Wave of Murders Hits Small Coca-Producing Town in Northern Colombia

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Murders have spiked in a northern Colombia town that borders Venezuela, is home to armed groups, and has an abundance of coca — an explosive combination. 

Between January and November 2019, 76 people have been murdered in Tibú, a municipality in the northeastern department of Norte de Santander on the Colombia-Venezuela border, the newspaper La Opinión reported.  

Among those killed recently was mayoral candidate Bernardo Betancourt, who was gunned down as he was preparing to travel by canoe to the La Gabarra region to speak to that community about his proposals. 

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Colonel Fabián Ospina, the police commander in Norte de Santander, told La Opinión that 80 percent of the crimes committed in Tibú involve settling of scores among armed groups connected to drug trafficking. 

According to the most recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Tibú is among ten municipalities that account for nearly half the coca crops in Colombia.

InSight Crime Analysis

Tibú shows how a small, rural region along the Venezuela-Colombia border can suddenly be swept into a larger conflict, but authorities are still finding it difficult to account for all the bloodshed. 

With just over over 51,000 residents, Tibu has already tallied 21 more homicides than it did between January and November in 2018. In Norte de Santander department, only the much larger border city of Cucutá has registered more killings.

While conflicts over coca cultivation in the region are not uncommon, community leaders said that the sudden increase in killings was potentially sparked by the arrival of a new armed group, likely dissidents with the 33rd Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). 

But the killings are not limited to known crime group members. Thirty Venezuelan migrants have been killed in the region, up from 10 last year.

Authorities claim that Venezuelans have been killed because of their involvement in criminal activities, including harvesting coca leaves and cocaine production. 

An unnamed official also said residents believed to have collaborated with authorities are among the murder victims, La Opinión reported.

In several cases bodies have appeared with signs that allege the victim had been a thief, drug dealer, or police informant.   

SEE ALSO: ELN Gains Upper Hand Over EPL in Norte de Santander, Colombia

The disparate reasons given by authorities for the uptick in murders may be a reflection of authorities’ investigative capabilities.

According to Colombia’s national forensic institute, most of the murders have occurred rural areas that are difficult to access, hindering or even pre-empting investigations.

In June 2018, President Iván Duque announced that he would reinforce manpower in regions controlled by armed groups, adding more than 5,000 soldiers nationwide.

However, even with additional military support, the residents of Tibú say they would still be unprotected. Members of the community told La Opinión that even in areas with established army and police presence, the illegal armed groups are still in control. 

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