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Border with Colombia heats up
Luis Ángel Saavedra*
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Government to stay on the sidelines of Colombian conflict.

Ecuador’s new hands-off policy toward the Colombian conflict has chilled diplomatic relations between the two Andean nations and sparked a series of incidents along their common border.

Unlike to former President Lucio Gutiérrez (2003-2005), who strayed from Ecuador’s traditional neutrality in the Colombian conflict, the new government defined a policy defending national sovereignty, beginning with the statements of Foreign Relations Minister Antonio Parra Gil, who in July demanded that Colombia stop spraying coca plantations with pesticides near the Ecuadorian border.

The new Ecuadorian position upset the United States as much as it did Colombia because the Alfredo Palacio administration has refused to sign an agreement granting US soldiers immunity before the International Criminal Court (ICC), and then-Defense Minister Solón Espinoza had promised that Ecuador would not become a part of a joint command with the Colombian military to fight guerillas as the Colombian Senate Foreign Relations Committee requested in late June.

The Ecuadorian government has said emphatically that it will "respect the Rome Statute [of the ICC] and will not sign any immunity agreement". In relation to Colombia’s armed conflict, "the Ecuadorian position is neither one of intervention nor one of interference in another country’s internal matters", the Ecuadorian foreign relations minister stated.

The Teteye attack

The pressure Ecuador is facing to return to the policy adopted by the previous government reached its boiling point on June 25, when Colombian guerillas attacked a Colombian military detachment in Teteye, on the Colombian-Ecuadorian Amazon border.

Jorge Eliécer Coral, mayor of Puerto Asis and gubernatorial candidate for the Colombian border province of Putumayo, opened the door for the Colombian diplomatic offensive by ensuring that "the guerillas came from Ecuador".

Interior Minister Mauricio Gándara rejected Coral’s allegations and called for greater control on the Colombian side of the border.

"Ecuador borders on more guerilla-controlled territory than it does on territory controlled by the Colombian government," Gándara said.

In effect, along the nearly 600 kilometers (373 miles) of the shared border, most Ecuadorian towns border on territories controlled by guerillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), as well as the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The Colombian army controls very few areas.

Colombian Foreign Relations Minister Carolina Barco held a tense meeting with her Ecuadorian counterpart in Quito on July 25. "Colombia’s military strategy is different from that of Ecuador", Barco said in an effort to explain the mobility of the Colombian armed forces on the border. On his part, the Ecuadorian minister urged "a greater, physical presence" of Colombian state.

The Colombian army, with the wake of the Teteye outpost attack, and the recent announcement that it is closing in on FARC’s number two in command, Raúl Reyes, it began an offensive on the border, both in the conflict zones — as in the case of Putumayo — and in places that have never seen the Colombian governmental presence, such as the south of the department of Narino, which borders on the Ecuadorian towns of Chical and Maldonado.

The Colombian operations have neither gained control of guerilla territory nor have they led to Reyes’ capture. But they have caused a greater displacement of communities, Ecuadorian ones as much as Colombian ones, and a spike in refugees into Ecuador.

Refugee counts on the rise

According to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), forced displacement increased from April to June of this year, affecting at least 91,467 Colombians, which amounts to 153,463 displaced persons in the first half of 2005.

The CODHES report, entitled "Why Do They Leave?", published July 19 states that these figures represent "an increase of 17.7 percent compared to the same period in 2004, when there were 130,366 displaced persons".

The total number of Colombian nationals seeking refuge worldwide between 2000 and 2004 reached 104,474, according to CODHES.

Almost one third of them, 32,305, sought refuge in Ecuador during this same period, discounting the displaced persons who entered the country without seeking refugee status, according to the Colombian office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

A stronger Colombian military presence on the border will generate massive immigration influxes to Ecuador, which will create even more strain on the national economy, especially in the employment sector, an issue that has generated confrontations with Ecuadorian society, given the work force competition, caused by lower salaries.

Gándara proposed to issue visas to Colombians who wish to enter Ecuador with the hope of reducing pressure on the country. However, Labor Minister Galo Chiriboga thinks that a better idea would be to formalize the Colombian nationals living in Ecuador to avoid labor exploitation and an unfair competition for jobs.

"A definitive solution to protect refugees is not easy, since the country is living through difficult conditions and continues to reject everything that is Colombian," said Gina Benavides, a lawyer at the Regional Foundation of Human Rights Advising.


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