I decided to write this article about Cucuta, Colombian bordering town with Venezuela, following a declaration of the Colombian government which few days ago claimed it found in a raid on a FARC guerrilla camp three AT-4 rocket launchers with serial numbers that connect them to the Venezuelan army. The manufacturer of the weapons, Swedish company Saab Bofors Dynamics, confirmed via the Swedish Foreign Ministry that the serial numbers on the arms matched a sale it made to Venezuela in the 1980s.Despite the fact that both sides are using such events to fuel their propaganda, I would like analyze here how these two neighbors are “unofficially” connected the and how such relation affects areas like Cucuta.
I visited Cucuta during my long RSA tour in Colombia since there was based a field office which were conducting humanitarian operations in the surrounding areas of Norte de Santander, part of Magdalena region, Catatumbo, part of Boyacá region.
Cucuta is particularly “affected” by the vicinity with Venezuela and such geographic proximity influences the life and the entire economy of the town. The most evident phenomenon is the smuggling of gasoline from Venezuela. At every corner “Pimpineros” (gas smugglers) sell their product without any fear of being caught by the police. There are no regular gas stations in town. Besides, there are several cars with Venezuelan plate owned by Colombians. Vehicles are cheaper in Venezuela due to lower taxes applied on cars.
Colombian armed groups cross the border with Venezuela in order to recover and relax, the borders appear to be porous in different unsurveilled points. Other border-related phenomena are prostitution and smuggling of precious metals and other materials.
Today, Cucuta has become one of the most violent cities in Colombia. Collective violence and organized crime left more than 1,300 people dead yearly (an average of 3.5 people per day). Cucuta’s official homicide rate is calculated at 128 per 100,000 people, nearly as high as that of Medellin, Colombia’s most violent city (184/100,000 people). The police estimate that approx 80% of homicides in Cucuta are linked to the violent conflict and another 20% to common crime. The trend has been followed in San Cristóbal, the Venezuelan border city just forty minutes from Cucuta. Numerous reasons contribute to the sharp increase in violence. First, violence has been on the rise since the early 1990s, when coca cultivation in the northern region of La Gabarra was introduced; subsequently, cultivation, production and illicit trade rose sharply. Second, as the capital of the Norte de Santander department and a border city, Cucuta has developed dynamics in which drug trafficking, poverty, licit and illicit trans-border trade activities, organized crime and common crime are thriving. Third, the escalation of war in the Catatumbo is having an impact on Cucuta. Catatumbo, located between the Colombia’s Andes mountains and the border with Venezuela, is considered one of the most dangerous areas in Colombia. There are extensive illicit coca cultivations and large logistic facilities have been established there by guerrilla groups. FARC and ELN are sharing territory and fighting to control it. This situation forced a large part of the population to leave the area and relocate to Venezuela. Interstate talks are in progress. The aim is to try to solve the dramatic condition of displaced people (IDPs). The Catatumbo area is often impossible to reach due to the high risk posed by guerrilla fighters. Each sign or indication of anything/anyone related to the United States can create an aggressive public reaction against visitors and operations due to the psychological association USA - evil State made by guerrilla activists. Such behavior has not been noted in other areas of Colombia.
Major guerrilla groups are present in the area as well as paramilitaries (former “Autodefensa”) who apparently should have taken the legal opportunity through a government programme to leave the armed groups they use to belong to. The majority of them have instead reorganized themselves acquiring the name of Black Eagle (Aguila Negra). Aguila Negra started a real mafia system which forces commercial activities and private company to pay a price in exchange of security.
To reach such illicit/violent stage they previously eliminated most of local criminals obtaining “de facto” the title of “protectors of security”. Police is not capable to eliminate/reduce this
Coca transformation laboratory in Catatumbo. Courtesy Radio Santa Fe
The paramilitaries are seeking to consolidate the entire region, including Cucuta. Conversely, urban centers such as Cucuta constitute safe havens for the guerrilla forces, in which they can further develop counterattacks and mobilize combatants. Urban militias (FARC, ELN and EPL) have a strong presence in poor shanties at the city’s periphery. At the same time, other paramilitary groups (Cordoba, Uraba, Cesar blocs) frequently patrol poor urban barrios and engage in social cleansing. There is a clear trend by the guerrilla forces to shift from rural to urban warfare, a new strategy which seeks to undermine Uribe’s security measures. Several oil pumping stations owned by state and private companies are located in this area. The Army is defending State owned facilities while private companies have to pay a price to guerrilla to secure both workers and installations. The pipeline transports oil from this region to the harbors located along the Caribbean Coast.
The main threats in the region are related to the high concentration of armed actors and are that of being caught up in the conflict between fire of armed groups, being kidnapped and car accidents.
Communication is vital here. Recommended HF, VHF radios, cellular and satellite phones
The risk to be involved in an accidental shooting is medium for the Cucuta town and high for the rural areas of the region. The Catatumbo remain an almost inaccessible region (very high risk). The local communities try to deal with terrorists having sometimes the possibility to act as mediators and negotiators, facilitating the dialogue among the parts.
The conditions of the roads in Cucuta town are good but worsen where IDPs are settled. A high number of motorbikes circulate in town on a daily basis, motorcyclists usually do not respect traffic regulations. The risk an accident by road travel is assessed as high.
Medical facilities in town are good, but the rural areas suffer of lack of medical infrastructures. The risk of not receiving adequate medical attention in Cucuta is assessed as low. Risk is assessed as medium in rural areas. It is fundamental arrange in advance a Medical Evacuation air operation system (MEDEVAC) in order to evacuate eventual severe injured staff.
6 months ago