A case study about deaths of Venezuelan women in Colombia highlights quite worrying information about the types of violence they suffer, the characteristics of the victims and the places where the incidents took place in the country. With the support of the mapping project of the Francisco de Vitoria Institute of International and European Studies, we analyze data on cases of deaths of Venezuelans in Colombian territory from January 2018 until December 2019.
The findings are worrisome: of all cases of deaths of Venezuelan women analyzed, in 57.3% of those it could be concluded that the woman was victim of a femicide, because she showed signs of having suffered gender violence or because she was killed by a (ex) partner/family member.
34.4% were victims of uncategorized murder, as the motive was not clear and had not yet been clarified. 6.6% stood out as crimes of hate and intolerance, because there were obvious indications that the death occurred due to xenophobia towards the woman. 16.4% of Venezuelan women in Colombia died due to accidents, and the remaining 9.8% died from diseases or health problems. In other words, femicide is the main cause of the death of Venezuelan women in Colombia today.
Femicide, the murder of a women for reasons of sex or gender, is characterized as the most violent expression against a woman’s freedom, integrity and dignity. It is a violent act that is carried out within a dynamic of power where the offender already dominates or wants to dominate the victim. Although this problem exists in all countries and regions of the world, it is especially prolific in Latin America. The Americas, in fact, is the second region where most women are killed because of their gender only behind Africa, with 1.6 femicides for every 100,000 people. In addition, the actual figures tend to be higher due to problems within the justice systems of the countries of the region, which often do not recognize a femicide for what it is because of a lack of expertise or because of machismo.
Profiles of Venezuelan female victims of violent deaths in Colombia
The profiles of Venezuelan victims of violent deaths (femicides and murders) in Colombia can provide us with a more comprehensive idea of who these women are. 10% of victims of violent deaths analysed were minors, whose cases also showed evidence of what could be categorized as a potential case of human trafficking. It was reported that many left their country with an older Colombian man they met shortly before, and upon arriving in Colombia, they lost all contact with their relatives before appearing dead in strange circumstances.
In a quarter of the cases analyzed, families asked for support to repatriate their bodies to Venezuela because they had no way to cover expenses themselves
Human trafficking tends to increase in conflict zones or during a migration crisis, when recipient countries do not have the resources to attend and integrate newly arrived migrants and refugees. This creates a vacuum where criminal groups enter and take advantage of vulnerable migrants, in this case, Venezuelan women, to grow their networks of slavery, prostitution and forced labor. Minors are especially susceptible to false offers of a better future in another country, or to members of trafficking networks that attract them with false relationships.
In most of the analyzed cases of victims of violent deaths, the women suffered from economic difficulties; In a quarter of the cases analyzed, families asked for support to repatriate their bodies to Venezuela because they had no way to cover expenses themselves. These women normally operated within informal networks and their professions were often listed as street sellers, sex workers, waitresses, and crop harvesters.
Only in two of the cases analyzed, evidence was found that the victims had university studies, and in one of the cases, the woman could not complete them due to lack of resources. This coincides with global patterns of femicide when women with few educational and economic opportunities are more vulnerable to violence and have fewer tools to escape an abusive relationship that could end in death.
Finally, it should also be noted that 76.7% of violent deaths of Venezuelan women in Colombia occurred in cases when the woman had been in Colombia for less than a year, while only 23.3% of the cases occurred when the women had been in the country for longer.
It is necessary to investigate this phenomenon in more depth to determine why newly arrived women are at greater risk, but it may have to do with the characteristics of the third and final wave of migration to Colombia, which is mainly composed of Venezuelan migrants and refugees in the state of greater vulnerability.
Intolerance and hate crimes towards Venezuelans in Colombia
Although we detected that 6.6% of murders of Venezuelan women in Colombia were due to hate crimes and intolerance, that is, due to xenophobia, the actual figure could be much higher, due to attitudes of xenophobia present in Colombian society and practices of 'social extermination'.
It was reported last year that Venezuelans, could be the targets of these armed groups in Bogotá when a pamphlet began to circulate in Ciudad Bolívar, warning of a social extermination against "Venezuelans and addicts"
The Invamer survey carried out in December last year, measured attitudes among the Colombian population towards Venezuelan migration and found that there are negative perceptions of Venezuelans among the majority of the Colombian population. According to the study, 62% of Colombians do not want the Government to welcome Venezuelan people, and 69% of Colombians have an unfavorable opinion towards Venezuelans already residing in the neighboring country.
In addition, 'social cleansing' or 'social extermination' - a perverse practice of criminal and paramilitary groups in which armed actors threaten unarmed civilian groups who have specific characteristics, social condition or identities - is a problem with which Colombia continues to battle. According to the report 'Social Cleansing: A poorly named violence' from the Centre for Historical Memory, “extermination operations are identified in almost all departments of Colombia”, and traditionally, they have been carried out against groups such as homeless people, sex workers, petty theives and drug users.
It was reported last year that Venezuelans, but especially Venezuelan women involved in sex work, could be the targets of these armed groups in Bogotá when a pamphlet began to circulate in Ciudad Bolívar, warning of a social extermination against "Venezuelans and addicts", telling residents to refrain from leaving their homes after 6:00pm. “The time for social cleansing has arrived. This is a general warning: due to the increase in crime in our neighborhoods in recent days, we have made the decision to carry out social cleansing, so we warn you that from 6:00 p.m, we will be cleansing Venezuelans and addicts”, said the pamphlet.
These murders that occur due to intolerance are very difficult to detect and to classify appropriately as a hate crime, due to the powerful structures of these criminal groups that control the territories in which they occur. Venezuelan women who face the machismo and extreme xenophobia of these groups are in a more vulnerable position.
Geography of violent deaths in Colombia
The departments that registered the highest number of violent deaths of Venezuelan women in 2018 and 2019 are North of Santander, Santander and Cesar with 15%, 11% and 11% of incidents occurring there respectively. It is interesting to contrast these figures with information from the 2018 national census that emphasizes that these departments do not necessarily have higher populations of foreigners, which in 2018 were almost entirely from Venezuela.
While the North of Santander is the second department with the highest migrant population with 7.5%, Cesar is in fourth place with a migrant population of 3.7%, and Santander is in tenth place with a migrant population of the 2.3%.
However, more cases of violent deaths of Venezuelans were found in Santander and Cesar than in Arauca, where 1.6% of violent deaths were recorded but where the migrant population is 8.4%. Therefore, the most dangerous departments for Venezuelan women are Santander and Cesar, given that there were high numbers of violent deaths in these areas despite having low populations of migrants.
It is worth noting that the departments of Norte de Santander and Santander are in third and fourth place for areas in which the practice of social extermination most occurs, according to the report from the Centre for Historical Memory. This indicates that there is a high presence of armed groups in those areas that could help explain their high numbers of violent deaths of Venezuelan women.