(CNN Spanish) — The Catatumbo region in Colombia is one of the most dangerous in the country. In this area, bordering Venezuela, a series of illegal economies and violent actors converge who seek to control income from drug trafficking, bringing with them a barrage of violence and death.
In this context, Gustavo Petro’s presidential advance caravan, suffered an attack this week on the road that leads from Bucaramnga to El Tarra, one of the municipalities of Catatumbo, shortly before an event that the president would attend this Friday. The event, which would initially be in El Tarra, will now be in Cúcuta, the capital of the department of Norte de Santander, according to local media.
What happens in this sector of the country?
In Catatumbo there is a convergence of a series of armed groups that fight to control the business of illicit crops on the border between Colombia and Venezuela.
On the road to El Tarra, a municipality of almost 22,000 inhabitants, was where the attack against Petro’s presidential caravan took place. It is one of the 11 municipalities that make up the Catatumbo region, an area in northeastern Colombia that is in the midst of crossfire between ELN and EPL guerrillas, as well as other armed actors, who are fighting for territorial control and coca crops in the area.
The Catatumbo region is made up of the municipalities of Ábrego, Convención, El Carmen, Hacarí, La Playa de Belén, Ocaña, San Calixto, Sardinata, Teorama and Tibú (in addition to El Tarra). There the war has prevailed and has been perpetuated for more than half a century, passing through the beginning of oil exploitation, the period of La Violencia with bipartisanship in the mid-20th century and the armed conflict with the guerrillas and paramilitaries more recently, says a report by the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (PARES).
A series of illegal economies converge in this region, such as “taxes on gasoline, beer, chemical inputs, smuggling or the production of coca base paste,” according to PARES, and these sources of income have perpetuated the war.
But among all these illegal economies, the production, processing and marketing of the coca leaf stands out. And Norte de Santander is the department most affected by coca in Colombia, above the department of Nariño, in the south-west of the country, which held this position for almost a decade, says a 2021 report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
“The municipality of El Tarra has the presence of a significant number of laboratories and coca crystallizers in which ‘Pategrillo’ is used, which is said to be controlled by the EPL,” says a report of the Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (Indepaz) of 2021.
In Catatumbo there is the presence of several large armed groups. Among them are the ELN, the EPL, and FARC dissident groups that did not accept the 2016 peace agreement, such as the 33rd front, the Southeast Bloc, the Danilo García Command that is part of the Second Marquetalia; there is also the Popular Liberation Army, a criminal gang also known as Los Pelusos; The Rastrojos and the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, AGC, reports Indepaz.
El Tarra, like Tibú, Teorama, and Convención, report an “annual increase in coca leaf crops and a strong presence of illegal armed actors with at least three structures in each of these municipalities,” says PARES.
These armed groups are fighting for power in the region, and seek to control the marketing of “coca base paste, cocaine.” They also extort merchants in the area, says Indepaz and “it is added to a population control in which without the permission of the armed forces they cannot carry out activities such as moving around certain areas and even setting up a business for their livelihood.”
And in the midst of this violent dispute, there have historically been forced displacements, kidnappings, restrictions on mobility, and civilians have been left in the middle of clashes between armed groups, preventing them from accessing goods and services such as health and education, according to reported by the Colombian Ombudsman in April 2018.
But violence is not new. Several acts of violence perpetrated by the paramilitaries, the ELN and the FARC have been recorded in the area over the years.
And in this barrage of chaos, the Colombian Army was not far behind and also imposed its share of terror and violence in this area. In 2021, the Recognition Chamber of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) charged 11 people with war crimes and crimes against humanity for their alleged participation in extrajudicial executions in the Catatumbo region, in the department of Norte de Santander, among January 2007 and August 2008.
Among those named are a brigadier general, two colonels, two lieutenant colonels, a major, a captain, two sergeants, a corporal and a civilian.
The acts were committed by members of the Army’s 15th Mobile Brigade and the 15th Infantry Battalion “within the framework of the same criminal plan and with a division of labor, in a determined territory and in the same period of time,” he said. the JEP.
Historical violence in Catatumbo
The National Center for Historical Memory recounts that by 1999, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) commanded by Salvatore Mancuso arrived in the El Tarra sector to wrest it away from the ELN and control “the coca crops in the region and gain control of this strategic border area for the FARC.” All these events occurred with the support of the public force that supported the paramilitaries, as is known from the reports of Justice and Peace.
There too, between May 1999 and February 2000, the Castaño brothers created the Catatumbo Bloc: 200 paramilitaries arrived in the department of Norte de Santander and committed more than 25 massacres “leaving hundreds of disappeared, forced displacements, homicides and generalized violence”, according to the CNMH.
These events caused the displacement of more than 100 families from the urban area and dozens of villages where they lived. about 5,000 peoplebut there was only 5% left by then, says the National Center for Historical Memory.
So today El Tarra and Catatumbo in general live today with the presence of armed groups and criminal gangs which, coupled with a constant absence of the State, is an area prey to violence that does not stop.