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Civil society peacebuilding on Colombia's borders

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Socorro Ramírez shows how the spread of violence across Colombia’s borders has tested diplomatic relations with neighbouring countries. She describes how the impact of cross-border violence is felt most keenly among local communities living in borderlands in Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador. Civil society has developed links across national boundaries between all three countries to respond directly to peacebuilding priorities in borderlands and to promote better relations between capitals.

Since the escalation of the Colombian civil war in the mid-1990s, the spread of violence across Colombia's borders has severely tested diplomatic relations with neighbouring Ecuador and especially Venezuela. But the impact of cross-border violence is felt most keenly among local communities living in borderlands in all three countries.

Civil society has developed links across national boundaries between Colombia and Ecuador, and Colombia and Venezuela to respond directly to peacebuilding priorities in borderlands and to promote better relations between capitals.

Cross-border civil society peacebuilding initiatives have shown how boundaries between states are not just lines dividing two territories, but also involve people with close everyday relationships.

Socorro Ramírez


Cross-border dynamics of violence

There are three main components to the cross-border dynamics of violence associated with the Colombian internal war. First, limited state presence in borderland areas has allowed non-state armed groups – guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug cartels – to encroach across national boundaries in order to access supplies, to rest or receive medical treatment and to prepare military operations. Inadequate structures for administering justice in peripheral borderlands, combined with widespread impunity, mean that irregular groups impose their own law – by force, extortion or corruption. High unemployment and underdevelopment has further fuelled the informal or illegal economy, including a wide range of smuggling networks. There are only three checkpoints on Colombia’s 2,219 km border with Venezuela and two on its 586 km border with Ecuador, and such lack of regulated frontier controls allows armed groups to move quite freely across borders.

Second, there are links between armed conflict and drug trafficking. Colombian drug cartels are not contained by national boundaries and Venezuela and Ecuador have become key routes for international drug traffic networks. People from neighbouring countries participate in harvesting coca leaf crops on the Colombian side of the border, act as middlemen in trafficking materials for cocaine production, or provide liaison in illegal asset-laundering systems through the dollarised economy in Ecuador or through the currency exchange market in Venezuela. Weapons and explosives are also smuggled across borders.
Third, Colombian national counter-insurgency or counter-narcotics actions have crossed borders as the Colombian military has pursued irregular armed groups into neighbouring territories, and coca crop spraying operations have affected fields across borders and have compounded local displacement problems.
Although the cross-border nature of these problems suggests the need for cross-border solutions, Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador have failed to pursue joint responses. Conflicting analyses and approaches, and diplomatic tensions have encouraged all three states to indulge in ultimately pointless recrimination over violations of national sovereignty, or failures to control frontiers which have allowed armed groups free transit.
Presidential leadership in all three countries over the last ten years has served to exacerbate friction. Leaders have had personal differences and have tended to be distrustful of diplomacy. National strategies have been correspondingly divisive, such as taking unilateral actions, placing restrictions on freedom of movement, imposing economic sanctions, undertaking international legal actions, militarising mutual borders and sometimes making threats of war.
Marginalised borderland populations have paid the highest price for cross-border tensions. Fighting among armed groups over territory and resources, and between armed groups and the Colombian army, has displaced countless borderland villagers.
Many borderland communities rely on crossing borders for survival, using small pathways and handmade bridges for transit to exchange goods and services. But armed groups also use these routes and many have consequently been bombed by Ecuador or Venezuela, or have been subject to severe controls by Colombian authorities. Retaliatory restrictions on Colombian exports by Quito and Caracas has contributed to unemployment in Colombia, and to shortages and inflated prices in Venezuela and Ecuador. This has further encouraged smuggling networks and hindered regional integration.

Cross-border civil society

Colombia and Venezuela 

Recurrent tension between the governments of Colombia and Venezuela has encouraged several civil society cross-border peacebuilding initiatives, for example by the countries’ respective Chambers of Commerce, the social action agency of the Catholic Church (‘Pastoral Social’) and the Jesuit Service for Refugees.

One of the oldest and most significant initiatives has been an academic relationship that has evolved over the past 16 years between the main public universities of Colombia and Venezuela. It has been building a framework for communication between different sectors involved in bilateral relations [see Table 1]. It has involved research, publications and academic exchange, helping to construct a bilateral approach to promote better understanding of the problems underlying disputes between the two countries.
A number of bilateral academic activities have been carried out in the midst of intergovernmental friction and, by linking educational institutions in both countries with social organisations and local and national authorities, these have played an important role in finding ways to address urgent issues of mutual interest in the border areas and even beyond. At moments of particularly tense relations between Bogota and Caracas, the initiative has issued memorandums offering joint perspectives on disputed matters and promoting peaceful relations, despite political and economic differences.
Colombia and Ecuador 
In March 2008 Ecuador cut diplomatic relations with Colombia. This was in protest against Colombia’s incursion in Ecuadorian territory to attack a camp where a high-ranking commander with the main Colombian rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was hiding.
The high economic and social impact of that diplomatic crisis on borderland populations has encouraged cross-border civil society peacebuilding cooperation between Colombia and Ecuador of unprecedented breadth and extent. Table 2 shows ten types of cross-border initiative which eventually contributed to the normalisation of relations.
Bilateral academic initiatives have involved seventeen universities from both Colombia and Ecuador, which have drawn attention to affected communities on both sides of the border. Indigenous communities, such as Cofanes, Pastos and Awa, and the African American communities that span the border, have strengthened their non-violent resistance to war through their own ‘Life Plan’ initiatives, which are strategies for development based on their own cultures and traditions.
Other cross-border civil society initiatives have included the following: demonstrations and meetings of women’s organisations from both countries; religious initiatives for humanitarian action; meetings of Chambers of Commerce; media forums; summits called by local authorities from bordering municipalities; and a bilateral environmental network. A Bilateral Dialogue Group (GBD) has also been set up, composed of ten well-known personalities from both countries. The GBD has sought to strengthen diplomatic bilateral relations, to facilitate mediation efforts and to set up dialogue with the respective governments.
The diversity of sectors involved in cross-border peacebuilding in Colombia and Ecuador has articulated a broad momentum of social dynamics and has been able to mobilise at critical moments of diplomatic tension.
Civil society initiatives in Colombia and Ecuador have had external assistance from international agencies, including financial support and help in convening and organising activities. This has helped civil initiatives to foster greater links and leverage with both national capitals and with international organisations. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been trying to develop its own initiatives to operate on both sides of the border, and assistance provided by the Carter Center and UNDP to the GBD enabled it to engage with the Organisation of American States (OAS).
External engagement has also played a more direct role, such as former US President Jimmy Carter’s efforts to mediate between Colombia and Ecuador. He was in contact with both countries’ presidents to help build trust between them, and also facilitated closer relations between Ecuador and the US government, which in turn had a positive influence over the Ecuadorian government’s relations with Colombia.
Achievements and lessons 
Building peaceful coexistence between antagonistic neighbouring countries with different political and economic models, personal tensions between their leaders, and severe cross-border security problems has not been easy. But in August 2010, diplomatic relations were successfully re-¬established between Colombia and Venezuela and these are now being followed up by a confidence-building process.
Cross-border civil society peacebuilding initiatives have shown how boundaries between states are not just lines dividing two territories, but also involve people with close everyday relationships. They may belong to the same ethnic community or need to cooperate to exchange goods and services. By defending their rights, highlighting the situation at the borders, and gaining external support for their cause, they have challenged those who tend to criminalise populations living in conflict-affected areas.
When diplomatic channels have been blocked, civil society has been able to stress the importance of finding cross-border solutions to cross-border problems, and also to provide cross-border dialogue to facilitate interaction – either through existing networks or by establishing new ones. Borderland communities’ proximity to cross-border violence has provided both incentive to act, and insight into specific local circumstances to develop appropriate responses. Unilateral state responses, military approaches and centrally-imposed sanctions, served only to make life for people at the border even harder, and to distance relations between neighbours.
Cooperative cross-border analysis, for instance through academic exchanges, has provided a more accurate and nuanced understanding of the context, perspectives and needs, and has helped to reduce the impact of nationalist and hostile discourse by governments. Bringing together national authorities, border stakeholders and international development and humanitarian agencies has provided a useful platform to develop constructive cross-border responses. This alliance of initiatives and actors eventually reached the mass media and was thus able to influence governments who had initially been reluctant to listen. It is important that agreements and commitments reached by governments are followed up and monitored: sustainability of engagement is essential to prevent new crises.
Rapprochement between Colombia and Ecuador has developed more quickly than between Colombia and Venezuela. The greater diversity and scale of cross-border civil society peacebuilding engagement between Colombia and Ecuador, as well as the international support they gained, has been essential to this process. Tensions between Colombia and Venezuela have been more entrenched, probably due to more antagonistic political positions, as well as remaining territorial disputes. The contrast between both cases suggests significant potential for civil society engagement, but at the same time a threshold in the impact of their activities.
In any case, these case studies describe the potential negative consequences that central policies designed in capitals can have in peripheries, and the capacity of civilian initiatives at the borderland to develop a constructive counter-discourse that eventually redresses the central government’s approach.


Tables of Initiatives

Table 1. Colombia-Venezuela academic initiatives

1996 Caracas and Bogota Colombia Studies programme at the Venezuela Central University, and Venezuela Studies programme at the National University in Colombia.
1997 Caracas Joint research programme involving 30 Colombian and Venezuelan professors around the ten most covflictive issues of bilateral relations. Supported by UNDP.
1998 Bogotá Establishment of the Bilateral Academic Group.
1999 Caracas Assessment of progress, with support from the Andean Development Corporation (CAF).
1999 Cartagena Discussion of results and publication of the book Colombia – Venezuela: common agenda for the 21st Century.
2000-01 different locations in both countries Presentation of results to both governments, to editors and journalists from both countries, to local mayors from border cities, and to other stakeholders from areas along the border.
2002 Bucaramanga (Colombia) Design of the second stage of the academic initiative.
2003 Maracaibo (Venezuela) Discussion of results and of the book Colombia – Venezuela: images and reality.
2004 Riohacha Workshops with local authorities from both countries, and workshops about health issues in the Wayuu indigenous communities.
2005 San Cristóbal (Venezuela) Discussion of results and of the book Colombia-Venezuela: Discussion about History and Challenges of the Present; discussions of new intergovernment tensions.
2005 (both countries) Forum with media and local authorities on new bilateral tensions.
2005 Bogotá Forum on new bilateral tensions and on the book Colombia – Venezuela: Challenges of coexistence, at El Tiempo newspaper.
2007 Bogotá Course on 'Bolivarian Venezuela' for Masters degree students and public officers in charge of relations with Venezuela; publication of the book Venezuela today: Bilateral perspectives.
2008-2009 Caracas and Bogotá Bilateral messages to both presidents.
2010 Panamá Colombia-Venezuela meeting, including UNDP officers (with Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum, CPPF).
2010 Caracas and Bogotá Message from eminent persons in both countries to the presidents of Colombia and Venezuela.
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