Fleeing Crisis, Some Venezuelans Are Recruited By Rebel Forces Fighting In Colombia Venezuelan migrants come into contact with Colombian guerrillas after crossing the river border. The migrants have turned up among captured and killed rebels, a Colombian military commander tells NPR.
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Fleeing Crisis, Some Venezuelans Are Recruited By Rebel Forces Fighting In Colombia

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Fleeing Crisis, Some Venezuelans Are Recruited By Rebel Forces Fighting In Colombia

Fleeing Crisis, Some Venezuelans Are Recruited By Rebel Forces Fighting In Colombia

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Colombia officially ended its civil war through peace negotiations a few years ago, but there are signs of increasing instability. Colombian authorities say a car bombing in the capital this week that killed 21 people was carried out by a Marxist guerrilla group known as the ELN. Colombia is also dealing with a surge of refugees fleeing the chaos and economic hardship in neighboring Venezuela. And now some of these refugees are joining the guerrillas. Reporter John Otis has more from Colombia's border with Venezuela.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Dozens of Venezuelans have just come across the Arauca River, which forms part of the frontier with Colombia. There are no border guards here, so crossing over on small boats is easy. But once in Colombia, they face new threats. For example, much of the river in this remote region of northern Colombia is controlled by a Marxist guerrilla group known as the ELN. Then there's the FARC. That's the rebel group that laid down its weapons under Colombia's 2016 peace treaty. However, hundreds of dissident FARC members are now rearming and recruiting new members with promises of food, shelter and cash. Homeless and hungry Venezuelan migrants have become prime recruiting targets for both rebel groups, so says Xiomara Sanchez, a government human rights worker in the Colombian border town of Arauca.

XIOMARA SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: She says the guerrillas take advantage of their neediness.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Another human rights worker tells me that the rebels promise up to 1 million Colombian pesos per month. That's more than $300 - a small fortune for new arrivals from Venezuela, where the currency has collapsed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: She adds that the guerrillas pressure Venezuelans as young as 15 to join their ranks. This official has a bodyguard because she's received death threats stemming from her investigations. She asked that NPR not reveal her name. It's unclear how many Venezuelans have joined the guerrillas.

ARNULFO TRASLAVINA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But Col. Arnulfo Traslavina, the army commander in Arauca, puts the number at several dozen. He points out that eight Venezuelans were killed when the army attacked a guerrilla camp last June and that four more were captured this month during a botched kidnapping.

TRASLAVINA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He says, "This is clear proof that they are recruiting Venezuelans." To dissuade migrants from falling into the hands of rebels, criminal gangs or prostitution rings, the Colombian government and international agencies have launched food, education and health care programs.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: At this medical tent set up on a bridge spanning the Arauca River, Colombian nurses provide Venezuelan migrants with vaccinations and family planning information. Social workers, like Lisandro Sarmiento, roam the Arauca slums. In this two-room shack, he speaks with Jessica Marin, an unemployed Venezuelan mother of three. Nearby sits her bored-looking 15-year-old son, who's not enrolled in school and fits the profile of those targeted by rebel recruiters.

LISANDRO SARMIENTO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Sarmiento explains the procedures for getting the boy into a Colombian high school. But these outreach efforts can seem like a drop in the bucket amid the flood of refugees. Colombia has received more than 1 million Venezuelans in just the past three years. And unless their living conditions improve, officials fear that more of them will join the guerrillas. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Arauca, Columbia.

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