Colombia needs bolder policies to cope with the violence in its border areas, because improved relations with its neighbours alone have neither effectively reduced ongoing conflict with illegal armed groups nor alleviated the plight of the local communities.
Moving Beyond Easy Wins: Colombia’s Borders, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, warns that the Colombian conflict continues unabated in the border regions and is increasingly drawing in Venezuelan and Ecuadorian territory. A policy shift, when President Juan Manuel Santos took office, was set to spur development in the periphery and reconstruct diplomatic ties.
“But over a year into the term of the president, not enough of the diplomatic honeymoon has been translated into realities on the ground”, says Silke Pfeiffer, Crisis Group’s Project Director for Colombia/Andes. “The national government and new departmental and municipal authorities must pay more attention to the humanitarian challenges and boost measures to build civilian state capacity in the border zones. Otherwise, their dynamics will continue to fuel Colombia’s war”.
For fifteen years, porous borders have offered strategic advantages to illegal armed groups, facilitated extensive illicit economies and turned the frontier into a main theatre of an intense armed conflict; all this has been compounded by the widespread absence of strong public institutions. A crackdown under Álvaro Uribe, Santos’ predecessor, brought only elusive gains for border regions. Illegal armed groups have been pushed deeper into the periphery but not defeated. Santos’ new policies have paid undoubted diplomatic and some security dividends, but problems remain.
Militarisation of the borders has failed to deliver durable security gains. Colombia continues to struggle to attend to victims of the conflict, a large number of whom cross the borders in search of protection. While some 200,000 displaced persons remain invisible and highly vulnerable in Venezuela, Ecuador has tightened its refugee policy since January, exposing Colombians on its territory to new risks. 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 for Colombia but that in fact is sustained by transnational criminal networks and increasingly creates victims on all sides of the borders.
All parties to the conflict must strictly observe international humanitarian law. While maintaining military pressure, Colombia needs to focus more on citizen security, primarily through well-trained and resourced police. All three governments need to pay more attention to humanitarian challenges – including bilaterally – and tackle the capacity deficit of civilian authorities. They should also intensify institution building so as to find effective joint security and development solutions for the border regions, including buy-in and participation of local authorities, civil society and the private sector.
The international community should fund additional projects to boost greater social and economic development, capabilities of local governments and integration of refugees into receiving communities.
“The border regions are of strategic importance to wider conflict dynamics”, says Javier Ciurlizza, Crisis Group Program Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “Laying the foundations for sustainable development there is thus Colombia’s best bet to set the stage for lasting peace”.