The Colombian government has decreed the Catatumbo region in the northern area of the country a "public calamity" owing to the armed fight between the National Liberation Army (ELN) and a criminal group, Los Pelusos, formerly the Popular Liberation Army (EPL).
Since fighting between the two groups began in February, 4,633 people - 1,249 families of limited resources - have been displaced according to the United Nations because of bloody battles that left at least four people dead just last week. Local media say the number of displaced is closer to 6,600.
People in the region are afraid to stay in their homes, fearing they can be gunned down, as happened to Jesus David Julio and Virgilio Cuadros when they were killed by unknown men last Thursday. One refugee told RCN Radio, "People don’t move because they’re afraid something will happen to them. There’s nothing to eat and they won’t let us buy anything. They kill people who work. It’s not easy what we’re living and we hope this will end soon."
The government is sending in 12,000 soldiers to this area within the Santander department, according to the Colombian vice president, Oscar Naranjo, who arrived today to Catatumbo.
Naranjo told the press today: "we’re managing an emergency. The government doesn’t want communities to keep leaving because they are affected by a war for which they aren’t to blame. We don’t want these illegally armed groups to continue to affect (the people). We are looking for the most immediate way (to resolve this)."
The national government airlifted in 900 kg of food and humanitarian aid to the Catatumbo region yesterday to be distributed to the displaced owing to the fact that the vast majority are small-scale farmers who have had to leave their crops behind for their own safety.
"The government is promoting legislation in Congress that calls for the disbanding of organized crime so that this can be resolved by way of the law," Vice president Naranjo said. The administration is hoping this measures will be passed before a new president is elected on May 27.
President Manuel Santos backed out of a ceasefire agreement with the ELN on Jan. 29. The two sides resumed talks again in Quito, Ecuador in early April until Ecuadorean president Lenin Moreno rescinded the government’s role as guarantor.Analysts say a peace accord with the ELN - like the one agreed upon with the FARC - now Colombia’s largest guerrilla army in the country is key to ending the country’s over five-decade-long civil conflict.