BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Venezuela is waging its most concerted military campaign in years, targeting what it says is a criminal group operating within its border near Colombia but also sending an estimated 5,000 of its own civilians fleeing into the neighboring country.
The assault — which began with several days of airstrikes that security experts described as Venezuela’s largest use of firepower in decades — represents a significant departure from the largely hands-off approach it has long employed toward the illicit organizations that flourish along its border.
For years, officials in President Nicolás Maduro’s government have tolerated and sometimes even cooperated with these armed groups, many of them with roots in Colombia, as they moved drugs and other contraband between nations.
Now it has lashed out at one of them, though the reasons remain murky. Mr. Maduro has claimed in recent days that the attack reflects his government’s policy of “zero tolerance toward irregular Colombian armed groups.”
nine people whom the Venezuelan government considers to be guerrillas and two of its own personnel, the defense minister, Vladimir Padrino, said.
Several Colombian rebel groups have operated in Venezuelan territory in recent years, including dissident members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia who have refused to lay down their weapons following a 2016 peace deal.
The Venezuelan assault, centered around La Victoria, a town of about 10,000, has been aimed at a faction of FARC dissidents known as the Tenth Front, according to local residents, leading security experts to suggest they may have broken unwritten rules laid out by the Maduro government or its allies.
Fundaredes attributed to the FARC group.
the country’s attorney general, Tarek Saab, said. But the government has also sought to limit news coverage of the military campaign, according to Fundaredes.
On Wednesday in La Victoria, Venezuelan authorities detained two journalists with the Venezuelan channel NTN24 and two human rights activists with Fundaredes who had been trying to document the crisis. They were kept for a day before being released, according to family members and friends.
Tamara Taraciuk Broner, Americas deputy director at Human Rights Watch, called abuses documented by her organization as “a case study in the atrocities that the regime has been carrying out, and continues to carry out, with impunity.”
She continued: “This should be a wake up call for the International Criminal Court, which has the duty and the power to criminally investigate those who are ultimately responsible for the most heinous international crimes.”
PUERTO CACHICAMO, Colombia — At 13, she left home to join the guerrillas. Now, at 15, Yeimi Sofía Vega lay in a coffin, killed during a military operation ordered by her government.
Some of the youngest children in her town, Puerto Cachicamo, led her funeral procession, waving small white flags as they wound past the school, with its mildewed books and broken benches, past the shuttered health clinic and their small wooden houses.
“We don’t want bombs,” the children chanted, marching down a dusty road to the cemetery. “We want opportunities.”
Nearly five years after Colombia signed a historic peace accord with its largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country’s internal war is far from over.
Mass killings and forced displacement are again regular occurrences.
And young people — trapped between an often absent state, the aggressive recruitment of armed groups and the firepower of the military — are once again the conflict’s most vulnerable targets.
still grappling with atrocities committed by all sides during a conflict that left at least 220,000 dead: Did authorities know there were minors at the camp? Was the attack launched anyway?
Before the peace deal, the FARC had a grip on this region, punishing petty criminals, issuing taxes and organizing work crews, all under the threat of violence. They also commonly recruited young people.
In 2016, when the FARC signed the peace deal and demobilized, its fighters left in a fleet of boats on the Guayabero River.
Three months later, the FARC dissidents arrived, said Jhon Albert Montilla, 36, the father of another girl killed in the military bombing, Danna Liseth Montilla, 16.
Voces del Guayabero, a group of citizen documentarians.
Just as the pandemic began, the government had stepped up coca eradication in the area, prompting protests from locals who saw their livelihoods in danger. Cameramen from Voces rushed to the scenes.
As the military clashed with protesters — shooting several civilians during different encounters — Danna sat in a small shop, one of the few places in Puerto Cachicamo with reliable electricity, editing the videos and uploading them to the internet over a feeble connection.
“But her desire was to be with us in the field,” said Fernando Montes Osorio, a cameraman with Voces who was shot in one clash, leaving his hand permanently mangled.
forced to resign months later, after an opposition senator revealed that he had hidden the victims’ ages from the public.
The scandal was a major test for newly installed President Iván Duque, a conservative whose party vociferously opposed the peace deal.
His critics say his post-accord strategy focuses too much on taking out big-name criminal leaders, and not enough on implementing social programs that were supposed to address the root causes of the war.
His supporters have urged patience. “We cannot undo 56 years of war in just two years,” said Mr. Duque’s high commissioner for peace, Miguel Ceballos, in an interview last year.
identified so far by the national medical examiner’s office are between the ages of 19 and 23.
he told the newspaper El Espectador. “Children must be protected when appropriate, but force must also be used.”
In Puerto Cachicamo, Custodio Chaves, 34, has not seen his daughter Karen since she disappeared two years ago, at 13.
Mr. Chaves said she was recruited by the FARC dissidents. Since the March attack, he has been consumed by worry.
“Is my daughter hurt?” he asked. “Did she suffer or not? Was she destroyed by a bomb? Is she in pieces?”
He doubts the government will ever tell him.
After “thousands and thousands of lies,” he said, “it’s impossible to believe them.”
BOGOTÁ, Colombia—The death of at least one teenage girl in an aerial bombardment of a jungle camp operated by a narco-trafficking group has touched off outrage aimed at Colombia’s Defense Ministry, which has been under pressure to bring a range of armed groups to heel.
Military authorities on Wednesday declined to publicly identify the 12 people they say were killed on March 2 when the air force bombed a camp in southern Guaviare province used by a cocaine-smuggling group.
“This was an operation against narco-terrorists that are planning attacks against the population,” the defense minister, Diego Molano, said in an interview with W Radio.
The bombing comes as the administration of President Iván Duque has been under fire from New York-based Human Rights Watch and rural community organizations for its inability to stop violence directed by narco-trafficking gangs against civilians. In 2020, 133 community leaders were slain, up from 108 in 2019, a United Nations team that works in Colombia on these cases said.
The defense minister declined to say how many of those who died were children until medical examiners complete an investigation on the bodies that have been recovered. But he acknowledged in an interview with Semana magazine that one of those killed was a 16-year-old girl and that two of the five people captured in the military operation were also minors. The two children are now in the care of child-welfare services, an agency Mr. Molano once headed.
The attorney general’s office, which is investigating the identities of those killed, declined to comment. In 2019, then-Defense Minister Guillermo Botero was forced to resign after eight children between the ages of 12 and 17 were killed in a similar strike.
Mr. Molano said that a criminal group led by Miguel Botache, who is also known by his alias of Gentil Duarte, forcibly recruits children and turns them into fighters.
“Who’s responsible for recruiting those youths and converting them into war machines? It’s those organizations, not the national army,” he said.
In a separate interview, Mr. Molano told Semana that “even though they’re youths, they are a threat to society.” But he added in that interview and others that military intelligence was unaware that children were at the camp ahead of the strike.
Political opponents accuse Mr. Molano of justifying the killings of child combatants.
“The war machine is that which kills kids, minister,” Sen. Iván Cepeda, a leftist lawmaker, said in a Twitter post.
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Mr. Molano couldn’t be reached for comment. But in an interview last week with The Wall Street Journal, he said that the army is committed to destroying five criminal organizations, which include the National Liberation Army rebel group and the Gulf Clan, and eradicating drug crops.
“They are narco-criminals, who kill community leaders, who commit collective homicides,” he said, describing the violence that plagues some parts of rural Colombia.
Among those organizations is Mr. Botache’s group. They had been members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. But when the FARC, as it was known, made peace with the state in 2016, his fighters stayed in the jungle, trafficking drugs.
Just before they broke off from the FARC, several of Mr. Botaches lieutenants told the Journal in a jungle camp visit that they were reluctant to give up the control they had amassed over farmers who produce coca, cocaine’s raw ingredient.
“I don’t think I’ll be leaving the countryside,” said one of them, Ivan Lozada. “We’ve never had so much power.”
Write to Juan Forero at Juan.Forero@wsj.com and Kejal Vyas at firstname.lastname@example.org
BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Colombia’s defense minister said Wednesday that several young people were at a rebel camp recently attacked by the military, but would not confirm reports that children were among those killed, an allegation that fueled deep outrage in a nation reeling from decades of war.
In an interview on W Radio, the minister, Diego Molano, said that “young combatants,” who had been recruited and transformed into “machines of war” by criminal actors, were present at a military operation meant to target a violent armed group.
But he declined repeatedly to reveal the ages of the dead, amid reports from local officials and news outlets that one or more of those killed were minors, including a 9-year-old girl. In the interview, Mr. Molano called that information “illegitimate” and part of a “political war to give information that sought to delegitimize our military.” On the program, the host read out the names of those reported dead in local news reports.
The accusations instantly resonated in a nation scarred by decades of brutal internal war involving the U.S.-backed government, left-wing rebels, right-wing paramilitaries and powerful drug cartels — fighting that frequently included child combatants and claimed many civilian casualties. Today, the country is divided over a 2016 peace deal that sought to put an end to that era, but has had only limited success.
FARC signed a peace deal with the government in 2016, officially ending the war between the two sides. But some rebels, including Mr. Duarte, abandoned the peace deal and returned to arms.
As the FARC has pulled out of vast swaths of territory, other violent groups have moved in, turning many communities into battlegrounds between the military, old and new rebel groups, and paramilitaries. For many in Colombia, the war has not ended.
President Iván Duque has been the subject of growing criticism that he is not doing enough to stop the violence.
In late 2019, his former defense minister, Guillermo Botero, left his position after failing to disclose that several children died during a military raid on a criminal group.
wrote Diego Cancino, a councilman in Bogotá, the capital, on Twitter. “Minister Diego Molano, you can’t justify the unjustifiable.”
BOGOTÁ, Colombia — The testimony is searing. “They tied me to a tree,” said one victim of Colombia’s guerrilla. “They put us in a cage,” said another. “I was kidnapped for four years.”
“Until then, I had not heard of ‘mass graves,’” said a victim of the military. “Finally I understand that those in charge of protecting civilians killed thousands of Colombians.”
After decades of civil war, Colombia has created a historic postwar court designed to reveal the facts of a conflict that defined the nation for generations, morphing into the longest-running war in the Americas.
Thousands have testified. Wide-ranging investigations are underway. The first indictments were issued in January — and the first pleas are expected in April. Perpetrators will be punished, with those who admit responsibility receiving lesser, “restorative” sentences, like house arrest or remaining free while doing hard physical labor. Those who refuse to do so will face trial, and the possibility of decades in prison.
Special Jurisdiction for Peace, could help change the trajectory of a nation that has been at war for much of its history, with one conflict rolling almost immediately into the next.
Its failure could mean the repetition of that cycle.
“We have a window — a generational opportunity — to leave behind the insane violence we have lived in all our lives,” said Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate who was kidnapped and held by guerrillas, sometimes in chains, for more than six years. “I would like us to be able to open that window and let the light in.”
signed a peace deal that included the creation of the postwar court.
But if the goal of the court is to dig up buried truths, it is clear that this search is also exhuming and exacerbating longstanding divisions — and that the road to a common narrative, if one can be found, will be lined with conflict.
Some see the court as their best chance to find answers about lost loved ones, and the country’s best hope for peace; others are angered that assassins and kidnappers will not receive prison sentences; still others simply dismiss the court’s findings, saying the institution is biased in favor of the former guerrillas.
report by the court implicates the military in more than 6,400 civilian deaths from 2002 to 2008, during his presidency.
Mr. Uribe responded to the report by calling it an “attack” with “only one purpose,” “to discredit me personally.”
The court is held in an imposing black building on a main avenue in Colombia’s capital, Bogotá. Some testimony is public, and has been streamed on social media or released in public documents, offering a window into decades of suffering. To protect participants’ safety, much of it takes place behind closed doors.
first indictment, accusing eight top FARC leaders of orchestrating a kidnapping-for-ransom operation that lasted decades and resulted in more than 20,000 victims, many of them civilians, some of whom were raped or murdered. The kidnappings were used to fund the insurgency, said the court, and amounts to crimes against humanity.
The accused former FARC leaders have indicated that they will admit guilt. If they do, they will receive non-prison sentences, which could include up to eight years digging up old land mines or tracking down bodies. If they don’t admit guilt, they’ll face a trial and the possibility of decades behind bars.
They have until late April to reply to the court.
“We are assuming collective responsibility,” said Julián Gallo, who is among the indicted leaders, in an interview.
“These were practices that in some form delegitimized our fight,” he went on. “What we have asked for is forgiveness.”
scathing report that implicated officials in the intentional killing of at least 6,402 civilians when Mr. Uribe was in office.
The killings were part of a previously revealed strategy in which Colombian soldiers or their allies lured civilians from their homes with the promise of jobs, and then killed them and tried to pass off their deaths as combatant kills. Many of the victims were poor, some were mentally disabled.
The idea was to show that the government was winning the war.
responded to the court’s announcement by calling the numbers “inflated,” and an attempt to “delegitimize the commendable work” of the military.
Magistrates are expected to begin announcing indictments in that scandal later this year.
Mr. Uribe, who has repeatedly said he did he everything he could to stop the killings, is exempt from the court as a former president.
During one of the court’s public hearings, Jacqueline Castillo described how her brother Jaime, a civilian, disappeared one day in August of 2008, and reappeared days later in a mass grave far from home, identified by the military as a rebel killed in combat. She went to the grave, she said, and watched as men pulled her brother from the earth.
Before, she had idolized the Colombian military.
“They were my heroes,” she said, pressing her palm to her heart. “Now they make me sad.”