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Recruitment at Colombian-Venezuelan Border: The Danger Faced by Migrants

Reclutamiento en frontera colombo-venezolana: el peligro que enfrentan los migrantes, EFE

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THE MASSIVE migration of Venezuelans continues to be a reality that, year after year, gains strength in the context of the economic crisis that Venezuela is going through. Along with this, the latent dangers they face range from migrating in a framework of illegality, as well as being victims of a myriad of crimes that include trafficking, forced sexual exploitation, and even recruitment by paramilitary groups—one of the silent crimes experienced on the border with Colombia, according to the newspaper El Espectador.

In this regard, El Espectador‘s Valentina Parada wrote an article on the case of a Venezuelan victim, which was denounced by his mother, that case is presented below:

The case of a recruited Venezuelan migrant

“The Paracos took him away.” That was the first thing Yenny Aponte heard on the other end of the phone on November 11, 2020, when Felipe*, a friend of 17-year-old Kéider Alejandro Pimentel, told her that her son had been recruited by an illegal armed group in Caucasia (Antioquia). From Valencia, in the state of Carabobo, she began her search and her struggle to understand what it meant to be a paramilitary in Colombia. Today she can’t tell the difference between the “paras” and the guerrillas, but she is certain that her son is in one of these groups.

The last message she received from her son on the cell phone said that he was on his way to Medellín to work.

Before going through what is now a nightmare, Yenny says that Kéider ran away from home in Venezuela when he was a minor. He took one of the trails to get to Cúcuta.

“He asked me for permission to go to Colombia and I said no. I told him not to leave me, that I would save some money and we would both go, but not alone. One day he told me he was going to play some sports and then he called me that night to tell me he was going to the border, that he would be fine.”

No further contact

Since then, there was no further contact. She had no knowledge of where her son was living or in what conditions. The only thing she managed to find out was that he worked selling water in Cúcuta and then left on a “mule” to Cartagena, where he cleaned windshields on the streets. In October 2020, he told her that he wanted to go to Medellín to get a better job and to meet a girl he had met through social media. “Later, when Felipe* called me, that’s when I found out they had gone to a place called Caucasia, where they say is full of paramilitaries.”

Kéider Alejandro Pimentel was forcibly taken away by two armed men on a motorcycle on a road in that municipality in the Bajo Cauca in Antioquia on November 10, 2020. That was the last thing Felipe* told Yenny a day after his disappearance. “They told the boy who was with my son that they would kill him, but he managed to run away. Then shots began to ring out. He said he only saw my son being taken away on the motorcycle. People told him they were paramilitaries.” The Clan del Golfo, a group known as Los Caparros, the ELN and some FARC dissident groups are present in this area of the country.

Recruitment records on the border

Colombia+20 reports data from the Coalición contra la Vinculación de Niños, Niñas y Jóvenes al conflicto armado en Colombia (Coalico), which states that five events of recruitment of Venezuelan minors by armed groups have been documented. But the organization estimates that the figure is higher, as other social organizations on the border (such as Benposta Nación de Muchachos, Acnur and Unicef) receive around 40 complaints a year.

Coalico had already documented victimizations of migrant minors in 2019 and 2020 (a period in which they went from having 8,729 affected by the armed conflict to at least 9,594 people). “Of these victimizations, 40 events correspond to recruitment and 11 to usage and utilization. The events of forced recruitment affected at least 190 children and teenagers,” reads a report delivered by the organization in 2020.

Coalico’s Fernando Cobo noted that the recruitment of Venezuelan minors has been on the rise since 2018, especially in departments such as Norte de Santander, Arauca and Nariño.

“It is the crime that is most difficult to track down because, first, people very rarely report it, either because of distrust of the authorities or because of the fear that these groups can instill to prevent cases from being known. And second, because of the lack of knowledge among migrants about the crime itself: there are many cases in which they don’t even know that this is a crime and that they should take legal action,” he pointed out.

Recruitment alert on the border

Likewise, the Colombian Ombudsman’s Office was the first to warn about this situation in the country.

As stated by the Colombian newspaper, in 2019 the ombudsman Carlos Negret explained that between 2018 and 2019, 105 early alerts were raised, of which 63 included scenarios of recruitment risk and the use of children and teenagers (migrants and Colombians) by groups outside the law.

In turn, he indicated that the departments where the risk of recruitment of minors are: Antioquia, Nariño, Chocó, Meta, Bolívar, Tolima, Córdoba, Cundinamarca, Valle del Cauca, Córdoba, Casanare and Putumayo. “In all those places, the victimization of migrants coming from Venezuela has also been detected,” the ombudsman said at the time. Since then, neither the Ombudsman’s Office has issued that warning nor have the cases of migrant recruitment ceased.

Who recruits them?

Various investigations suggest that the recruitment of children and adolescents is a systematic practice of paramilitary groups. According to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, the FARC guerrillas have recruited at least 18,000 minors during almost six decades of armed conflict. They did it through infatuation, deception (with false promises of employment or life), and in a forced manner such as kidnappings.

According to Andrés Antillano, researcher and criminologist at the Central University of Venezuela, the ELN is the guerrilla movement that is currently most present in the border regions with Venezuela, such as Catatumbo (Norte de Santander), La Guajira and Arauca. It is also present, albeit to a lesser extent, on the Nariño border with Ecuador. His hypothesis as a researcher on the victimization of migrants is conclusive: “It is because the ELN is a border guerrilla and little by little it is becoming a binational guerrilla.” He also mentions the Tren de Aragua -a Venezuelan criminal gang from the state of Aragua- that is gaining strength in some regions of Colombia and that is said to have arrived through the border with Arauca in 2020.

What do the Attorney General’s Office investigations say?

Although there are no concrete figures that determine the number of minors that the National Liberation Army (ELN) has recruited in the framework of the armed conflict, the Attorney General’s Office has three open investigations that account for the commission of this crime by this guerrilla that, last August 27, categorically denied recruiting people to swell its ranks. They did so through the commander Antonio García, head of the ELN, who announced on his Twitter account that: “The ELN does not recruit fighters for its guerrilla structures. All entry into our ranks is voluntary, at the request of the interested party. No one is ever forced to join.”

An investigator from the Ombudsman’s Office disputes this statement from his experience. He refers to the case of Camilo Andrés*, a 15-year-old boy from the state of Apure, Venezuela, but who lived with his family in a shelter in the municipality of Arauca. “This was one of the first cases documented in 2018, he had been deceitfully removed from his home and taken by the ELN to Venezuela. After several months, he managed to escape and the family in Colombia was relocated to another region,” he recounts.

These are some of the messages that Lisbeth Zurita, mother of Enisael Contreras, who was allegedly recruited in 2020, has received through social networks, according to testimonies from friends and a military officer in Catatumbo. (Courtesy)

What do NGO records say?

UNHCR figures show that 2.4 million Venezuelans have arrived in Colombia since 2015 in search of opportunities. Many of them have been infiltrated by the victimizations of the armed conflict that has intensified and reconfigured in different ways after the signing of the Peace Agreement with the FARC in the Arauca region. For example, the territory is disputed between the Domingo Laín Front of the ELN and the 10th Front of the FARC. In municipalities such as Arauca, Saravena, Tame and Fortul, with a high presence of Venezuelan people or pendular migrants -who move from one country to another on a recurring basis- there is no discrimination of nationality to become a victim of the armed conflict.

A report by the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (Codhes) accounts for this. From 2015 to August 2020, at least 6,151 Venezuelan refugees and migrants became victims of the armed conflict in Colombia. Sexual crimes are the most recorded, with 37.7% of the victimizations. Forced disappearance is in third place with 13.5 % and forced recruitment, the crime with the least trace and documentation, with 0.55 % of the records.

Forced recruitment and deception

Marcela* says that when she managed to escape from the ELN guerrilla, who took her to “do military service” in Arauca, she and her family thought her nightmare was over. She spent two days in the ranks and then was able to return home in hiding. Her family had already thought about moving from the village in Saravena to safeguard their lives, but before they could leave, her brother Luis* was taken away by the same guerrillas, in 2016. “That day I thought my life was over,” she says.

Months ago, the Ombudsman’s Office had issued an early alert 004 of 2015 in which they warned that, in this department, “the armed groups in the area ask families to have at least one of their children join the guerrilla ranks as a ‘war quota’.” In this case, no is not an option. The organization Benposta Nación de Muchachos and Acnur explain that in that department, in some cases, they send a pamphlet giving deadlines to deliver the “quota.” There is no trickery or lies to take them away. It is an order.

Marcela* was taken to Bogota in 2016 through the program “Strengthening protective environments,” led by Benposta and Acnur in that region. They do this in order to remove children and young people from the context in which they may face dangers. She finished her studies, but was never able to return.

Research on recruitment

Coalico researcher, Fernando Cobo, mentions that the cases of reestablishment of rights when those affected are migrants are few and far between, largely because there is a continuous fear of young people to turn to social organizations and, even more, to institutional ones. “It is not easy for them to seek that kind of help, because there is a strong stigma that these programs are useless or that they can put them at more risk if they denounce.”

One of the cases portraying this reality occurred in 2019, when Angie Carolina Pineda Sierra, 14, was recruited by the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) in Norte de Santander. The minor was rescued by Army troops in the middle of a confrontation with that armed group in the Reventón path (in the municipality of La Playa de Belén) and was handed over to a foster home run by the Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF).

That same day the minor escaped from the foster home and on May 11, 2019 she was found lifeless on a road in the village of Capitán Largo, in the municipality of Ábrego (Catatumbo). Military personnel from the Rapid Deployment Force troop assured that the young woman was being followed by the EPL (or Los Pelusos, as they also call themselves) and confirmed that she was killed by them as “punishment” for having escaped from the ranks.

Children and youngsters are the most vulnerable to recruitment

For migrant children, this condition of vulnerability has been further deteriorating since 2017. The most recent Crisis Group research, published last August 9, denounces that the scenario of migrant recruitment in Colombia had two aggravating factors: the resurgence of the armed conflict in 2017, due to the lack of implementation of the Havana Peace Agreement and the COVID-19 pandemic. “Lacking resources and often without a residence permit or temporary protection status in Colombia, Venezuelan migrants have also become prime targets for recruitment by armed groups, often even more so than poor Colombian youths.”

Bram Ebus, Director of the Crisis Group report, explains that the most common modus operandi for recruiting migrants is in places or shelters where there is a presence of guerrillas in border areas. One of its findings in the document explains that “the ELN has a makeshift shelter in the department of Arauca, where migrants can receive clean clothes, rest and eat something for a few days while they are persuaded to join the group.”

“Migrants have become prime targets for recruitment, even more so than poor young Colombians.”

Social networks as bait

Another of the most frequent modalities, though less documented, has been deception through social media. According to the child recruitment experts consulted by El Espectador, they are often presented via the social network Facebook. An official of the Ombudsman’s Office said that “in many cases young people are deceived with very attractive job advertisements that offer payments of up to 200,000 dollars a day. Then they define a meeting point in Venezuela, near the border, where someone will pick them up and finally cross them, unknowingly, to the Colombian side. Once there, they are not allowed to leave and are turned into combatants or used for guerrilla labor.

The same is confirmed by the Crisis Group report, which explains that most cases have been registered in the municipalities of Arauca and Cúcuta, “from where they have been lured with job offers and then taken to rural areas by unidentified armed groups.” That is the hypothesis of Wilson Morales, the father of José Antonio Morales Soler (14 years old), who disappeared together with his friend Johan Stiven Torres Pabón (13 years old) last September 3 in the Catatumbo region. “We managed to see some chats in Facebook where they told them about a good job and gave them a meeting point.”

Recruitment begins with absence

Many of the cases of children recruited begin with a complaint of forced disappearance, the article adds. Wilfredo Cañizares, of Fundación Progresar, warns that forced disappearance is the second most common crime committed against the migrant population. “Of the criminal proceedings carried out in the Prosecutor’s Office, 49.6% are archived or inactive, and only three cases have reached trial,” he indicates.

Another organization that has denounced these cases is Fundaredes, a Venezuelan NGO headed by Javier Tarazona, detained in Venezuela more than a year ago. According to this organization, there are more than 15,000 Venezuelans working for these illegal organizations in Colombia. “Many of them are of school age and we have reports that they have been taken by the FARC, EPL, ELN and paramilitary groups.”

The two NGOs agree that the places where most cases of disappearance have been documented are often the areas where armed groups take young people under false pretenses or against their will: Villa del Rosario and Puerto Santander, they say, there are two key areas, especially for unaccompanied minors transiting from one country to another. On its part, the Fundación Nuevos Horizontes Juveniles estimates that there are some 272 migrant children traveling alone in the sector of La Parada (Norte de Santander).

This article is part of an agreement between El American and El Nacional.

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