Border regions were drawn into the armed conflict by the mid-1990s, when they became main theatres of operations for illegal armed groups, often financed by drug trafficking. A crackdown under Álvaro Uribe, Santos’s predecessor, brought only elusive gains there. The illegal armed groups have been pushed deeper into the periphery but not defeated. Coca cultivation and drug trafficking remain significant. Violence has come down in most regions, but remains higher along the borders than in the nation as a whole, and security has begun to deteriorate in some zones, as New Illegal Armed Groups and paramilitary successors (NIAGs) extend their operations, and guerrillas gain new strength. The Uribe approach also carried high diplomatic costs. Relations with the neighbours became toxic over a 2008 Colombian airstrike on a camp of the main rebel group, FARC, located just inside Ecuador and over allegations that Venezuela was harbouring guerrillas.
Fixing the border problems has been a priority for Santos. He has moved quickly to restore diplomatic relations with Ecuador and Venezuela, and bilateral platforms are in an early stage of either being revived or created. There is a strong political commitment on all sides to preserve the restored friendships, despite the continuing presence of illegal armed groups in both neighbouring countries. Security cooperation is improving. The Colombian Congress has passed a constitutional reform to redistribute royalties from oil and mining concessions, a measure that should increase funds for public investment in many peripheral regions that currently do not benefit from that bonanza. In an effort to produce tangible results fast, the foreign ministry is leading implementation of projects aimed at boosting social and economic development in border municipalities.
The Santos agenda represents a substantial policy shift, but as the conflict continues unabated in the border regions and has increasing repercussions on Venezuelan and Ecuadorian soil, problems remain. Three sets of issues need to be tackled. First, more must be done to increase the civilian state presence in the destitute border areas. Militarisation of the borders has failed to deliver durable security gains, and efforts by security forces to increase their standing with local communities continue to stumble over human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law. With dynamics along their borders increasingly resembling the situation in Colombia, similar problems are fast emerging in Ecuador and Venezuela. The security forces of all three countries must play by the book and focus more on citizen security, and their civilian authorities must take the lead in providing services.
Secondly, more effective responses to the severe humanitarian problems are needed. Colombia continues to struggle to attend to internally displaced persons (IDPs) and other victims of the conflict, a large number of whom cross the borders in search of protection. But protecting them has not been a priority in Venezuela, leaving an estimated 200,000 highly vulnerable. This contrasts with the response in Ecuador, which has recognised and provided documentation to some 54,000 Colombian refugees. But Ecuador has tightened its policy since January 2011, exposing such individuals to new risks. Governments are hesitant to give more weight to a potentially divisive issue in bilateral relations, but looking the other way will only make matters worse over the long run.
Thirdly, efficient forums to solve problems jointly and promote border development are still lacking. This partly reflects the neighbours’ reluctance to acknowledge any responsibility for a conflict they consider a domestic matter of Colombia but that in fact is sustained by transnational criminal networks and is increasingly creating victims on all sides of the borders. The high diplomatic volatility has also been damaging efforts to institutionalise cooperation that needs to be grounded in buy-in and participation of local authorities, civil society and the private sector. In a region where the next diplomatic crisis is often not far away, the current improved political climate offers the governments a chance to boost civilian state presence, improve the humanitarian situation and put relations on a more sustainable footing. They should seize it.
To avoid further degradation of the internal
To All Parties to the Conflict:
1. Strictly observe international humanitarian law (IHL), in particular by:
a) respecting rules to separate combatants from civilian populations;
b) protecting services and goods essential for civilians;
c) avoiding using landmines and recruiting children; and
d) investigating and punishing serious breaches of these principles.
2. Guarantee free access for organisations providing basic humanitarian relief and assistance to victims of the armed conflict.
To strengthen the presence of state institutions,
better protect civilians and entrench the rule of law
To the Government of Colombia:
3. Curtail military take-over of civilian roles in conflict zones and strictly limit military accompaniment to civilian missions.
4. Invest, as a matter of priority, in providing public services in the border regions, particularly targeting rural communities.
5. Strengthen capacities of local representatives of the offices of the attorney general, the public prosecutor and the ombudsman as well as of departmental and municipal comptrollers.
6. Prioritise infrastructure development that responds to the mobility needs of local communities and is the subject of appropriate advance consultation with indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups and local grassroots organisations.
7. Mitigate risks associated with natural resource extraction in border conflict zones, including by ensuring deeper consultation at grassroots level, enforcing compliance with environmental standards and promoting transparency in revenue management.
8. Strengthen mechanisms to fight corruption in the border areas by:
a) including concrete measures in new departmental and municipal development plans;
b) addressing issues such as transparency in public contracting, budgets and social spending;
c) establishing concrete performance indicators and encouraging monitoring by local civil society; and
d) promoting the early detection of infiltration by illegal groups of the local authorities and security forces and prosecuting those responsible.
9. Pursue a more effective citizen-security policy in the border regions that, while maintaining military pressure, protects the population primarily through well-trained and resourced police.
To the Governments of Ecuador and Venezuela:
10. Ensure that security forces do not stigmatise civilians as collaborators of illegal armed groups, and investigate any violations of human rights, including allegations of extrajudicial executions and torture.
11. Implement anti-corruption programs with regard to civilian authorities and security forces and investigate and prosecute any suspected criminal involvement of law enforcement agents.
12. Take effective law enforcement action against illegal Colombian armed groups and the illicit economies that nurture them on Ecuadorian and Venezuelan territory.
To improve the humanitarian situation in the border regions and construct durable solutions for persons in need of protection, including refugees
To the Government of Colombia:
13. Prioritise the border regions while implementing the humanitarian provisions of the new Victims Law and strengthen local capacities to attend to and protect victims’ rights.
To the Government of Venezuela:
14. Meet international obligations by ensuring that state agents attend to the rights of refugees and actively promote and ensure access of displaced Colombians to procedures for speedy and effective determination of refugee status.
15. Stop arbitrary deportation that endangers the lives of people in need of international protection.
To the Government of Ecuador:
16. Review and improve implementation of the new two-stage process for determining refugee status, including by clarifying appeals procedures and stepping-up monitoring of field offices to make sure rules are followed coherently across the country.
17. Increase financial and human resources of refugee directorate offices.
To strengthen capabilities to jointly resolve problems
To the Governments of Colombia, Ecuador
18. Continue intensive high-level dialogue and bilateral institution building aimed at finding effective joint security and development solutions for the border regions.
19. Tackle humanitarian problems head-on in discussions that include the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), giving priority to elaborating durable solutions for Colombians in need of protection, including refugees.
20. Ensure buy-in and increasing participation of departmental and municipal governments, civil society and the private sector in bilateral agendas and platforms addressing border development.
21. Deepen and expand cooperation between military and law enforcement agencies, including intelligence sharing on movements of illegal armed groups and coordinated action to prevent those groups from escaping pursuit across borders.
To the International Community:
22. Support Colombia and its neighbours in stabilising the border region and tackling these areas’ underlying structural problems by:
a) funding additional projects to boost social, economic and sustainable alternative development, institutional capabilities of local governments and integration of refugees into receiving communities;
b) aiding grassroots organisations to set local priorities and monitor policy implementation; and
c) helping community-based (binational) initiatives to spur development and integration in the border regions.