Colombia-Venezuela border reopening raises hopes, new questions

Bogota, Colombia – Residents on both sides of the Colombia-Venezuela border turned out en masse this week to welcome the reopening of the Simon Bolivar International Bridge.

Two commercial trucks – covered in the two nations’ respective flags, along with phrases of friendship and balloons – rumbled across the key border point, as vendors stood behind piles of food, water, and toilet paper, hoping to sell goods to Venezuelans crossing the stretch on foot.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who was flanked by government officials from both countries during an official ceremony on the bridge on Monday, hailed the reopening as “a giant leap forward for human rights along the entire Venezuelan-Colombian frontier”.

The day marked the end of a seven-year border closure to cars and freight, and the resumption of air travel between Colombia and Venezuela. Perhaps more symbolically, however, it represented the beginning of an end to years of escalating tensions.

“We are happy that this will allow more commerce from Colombia into Venezuela,” said Maria, a fruit seller in the Colombian border town of Villa del Rosario, who only gave Al Jazeera her first name. “This will bring new customers and will help struggling communities at the border.”

People lined the bridge during the reopening ceremony on September 26 [Joseph Bouchard/Al Jazeera]

Popular support

The decision to reopen the border is broadly popular among residents on both sides of the frontier, which has seen a dramatic rise in violence in recent years as criminal armed groups battled to control smuggling routes.

On the campaign trail, Petro – who took office in August – had said re-establishing diplomatic relations with Venezuela, severed under former President Ivan Duque in 2019, and reopening the border were fundamental first steps in his push to end armed conflict in Colombia — an ambitious plan he calls “Total Peace”.

The move also has been cautiously endorsed by Colombian trade unions and merchant groups in nearby Cucuta, who have proposed the building of a transportation and shipping hub to facilitate international trade. The Colombian government says a resumption in trade between the two countries could amount to upwards of $600m this year.

But some international observers have expressed concerns about Petro’s quickly thawing relationship with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who also welcomed the border reopening as the start of a new relationship based on “brotherhood, respect and peace”.

“There is a high level of concern within the US government regarding the current president’s embrace of the new left in Latin America and the tacit rejection of defence cooperation with the United States,” said a defence official at the US Embassy in Colombia, who asked that his name be withheld due to a lack of authority to speak for diplomatic staff.

“This is detrimental for the overall security of both countries and to the state of relations between our two countries.”

Improving security

Many experts in Colombia, however, hope that the border opening can eventually lead to increased security in the region for migrants and residents alike.

“For migrants, from a human rights perspective, this is a huge improvement,” said Bram Ebus, a consultant at the International Crisis Group in Colombia. “Crossing through official channels rather than informal smuggling paths means they aren’t vulnerable to killings, tortures, forced recruitment and rape at the hands of armed groups.”

Nearly seven million Venezuelans have fled their country since 2014 amid deteriorating conditions, the vast majority passing through Colombia to do so. Residents who live in the region also regularly cross the border daily for work, as well as to buy goods, attend school and go to medical appointments.

Ebus cautioned that expectations should be tempered as to whether the reopening will completely resolve long-standing security and contraband issues at the border. He said smugglers could use formal shipping channels between the two countries, as well – and in fact, some might prefer these official channels over the informal border routes controlled by rival criminal groups.

“We know that cocaine and gold smugglers have used official crossings like the Simon Bolívar Bridge in the past, and that state forces on both sides of the border have been complicit in these schemes,” he told Al Jazeera.

For example, in July, local politicians in Cucuta were linked to a child sex ring that exploited Venezuelan and Colombian girls, in collaboration with Colombian police and organised crime groups, local media reported.

Large sections of the frontier outside of Cucuta are effectively outside state control, which Ebus said makes rebuilding “state capacities and civil structures” critical to addressing security needs in the region.

“Endemic corruption must be addressed among public officials as part of any reform. We also know that migrants are also sometimes extorted by migration officials and police themselves,” he added.

Peace process

Carlos Velandia, an ex-commander with the National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group and advocate for a new peace process in Colombia, said he hoped the border reopening will lead to “collaboration [on] security and peace-building” between the two countries.

ELN, the largest remaining rebel group in Colombia, finances its activities through drug trafficking, extortion and human smuggling in the borderlands. It has expanded in both territory and numbers since the 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and is now believed to boast more than 2,400 full-time fighters, in addition to an unknown number of auxiliary members and sympathisers.

“Seventy percent of ELN forces operate in the Venezuelan border regions,” Velandia told Al Jazeera, adding that “in the past, their presence was tolerated” as a deterrent to what Venezuela viewed as the possibility of Colombian aggression.

“But improved relations between the two countries now make their presence inconvenient for Maduro,” Velandia said. “This could generate pressure for ELN to take new proposed peace talks [with the Colombian government] more seriously and negotiate in good faith.”

Petro has said his government plans to negotiate directly with armed groups, as well as reform the Colombian security forces, who have in recent years been accused of grave human rights violations.

ELN has agreed to peace negotiations with the Petro administration, and preliminary talks have already begun in Cuba, where many ELN commanders have lived in exile since previous talks with the Colombian government were abandoned in 2019.

Petro appears to be celebrating the easing of border closures as an early victory in his term – one that he will need as he attempts to undertake his ambitious new peace plans.

“We kept our word,” Petro tweeted on Monday, referring to the promises he made during his campaign. “May the opening of the border be an announcement of prosperity for Colombia, Venezuela and all of the Americas.”

Additional reporting from Cucuta, Colombia by Joseph Bouchard.

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