Cucuta, Colombia – In the last WhatsApp message that 17-year-old Nestor Pena sent on May 16, 2020, he promised his mother he would write to her again when he clocked out from work.
But at about 3:30pm, Nestor went for lunch in Tulua, a city in western Colombia, and was never heard from again. At the construction site where he worked, he left behind a new pair of shoes, a change of clothes, his mobile phone and his Venezuelan passport.
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“They couldn’t have tried to rob him because he left everything behind,” Zugey Pena, his mother, told Al Jazeera. Still contemplating what might have happened to her son, she holds onto one clue: “His coworker had heard that the rebels took him.”
According to the Colombian attorney general’s office, 288 Venezuelans have been reported as victims of forced disappearances in Colombia since 2015, when the economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela triggered an exodus of migrants and refugees.
Colombia’s National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences, a government agency that oversees a database of missing people drawn from various official sources, says the real number is likely much higher, with nearly 1,500 Venezuelans having disappeared since 2015.
About 2.5 million Venezuelans have settled in Colombia since the crisis began. They are eligible for 10-year residency permits but face scarce formal employment and discrimination. In some cases, hopes for a better life are dimmed by the country’s internal violence.
According to a report from R4V, an interagency platform led by the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, gangs and armed groups throughout Latin America target Venezuelan migrants for forced recruitment, sex trafficking and exploitation in illegal mines — crimes that can result in their disappearance.
“Due to their vulnerable situation, the absence or lack of access to a mechanism to regularise their legal status, the lack of resources and the lack of a family network and community, they can be especially susceptible,” Chiara Marinelli, a coauthor of the report, told Al Jazeera.
‘No one fighting for them’
Although a 2016 peace deal between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government led to a reduction in violence in the country, some areas are still mired in conflict between smaller armed groups, which prey on vulnerable communities to recruit youth and impose rules on large swathes of territory.
Refugees and migrants are sometimes unaware of the risks posed by criminal groups in parts of Colombia, or they are willing to face the dangers in order to make an income or to transit through the country.
Among these dangers are forced disappearances, a crime that leaves no trace of the victim and that has been employed by armed groups to instil fear in communities. More than 120,000 people have reportedly disappeared across the country as a result of Colombia’s armed conflict.
According to human rights groups, migrants and refugees are less equipped to advocate for themselves as victims, compared with Colombian citizens, as they struggle to access an unfamiliar justice system and face discrimination along the way. They are also ineligible to register as victims of Colombia’s armed conflict, which restricts them from receiving reparation payments.
“The family members of disappeared Colombians are at the attorney general’s office every day; they are talking to the media, they have the support of human rights groups. Instead, migrant families aren’t familiar with the process to file a report, and they don’t speak to the media out of fear,” said Wilfredo Canizares, director of Fundacion Progresar, a human rights group that has researched forced disappearances along the Colombia-Venezuela border for three decades.
“If the attorney general’s office doesn’t investigate the cases of Colombians who have been fighting for this cause their entire lives,” he told Al Jazeera, “what chances do Venezuelans have when there is no one fighting for them?”
As is the case with many reports of forced disappearances across Colombia, impunity is rife in cases of missing Venezuelans. According to the attorney general’s office, out of about 250 cases opened since 2015 — some of which involve multiple victims — the vast majority, 225, have not been resolved and are still active.
The attorney general’s office did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the matter.
The quest for justice
After her son disappeared, Zugey Pena said she requested support from local and international aid groups, but they told her that their focus was on providing humanitarian aid, such as food, housing and clothes, as opposed to searching for missing migrants and refugees.
Her next call was to the attorney general’s office in Cucuta. After visiting the office every Monday for more than a month, she said, an official ultimately filed a criminal report but warned her the case might not be investigated quickly, amid thousands of other unsolved incidents.
“He told me that the cases of missing Colombians were a priority and that as Venezuelans, we couldn’t hope that our cases would be investigated immediately,” Pena said.
Her son’s case was assigned to a prosecutor in Cali in 2022, she said, but she has not since received any information on the status.
A recent report from the Colombian Ideas for Peace Foundation encouraged the Colombian government to incorporate the migrant population into peace-building efforts and to improve the poor socioeconomic conditions that make migrants vulnerable to armed groups. The R4V report, meanwhile, proposed that humanitarian groups inform migrants and asylum seekers about their rights to report crimes and guide them in accessing the justice system.
Before Nestor Pena disappeared, he had moved to Tulua from Cucuta to find work that would allow him to save enough money to finish construction on his mother’s house in Venezuela and to start a joint business.
Her other children, who live in Chile and Peru, have encouraged their mother to return to that half-built home — but she has vowed to stay in Colombia as long as Nestor is still missing: “A mother’s hope never dies.”