Tough journey: from Venezuela crisis to Colombia conflict zone

Arauca (Colombia) (AFP) –


Every day, hundreds of Venezuelans cross the Arauca river into Colombia in search of a better life -- but first, they must run a gauntlet of rebels, drug runners and land mines.

Named after the river that forms the border, Colombia's remote Arauca department is among the country's most crime-plagued -- and at the mercy of cocaine smugglers and the ELN, the last active rebel group still fighting the Bogota government.

Its jungle is littered with mines left over from Colombia's decades of conflict, and criminals prey on migrants passing through.

"We tell migrants not to leave the road, not to move away to attend to their needs" so they can limit the risk of stepping on a land mine, said Karen Gonzalez, a Red Cross volunteer.

Yet none of these dangers have deterred the exodus of Venezuelans fleeing the shortages of basic necessities and collapsing public services back home, which has caused some 1.2 million people to cross the 2,000-kilometer (1,240 mile) border between the countries.

With the bridge crossing the Arauca blockaded by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's security forces since February, migrants take boats from one muddy shore to the other as police watch.

Some Venezuelans cross only briefly to buy food, medicines and other products lacking back home, where a quarter of the population of 30 million is in need of aid. Others stay for good.

Though she was warned of the region's dangers, Maria Martinez left the city of Barinas in northern Venezuela three months ago aiming to reach Bogota.

"We crossed in a raft, with the little ones. We were told there were paramilitaries, fighters," she said.

With sunken eyes and sweat glistening on her brow, Martinez sells coffee in the streets of Arauca, the department's main city, to feed her three small children, none older than seven.

Martinez says she hopes "to find better work to pay for the journey to Bogota," which costs 90,000 pesos ($27) per person, an amount she can't yet afford.

- Little haven -

Of Arauca's 93,000 inhabitants, 16 percent are registered Venezuelan migrants, many of whom rely on charities for food as there is little government assistance available.

Sleeping in hammocks or even on the ground, families gather along the "malecon," the promenade that runs alongside the imposing river.

The situation is a stark reversal from the decades when Colombians sought refuge in Venezuela as civil conflict raged at home -- but Arauca isn't much of a safe haven.

Its murder rate of 62.2 per 100,000 inhabitants is well over double the national average of 25.4, according to official statistics.

Last year, 31 Venezuelans were among the 168 homicide victims in the department.

In May, documentary filmmaker Mauricio Lezama was killed in the region as he was working on a film about conflict victims -- a murder that earned international criticism.

For many Venezuelans, the region is merely a stopover as they head for Bogota, a 740-kilometer journey some make on foot.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and other aid groups have set up help centers along the way, where they hand out hundreds of food and hygiene packets each day to migrants and warn them of the dangers of land mines.

Colombia is second only to Afghanistan with 11,400 people killed or maimed by the buried explosives.

- Threats everywhere -

A 2016 peace deal put an end to fighting with Colombia's main rebel group FARC, but the decades of armed conflict left more than 110,000 registered victims -- dead, wounded, missing or displaced -- in Arauca department alone.

Arauca city remains home to members of the ELN, the National Liberation Army, which has more than 2,000 fighters and carries out regular attacks on the nearby Cano Limon oil pipeline.

Making matters worse, the department is an "exit corridor for cocaine heading to the Caribbean and Europe via Guyana," according to local governor Ricardo Alvarado.

He blames an alliance between FARC dissidents and drug gangs linked to Mexico's Sinaloa cartel.

Migrants have fallen into these groups' clutches.

"Armed groups use migration to boost their ranks," said Juan Carlos Villate, the human rights ombudsman in Arauca, a department which today boasts a population of 270,000.

"Many children have been recruited by armed groups" while "adults are used for all sorts of operations," he added.

Some women, including "14- or 15-year-olds," are also "forced into sex to survive."