Venezuelan refugees in Colombia afraid to return home after brutal conflict, army abuses

The image on the left shows displaced Venezuelan families in Arauquita, Colombia in May 2021. The image on the right shows one of the buildings that was destroyed in La Victoria, Venezuela.
The image on the left shows displaced Venezuelan families in Arauquita, Colombia in May 2021. The image on the right shows one of the buildings that was destroyed in La Victoria, Venezuela. © Tito Prada; DR/Twitter.

On March 21, the Venezuelan army launched a military operation against Colombian armed groups operating within its territory in the border state of Apure. About 5,000 Venezuelan civilians fled the fighting and bombing, seeking refuge across the border in Colombia. While some of the refugees have returned home in recent weeks, others are waiting for the departure of the Venezuelan army, which is accused of numerous abuses, including executing civilians. 

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Over a period of several days in March and April, boats transported refugees across the river that separates the Venezuelan state of Apure from the Colombian state of Arauca. The refugee families from Venezuela arrived laden with their belongings, including provisions, mattresses and sometimes even furniture. 

displaced people arriving in the Paso fronterizo sector in Arauquita, Colombia on March 28, 2021.

An operation against 'irregular armed groups from Colombia'

These refugees fled La Victoria, a rural area encompassing several hamlets in Apure state, after the Venezuelan Army launched a military operation there. In a statement published on March 22, the Venezuelan Minister of Defense said the security forces had fought with "irregular armed groups from Colombia," who were operating in the border regions. 

He didn’t name the groups, but several sources confirmed that the operation was intended to target the Frente Décimo (the 10th Front), a dissident faction of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the former Colombian guerilla group that was demobilised after the 2016 peace deal. 

This video was filmed near La Victoria, according to researcher Andrei Serbin Pont, who geolocated the footage. The date the footage was filmed has not been determined. 

The reprisals began almost immediately. On the evening of March 23, the armed groups bombed several buildings in La Victoria. Venezuela, which accuses Colombia of financing these armed groups, also denounced the presence of anti-personnel mines in the area. 

This video from March 24 shows the attack carried out on buildings in La Victoria (here). 

As the refugees poured into Colombia, the Arauquita city government worked with several humanitarian organisations to set up shelters that housed nearly 5,000 displaced persons, according to the United Nations. 

'The aim is to get rid of the guerilla fighters, but that impacts many civilians'

Venezuelan authorities claim that the armed groups lashed out at local populations. They also say that some members of the armed groups may have fled to Colombia amongst the displaced persons, using them as human shields. 

But the refugees in Arauquita who spoke to our team say that they have no connection to the guerilla fighters. They say the Venezuelan army was responsible for the most egregious violence. Luisa (not her real name) left El Ripial, which is not far from La Victoria. We are not using her real name for her own safety.  

We left because of the bombings, it was traumatizing. In El Ripial, the soldiers were stealing from shops, homes were being burned. If I am able to go back, I will, but for now, the Venezuelan forces haven’t left yet and we can’t be sure that the fighting won’t start again. They are saying that the civilians who won’t return to Venezuela are guerilla fighters. We’re just scared, we don’t want to be arrested or killed [Editor’s note: because they are mistaken for guerilla fighters].

We also spoke to another woman, who is originally from La Victoria:

Around 10am [on March 21], soldiers told the people in my neighbourhood that we’d have to leave in two hours. We left with the few things that we could gather up. A few bags, clothing. Soldiers occupied four homes, including mine, and stole our belongings. 

Some people from my community have gone back already and they said they were able to return to their homes. I don’t have anywhere to go. I’m sure that nothing remains of my home. 

The aim is to get rid of the guerilla fighters, but that impacts many civilians who had nothing to do with all that. The children are really affected. They witnessed exchanges of gunfire and they saw soldiers enter our homes.

Violence, executions carried out by the army 

Similar testimonies were included in an investigation published by Human Rights Watch in April. Photos circulating on social media also seem to indicate that some of the homes in and around La Victoria were burned down. Many of these photos were shared by the Venezuelan NGO FundaRedes, a network of activists documenting the conflict. Though it is difficult to identify the location and the date when many of these amateur images were taken, they are some of the only visual proof of what is happening in Apure state, which is not open to journalists. 

"This is what we are seeing on Thursday, March 25: homes burned by the Venezuelan Army in La Victoria, El Ripial", says the person narrating this video.

Aside from the home invasions, theft and destruction of personal property, “the operation led to the execution of at least four peasants, arbitrary arrests, the prosecution of civilians in military courts, and torture of residents accused of collaborating with armed groups,” according to Human Rights Watch.  

The organisation reported that, on March 25, Venezuelan soldiers took four members of a family from their home in La Victoria. That same night, photos of their bodies, discovered more than a kilometre from their home, circulated on WhatsApp. The images showed them lying on their backs on the ground, wearing civilian clothes, with firearms and grenades positioned near them. According to forensic experts who spoke to Human Rights Watch, the bodies seem to have been moved and that the weapons may have been planted.  

'Armed groups have been operating for decades on both sides of the border'

The official figures for the operation say that 16 soldiers have been killed since the start of the operation. A further eight soldiers are being held by Frente Décimo. In an email made public on May 10, the group asked the Red Cross to set up a process so that these men, who they called “prisoners of war,” could be handed over to a commission including representatives from the United Nations and the Venezuelan government.

In Arauquita, locals say that they haven’t heard any bombing since the start of the month, leaving hope for an end to the crisis. But Bram Ebus, a journalist and consultant for the International Crisis Group, says that even if the tensions seem to have decreased in intensity, "the elements that caused the situation to explode are still there”: 

Armed groups have been operating for decades on both sides of the border. They take advantage of the fact that there is no government presence in the region and they smuggle goods, drugs, money and weapons from one country to another. They work with the local population, who don’t have access to formal employment. The communities are essentially obligated to participate in this illegal economy. The police and the army are the representatives of the state on the ground, but their presence is sporadic and they criminalise the local populations. 

In Apure, multiple armed groups are vying for the profits of the illegal economy. The state actors there are also participating in drug dealing and other illegal activities. The competition has become so intense in the area that the Venezuelan army decided to get rid of the armed group that was causing the most trouble. But the conflict that has been going on for more than a month shows that the army is capable of eliminating a group that has such extensive combat experience. 

Les groupes armés profitent des territoires où les États sont absents. Une vidéo reçue par l'International Crisis Group montre comment un groupe dissident des FARC tente de recruter des populations locales. Ici dans l'Amazonie vénézuélienne.

Armed groups take advantage of territories with little state presence. A video received by the International Crisis Group shows one of the groups that split off from the FARC trying to recruit local people, here in the Venezuelan Amazon. 

According to the International Crisis Group, the military offensive in Apure seems to be the result of growing tensions between the army and Frente Decimo linked to the "distribution of illicit revenues and territorial control." "Reports […] suggest that the dissident outfit grew too ambitious, failed to make required payments to the military and became a thorn in the side of other non-state armed groups that Caracas prefers," wrote Bram Ebus in an article published April 28. 

"In this territory, the alliances are not necessarily political but are often based on the illegal economy and profit. Which makes them even more fragile. And that’s what is happening in Apure," he told our team.