Venezuela’s crisis is spilling across the border into Colombia as Marxist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries recruit migrants to strengthen their ranks, according to five Colombian military commanders.
Violence still simmers in Colombia despite a 2016 peace deal with leftist FARC rebels, meant to end five decades of conflict. Dissident FARC fighters, the rebel National Liberation Army (ELN), right-wing paramilitaries and drug-trafficking gangs are battling each other and the military.
Keen for recruits, these armed groups are targeting Venezuelans as they traverse the porous 2,219-km (1,380-mile)frontier at illegal border crossings, according to the military officials, human rights officials and migrants themselves.
Five military commanders told Reuters that as many as 30% of insurgents in Colombia’s eastern border region are Venezuelans, willing to take up arms in return for food and pay.
“Recruitment of Venezuelans is happening,” said Colonel Arnulfo Traslavina, military commander of a special unit battling armed groups in Colombia’s eastern border state of Arauca. “The ranks of illegal armed groups are increasing. It’s a major threat to Colombia.”
Nationwide, an estimated 10% of fighters are Venezuelan, the commanders said. Their estimates were based on information from informants, deserters, captured rebels and residents.
The head of Colombia’s military and government spokesman on this issue, General Luis Fernando Navarro, told Reuters that armed groups were targeting Venezuelans because they were easier to recruit than Colombians.
At the last official count by military intelligence in May, there were 2,296 FARC dissident combatants and 2,402 fighters from the ELN in Colombia. Including their urban offshoots, the two groups total nearly 8,400 members.
Rebel numbers are small compared with the 250,000 combat troops in the armed forces but Colombia’s rugged jungle terrain – spread across a country the size of France and Spain – makes it difficult for the military to tackle small, mobile units of fighters.
The military officers say they had interrogated some Venezuelans who had defected from armed groups and identified Venezuelan nationals killed in combat. They did not provide a total number for Venezuelan casualties.
Reuters was not able independently to confirm the information provided by the commanders or speak directly to any Venezuelans who had been recruited by an armed group.
Several Venezuelan migrants told Reuters they had been approached by armed groups for recruitment on entering Colombia.
“They said I’d get clothes, food, money, accommodation, a cell phone,” said Gregorio, a 20-year-old Venezuelan migrant who said he was asked to join an unspecified group in the mountains as soon as he waded across the Tachira River onto Colombian soil.
“I was tempted, but scared… I’d been told there were bad people offering such things and I didn’t want to join,” said Gregorio, who declined to give his second name for fear of reprisals.
An estimated 1.3 million Venezuelan migrants have settled in Colombia in recent years, fleeing shortages of food, electricity and water as the South American nation has seen its economy unravel amid a bloody political confrontation.
Most Venezuelans do not come to Colombia to enlist in insurgent groups but with almost nothing in their pockets, the prospect of food and shelter is enticing, said Deisson Marino, human rights ombudsman for the border region of Arauca.
“They end up enrolled in a war that has nothing to do with them,” said Marino, whose job involves traveling to remote areas and speaking to victims of the conflict and armed groups.