Rights group warns of new 'war' in Colombia's border zone

Human Rights Watch says illegal armed groups have forced 40,000 people to flee their homes as they fight for control of drug trafficking routes in Colombia's Catatumbo region bordering Venezuela

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Illegal armed groups have forced some 40,000 people to flee their homes as they fight for control of drug trafficking routes in Colombia's Catatumbo region bordering Venezuela, Human Rights Watch said Thursday.

The international watchdog published a 64-page report on abuses committed against civilians by armed groups in the mountainous area. The situation reflects the significant security challenges that Colombia faces after the government signed a 2016 peace deal with the FARC guerrilla group, leaving a void that has been filled by smaller armed groups that have moved into Catatumbo and other remote areas unleashing a new wave of drug-fueled violence.

In the report called "The War in Catatumbo," Human Rights Watch says three armed groups are fighting over drug routes and coca plantations abandoned by FARC rebels in the region, including the Popular Liberation Army, the National Liberation Army and a small group of former FARC fighters.

These armed groups have expelled thousands of rural dwellers from their homes, murdered community leaders and forcibly recruited children into their ranks, according to the report, which also includes interviews with children who have been forced to work harvesting coca leaves, the raw material for cocaine.

"The 2016 peace accord between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia presented a landmark opportunity to halt the serious abuses and atrocities associated with a decades-long armed conflict," the report says. "Yet in practice, the government does not exercise effective control over all territory in particular areas reclaimed from the FARC."

Catatumbo is about the size of Rhode Island. It borders Venezuela and in 2017 it produced about 15 percent of Colombia's coca crop, according to U.N. figures. The mountainous region has been used by drug traffickers as a staging point for exporting cocaine.

Human Rights Watch accused Colombia's government of "not meeting its obligations" to protect civilians in the area, which include an estimated 25,000 Venezuelan migrants. The organization said migrants fleeing economic hardship in Venezuela have been forced into sex work in Catatumbo and are also harvesting coca leaves in a desperate bid to feed their families.

The report said there were 231 homicides in Catatumbo last year or twice as many as before the peace deal with the FARC was signed. Only two members of armed groups have been convicted for murders in Catatumbo over the past three years.

"As armed groups fight for the void left by the FARC in Catatumbo, hundreds of civilians have been caught in the conflict," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of the group.

Human Rights Watch is calling on the Colombia government to increase the number of invesigators working on cases of forced displacement, murders and disappearances in the region. It also urged the Colombian government to ensure Venezuelan migrants attain legal status so that they can find work in safer parts of the country.