BOGOTA (Reuters) - Fighting between three armed groups for control of territory and drug trafficking in northeastern Colombia has exposed some 300,000 civilians to potential rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
Rebels from the National Liberation Army (ELN), dissident fighters from Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who refused to demobilize under a peace deal and the Los Pelusos crime gang are all present in the Catatumbo region, near the border with Venezuela, the rights group said.
"In Catatumbo a war to the death has been triggered between irregular armed groups. This war has the civilian population as prisoners, as captives," Human Rights Watch Americas director Jose Miguel Vivanco told journalists. "These are poor rural people who haven't seen the Colombian state for decades and who are exposed to grave abuses."
People living in the region, including more than 25,000 Venezuelans who have fled the economic and political crisis in their own country, are at risk of murder, forced disappearance, sexual violence, forced recruitment of minors, landmines, displacement and kidnapping, Vivanco said.
Migrants are especially vulnerable, Vivanco said, adding that some Venezuelan children are involved in harvesting coca, the base ingredient in cocaine, while migrant women may be forced into sex work that pays them as little as $2.
Armed groups are known to target desperate Venezuelans for recruitment as they traverse the porous 2,219-km (1,380-mile) border between the two countries.
Vivanco said the Colombian government should invest in roads, education, healthcare and job creation in the region, where military forces number more than 5,600 and police 800.
The demobilization of the FARC in 2017 left a power vacuum in restive regions around the Andean country, sparking bloody competition between remaining armed groups for control of lucrative drug trafficking and illegal mining operations.
"Within Colombia and outside Colombia it is probable there exists the impression that the situation was resolved with the signing of the deal and that the country is in peace," Vivanco said. "The country is at war in Catatumbo!"
(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Leslie Adler)