so long as the guerrillas avoid open conflict in Ecuador, but there are now some signs that the security forces are increasing their harrassment of the rebels.

According to the ICG, though the FARC continues to operate in both Ecuador and Venezuela, there are signs the rebels are facing more intense pressure. The FARC has broken up the encampments which used to house hundreds of combatants at one time, and now move in smaller, more mobile groups.

But the FARC still have significant presence in Ecuadorian border states like Sucumbios, where “criminal bands” (bandas criminales – BACRIMS) like the Rastrojos and Aguilas Negras have also reportedly established a foothold.

2. Ecuador passed a tougher refugee law.

Ecuador harbors the highest refugee population in Latin America, having officially registered 54,500 refugees, with another 25,000 applications still pending. In January 2011, the government approved a law that forces refugees to go through an extra legal hurdle before having their status approved. Authorities later said the measures were due to security concerns that some Colombians were applying for refugee status in Ecuador, in order to then carry out criminal activity unhindered.

As the ICG report points out, there is no evidence that either the FARC or Colombian criminals have applied for asylum in order to better operate in Ecuador. What the stricter law may in fact end up doing is creating more of an illicit market for IDs and other papers, sold to refugees who have seen their applications denied or blocked by red tape. This, in turn, could provide an opening for FARC operations in the border regions.

3. Colombia passed a contract royalties law which could give more money to the border departments.

A constitutional reform approved in June 2011 transforms the way Bogota manages the mining, oil and gas royalties paid by multinational companies. Before, these royalties were mostly spent by the municipal governments in oil-producing departments like Casanare and Arauca, which are among the most corrupt in Colombia. Under the new law, cash from the royalties is supposed to be more evenly distributed among a larger number of departments, and the Santos administration has said border zones are a top priority.

This boost in the municipal budgets in conflicted, frontier departments like Nariño may just give corrupt local administrations more money to embezzle. But, if managed correctly, the increase in funds could allow border states to boost social spending and improve the local economy. More hospitals, roads and jobs are needed along Colombia’s borders, not just the number of military and police deployed.

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