Why Venezuelan Migrants Are Joining Colombia's Criminal Gangs

Why Venezuelan Migrants Are Joining Colombia's Criminal Gangs

Some of the millions of Venezuelan migrants who have fled their country since 2015 cross the border into neighboring Colombia. That many of them now lack passports funnels them into the path of crime groups who control illegal paths across this border.

SourceComposite Sean Culligan/OZY, Image Getty

Why you should care

Refugees worldwide are victims of trafficking and sexual abuse, but in Colombia, Venezuelan migrants are also feeding the criminal ranks. 

A Colombian Air Force raid in June 2018 killed 16 members of a dissident faction of the largely disbanded FARC group in Arauca, which lies along the international line with neighboring Venezuela. But when Colombian authorities scrutinized the bodies, they found that at least four of the dead fighters were Venezuelan migrants. The dissident group had taken “advantage of their poverty” and desperation, Colombian Army General Helder Giraldo said at the time.

The incident, it’s now increasingly apparent, was no one-off. Since President Nicolás Maduro took power in Venezuela, more than 4 million people have fled to neighboring Colombia and other countries in the region. Such numbers are unprecedented and have been labeled a humanitarian crisis. Both Colombia and Ecuador have each taken in 1.2 million migrants or refugees since 2015. Around the world, migrants fleeing their lands in desperation frequently fall victim to crimes such as human trafficking and sex trafficking. But at least in Colombia, organized crime is taking advantage of the flood of vulnerable Venezuelan migrants to increasingly also pull many of them into its criminal ranks.

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Venezuelan migrants stand atop containers as they try to cross the blocked Simon Bolivar International Bridge, in Cúcuta, Colombia, along the Venezuelan border earlier this year.

Source SCHNEYDER MENDOZA/AFP/Getty

In just the three months between July and September last year, Colombian authorities recorded 27 cases where Venezuelans were recruited by organized crime syndicates. Today, the country’s military intelligence suggests at least 300 Venezuelan migrants are working for Colombian crime gangs, says Jeremy McDermott, co-director of InSight Crime, a foundation studying organized crime in the Americas. And InSight Crime believes that’s an underestimation — the number is likely much larger.

There is a very fine line between being a victim of organized crime to becoming an active, victimizer part of the chain as well.

Lilian Aya Ramirez, Venezuelan sociologist

Some are being recruited to work for criminal guerrilla groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and gangs created by former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Others are being put to work by drug trafficking groups in coca-cultivation states along the Colombia-Venezuela border as raspachines – the name given to workers who remove coca leaves from the plants that are then processed into cocaine, according to InSight Crime research and other experts consulted by OZY.

“Organized crime loves nothing more than a diaspora and there’s no diaspora faster growing or more desperate than the Venezuelan one,” says McDermott.

The ELN and ex-FARC mafia are involved in the international cocaine trade as well as running extortion and kidnapping rackets in Colombia and along its shared border with Venezuela. Both of these groups also operate on Venezuelan territory, which is ruled by a government much more ideologically aligned with their purported politics – at least in the case of the ELN, which has its roots in Marxist ideology.

The border between the two countries is extremely porous and host to a number of criminal markets including contraband food and gas. Cocaine, of which Colombia is the region’s biggest producer, is flowing into Venezuela from Colombia for transportation to other parts of the region, the United States and Europe — aided and abetted by the regime of President Maduro. Lilian Aya Ramirez — a Venezuelan sociologist living in Colombia and studying the migrant population there from her country — says that more Venezuelans are being detected in the drug trade in Colombia.

“There is a very fine line between being a victim of organized crime to becoming an active, victimizer part of the chain as well,” she says.

Venezuelan migrant women are particularly vulnerable to being trafficked into prostitution with false promises of other kinds of work, says McDermott. “We know that in Cúcuta they wait for women to come across the bridge and they’re offered jobs in prostitution,” he adds, referring to the Colombian border town with a long history of contraband smuggling.

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A woman crosses with her children from San Antonio del Táchira, in Venezuela, to Cúcuta, in Colombia.

Source LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty

Because of the hyperinflation in Venezuela, acquiring a passport is so costly that many people leave without one. That means they need to cross borders illegally, leaving them at the mercy of human trafficking networks and bringing them into contact with the criminal underworld. Thousands pass through the “trochas” — some 200 illegal passes along the Colombia-Venezuela border — many of which are controlled by people traffickers and taxed by groups such as the ELN and FARC mafia. It’s common for many Venezuelan women migrants to then turn recruiters of other women — even when they themselves have been victims of sex trafficking, Ramirez wrote in a 2018 study published by Venezuelan nonprofits Paz Activa and the Observatory for Organized Crime.

Their vulnerability doesn’t just make them easy recruits to criminal gangs. “We’ve found that they will take great risks for much less money than a Colombian or Mexican,” for jobs as everything from raspachines to sicarios [gunmen or killers for organized crime], says McDermott. Reports suggest that Venezuelans working for these groups can earn as much as $300 a month. That’s less than what a Mexican or Colombian gang member would expect to earn. But it’s still a wage nearly impossible to earn today in Venezuela given the country’s economic crisis and the devaluation of its currency.

As more and more Venezuelans flood other countries in Latin America, these nations are tightening their borders, struggling to accommodate them. Yet as Colombia’s experience shows, that’s not stopping migrants — who continue to cross over despite tougher border norms introduced last year.

And that desperation is great news for Colombia’s crime recruiters.

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