The reopening of a major Colombia-Venezuela border crossing is an important step to stop Venezuelans from trekking across remote trails where they are easily extorted by armed groups. But it’s unlikely to stem conflict or the flow of contraband in the region.
President Nicolás Maduro announced the reopening of bridges linking Venezuela’s Táchira state to Colombia’s Norte de Santander on June 8. The border had been closed since February 23, after violent clashes broke out as Venezuelan military forces blocked the arrival of humanitarian aid from Colombia.
Christian Kruger Sarmiento, director of the Colombia Migration agency, said that 37,000 Venezuelans had made the legal crossing in the first 24 hours and that use of the clandestine trails known as “trochas” had been significantly reduced. Sources told InSight Crime that Colombian police had started to destroy these trails with spades and cover them with stones.
Amid the closure of the border, the trails became hotspots for conflict as armed groups fought for the profits from illegal migration and contraband movements. Data released by the Venezuelan Observatory of Citizen Security shows that the Venezuelan border city Ureña saw its homicide rate more than double during the first half of this year when compared to the same time in 2018. The increase in killings was partly due to gang shoot-outs in the vicinity of the Simón Bolívar and Francisco de Paula Santander international bridges.
Such clashes, however, are merely an intensification of the violence that has claimed an estimated 10,000 lives in the region since 2012.
InSight Crime Analysis
The reopening of the international bridge brings relief to many Venezuelans who make regular trips to buy basic necessities in Colombia, as well as thousands more wishing to flee the country. Availability of legal border crossings spares them the perilous journey through the ‘trochas’ where they are easy prey for criminals.
The “war for the trochas,” however, predates the latest border closure, and conflict is likely to continue as long as the contraband flows remain up for grabs.
Armed groups vying for control include National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) guerrillas and dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). The ELN and the ex-FARC mafia both have expanded in the region amid the unfolding violent political crisis in Venezuela.
Venezuela paramilitaries known as “colectivos,” emerging gangs such as “La Linea,” and Colombian drug trafficking groups such as the Rastrojos have also moved in to contest smuggling routes and associated extortion rackets.
Without effective policing on both sides of the border, conflict over contraband flows may intensify between these armed groups, which can no longer readily extort migrants moving along the pathways.
Implementation of such policing is a particular challenge on the Venezuelan side, where border officials have long profited from the movement of contraband and other illicit border economies.