The Frontier City, Or: What Defines the Urban Condition in Contested Border Areas?

By Markus Hochmüller

This essay is part of Emergent Conversation 13, ILLICITIES: City-Making and Organized Crime

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Medical workers bring an injured soldier on a stretcher in a hospital following a explosion in Cucuta, Colombia, on the border with Venezuela, on June 15, 2021. – A vehicle exploded Tuesday at a military unit in northeastern Colombia near the Venezuelan border, leaving at least three soldiers wounded, according to authorities and AFP journalists in the area. Photo by SCHNEYDER MENDOZA/AFP via Getty Images.

On 15 June 2021, a white SUV approached the barracks of the Colombian Army’s 30th Brigade in the Metropolitan Area of Cúcuta. Video footage shows that the soldier in charge inspected the vehicle before giving green light to the driver to enter the premises. After parking the car, the driver left the compound. A few hours later, the SUV exploded. It had been packed with bombs, and the detonation has left 36 people wounded.[1]

The bombing hit the city at a time of growing tensions. Over the previous year, the Covid-19 pandemic had aggravated insecurity and the humanitarian crisis related to the mass exodus of Venezuelan migrants and refugees.[2] The Metropolitan Area of Cúcuta—with its main city, San José de Cúcuta—is home to more than 1 million people. It is the urban centre of the Catatumbo region. Located at the border to Venezuela, this area has been one of the epicentres of the decades-long conflict between the Colombian government and the Marxist FARC-EP guerrilla group. After the signing of the 2016 Peace Accord, the region has remained contested, with armed non-state groups competing over territorial control and lucrative trafficking routes. According to the Colombian NGO Indepaz, the tense security situation in Catatumbo represents “the weak link in the territorial transformation” strategy that the Peace Accord had envisioned.[3]

The June 2021 attack has sent political shockwaves to the Colombian capital Bogotá amid one of the fiercest periods of social protest in the post-Peace Accord era. It has also raised concerns in Washington, D.C., as U.S. military advisors were present in the moment the car bomb exploded. This created a delicate situation for the Colombian Armed Forces. In an urgent meeting, the Colombian government discussed two possible scenarios. Their first theory suggested that an organized criminal group was behind the attack. Their second hypothesis was that rebels of the National Liberation Army (ELN) were trying to hit the state’s security forces—just as they did in 2019, when a car bomb attack had left 21 people dead inside the General Santander Police Academy in Bogotá.[4]

In a context where not even the military forces can effectively protect themselves, the situation for city dwellers of Cúcuta is even more bleak. In August 2020, over 50 civil society organizations issued an open letter that shows how conflict at the Colombian border shapes insecurity not only in the Metropolitan Area’s contested rural hinterland, but also right in its urban core. Signatories asked in the middle of Colombia’s first and deadly Covid-19 wave, “Who will protect the lives and the rights of those of us living in the Metropolitan Area of Cúcuta?” The letter accuses insurgent, paramilitary, and criminal groups of massive human rights violations leading to a “veritable humanitarian emergency.” [5] In this post, I discuss how conflict dynamics, contested transnational illicit flows, and the location at the Colombian border shape the urban condition of the frontier city by drawing on the case of Cúcuta.

Illicit Flows, Urban Capabilities, and Contested Governance

In their contribution to the first installment of the  ILLICITIES Emergent Conversation, Graham Denyer Willis and Diane Davis extend Manuel Castell’s  insight that cities are nodes within global flows to consider how “cities are sites of flows.”[6] They show that these flows are often connected to “alternative regimes of authority” in cities of the Global South.[7] In urban spaces located at the frontiers of conflict-ridden nation-states, these flows are similarly significantly shaped by illicit cross-national economies. Often, the state’s role oscillates in these marginalized geographical spaces between a partial and often militarized presence—and strategic and selective absences in terms of protection and provision of goods and services to citizens.

Given this ambiguous role of the state, a particular form of contested urban governance has emerged in the Metropolitan Area of Cúcuta. In 2020, a social leader explained in a focus group what makes his city, Cúcuta, and the wider region, Catatumbo, prone to conflict and crime: “We share 412 kilometers of a border with Venezuela,” he argued, “and these 412 kilometers are porous borders.” In 2021, an interviewee told me that the particular border economy defines the urban condition of Cúcuta. Her city, she claimed, “is a trafficking field of all sorts of goods,” enabling “the informality that reigns at this border.”[9]

The border, in both its material and symbolic dimensions, shapes Cúcuta’s “urban capabilities.” This concept was coined by Saskia Sassen, who has pointed to the importance of (civic) resources in enabling urban dwellers and their cities to adapt and to progress.[10] As conflict and war are becoming increasingly urban questions, Sassen recently brought this concept together with Mary Kaldor’s ideas on “new wars.” In Kaldor’s view, new wars are asymmetric and networked forms of conflicts, often informed by identity politics, and fought between state and non-state armed actors often targeting the civilian population.[11] In their recent edited volume Cities at War, Kaldor and Sassen argue that urban capabilities can be useful “to detect embedded vectors that can lead to the diluting or unsettling of conflicts in cities.”[12]  They also point to the dialectics of urban capabilities, which can be both an attractive resource to be exploited by non-state armed actors and a resource for city dwellers (e.g. to resist or cope with violence).

The importance of “urban resources” is receiving increased attention in the peace and conflict studies literature, as does the role of criminal groups in “bordering practices.”[13]&[14]  However, we don’t know much yet about how the dynamics of conflict, violence, and crime—and the governance of security—play out in peripherical urban spaces located in border zones. This is the focus of my current research, which examines contestations and reinforcements of the Colombia-Venezuela border as productive of transnational space for illicit modes of governance.

Many transnational illicit flows of goods—ranging from drugs to gasoline—cross the city of Cúcuta. Trafficking routes are contested among rebel groups such as the ELN, the de facto authority along some parts of the border, criminal gangs, and paramilitary groups.[15] While much of the actual fighting between these groups takes place in the rural areas surrounding the city, these territorial disputes also permeate its urban neighborhoods. Armed non-state groups do—in shifting alliances among themselves and at times in collusion with state authorities—co-produce the frontier city. They police mobility, stop, enable, and tax human circulation and flows of goods. In their 2020 open letter, the civil society organizations reported an expansion of armed groups’ territorial control during the Covid-19-related border closures. These organizations denounced “illegal patrols on the main roads, trochas or illegal paths, limiting mobility, and demands of transit fees,” as well as violent displacements and confinements. They also observed territorial “disputes, war declarations and new alliances of the paramilitary sectors, drug-trafficking and organized crime, in urban and rural zones with an important presence of the Public Force [police and military].”

Cúcuta is one of the borderlands that Annette Idler characterizes as “strategic trafficking nodes where multiple illicit flows intersect,” and over which armed non-state groups compete, at times also agreeing on “fragile, short-term arrangements.”[16] Idler’s work on these nodes—and her concept of the “border effect”—may be brought into a dialogue with the urban capabilities approach to yield novel insights into the way illicit city-making works at the geographical margins of Colombia. The border effect is based on the interplay of weak state governance, an environment that holds little risk but provides economic opportunities due to the porosity of the border, and the possibilities the border provides for illicit actors to evade persecution.[17] This is most visible at informal border crossings locally called trochas. In Cúcuta, paramilitary, criminal, and insurgent groups compete for their control. Furthermore, these groups also engage in local drug-trafficking and territorial control. More than just exploiting the urban resources, they effectively seek to establish alternative governance structures—and thereby become involved in everyday city-making.

Vulnerability, Militarization, and Competing Claims to the City

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People eat at the Casa de Paso La Divina Providencia soup kitchen during a meal service for Venezuelan migrants in the town of La Parada, Cucuta, Colombia, on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019. Venezuela’s political crisis continues as humanitarian aid arrived to the country’s border with Colombia. While President Nicolas Maduro said the presence of trailers carrying aid are part of a U.S. plan to overthrow his government, National Assembly leader Juan Guaido criticized Maduro for refusing to admit the supplies and called for street protests on Tuesday. Photographer: Ivan Valencia/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

Cúcuta is an unequal city with a high level of absolute poverty, aggravated and intensified in recent years.[18] A lack of economic opportunities for many city dwellers has created a labor force reservoir for the informal and the illicit economies. This reservoir has, over the past five years or so, increased even further, as tens of thousands of Venezuelans have entered the country, arriving over the two official border crossings in the Metropolitan Area of Cúcuta or using the trochas to flee the dire conditions of their home country.

Thousands of Venezuelans have settled in the area, accelerating urban growth well beyond the established and official boundaries of the municipalities. Amid the border closures of 2020, many were stranded near the border, desperately trying to get back to their home country due to the lack of opportunities and protection in Colombia. As one interviewee stated, the Venezuelans “have a much higher risk” of being victimized, as they “have occupied risk zones” in the city, where they co-habit with the most vulnerable parts of the population.[19] These people are exposed to a condition of desprotección (non-protection), a term that comes up frequently when speaking about Colombia’s border region. Both established city dwellers and newcomers not only need to navigate through complex environments of illicitly governed areas, they also must fight for their place in the city. The cross-border illicit economies that provide for many the only possibility of income also take more concrete forms—in both the metaphorical and the literal senses of the word.

For instance, consider the case of the gasoline smugglers locally known as pimpineros. Historically, this contraband business has been key to Cúcuta’s highly informal economy. However, with the decline of oil prices and the wider economic crisis in Venezuela, the smuggling business has come under pressure. The pimpineros have also a long history of unionizing and making their voices heard. “They reclaimed their right to work [by making demands] to the state,” one interviewee said, even though their work is effectively illegal. [20] In May 2019, in the sector of Pedregales, the pimpineros blocked the road to Cúcuta. The protestors criticized the controls of the Colombian customs police. Without any viable alternatives, they demanded the state to refrain from impeding the only economic activity that provided them with an income.[21]

Many of those engaging in the contraband business live in vulnerable conditions. More organized smuggling rings have, however, “helped [their vulnerable workers] to construct housing.”[22] This has translated into informal settlements (or asentamientos) in the urban periphery, close to the main trafficking routes. As one World Bank study observed, the Venezuelan migration crisis has also exacerbated the precarity of urban living conditions, as “human settlements are increasingly located in high-risk areas” in Cúcuta and are “established on low and erosional stubble soils unsuitable for building housing,” at the margins of the city or even beyond.[23]

Actors engaging in informal or illicit jobs are not the only people critical of state authorities and actively fighting for their right to the city. In some of Cúcuta’s neighborhoods, people feel left alone by the state which does not deal with armed groups. As one social leader put it, “If an armed group enters a neighborhood … supposedly the police didn’t know anything.”[24] Consequently, communities need to find ways to resist or coexist with these groups. But it’s more complex than that. Drawing on Theodore Schatzki’s work, Anna Danielsson reminds us that “[s]ites include physical and geographical spaces, but also for instance ideational and discursive ones.” [25] & [26] At times, politicians and security bureaucrats actively blur the lines between informality, illicity, and insurgency. Cúcuta’s strategy of recuperating contested urban spaces provides insights into how these different dimensions intersect, and how crucial the role of the (porous) border is in these spatial ambiguities.

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Colombian soldiers patrol the “trochas” -illegal trails on the border between Colombia and Venezuela- near the Simon Bolivar International Bridge in Cucuta, Colombia, on October 17, 2020. Photo by SCHNEYDER MENDOZA/AFP via Getty Images.

In early 2020, a member of the Citizen Security Directorate of the Cúcuta municipal government assured citizens that under a new security plan “the city will not be militarized” and that the Army’s main role would simply be to step up effective control of the trochas.[27] However, in October 2020, the Army and police introduced a mission called “Operation Wall” (Operación Muralla) along the trochas connecting Cúcuta with its Venezuelan neighboring municipalities of San Antonio de Táchira and Ureña.[28] In a focus group held in November 2020, a social leader criticized how this iron-fisted approach was imposing on everyday life in the city: “There’s an action between the police, the military and some officials of the Directorate … that talk of security, neighborhood security (seguridad de los barrios),” which in his view is not much more than a backdoor militarization.[29]

These militarized interventions are closely related to a discursive campaign that rather than strengthening citizenship at the border, criminalizes bottom-up community organization and labels social leaders as parts of criminal groups located outside the good urban/social order. As a human rights defender put it in a television interview, this turns activism into “high-risk work,” especially for those calling out the “increasing militarization of the territory.”[30] Another social leader explained in a focus group that this militarization has also intensified during the Covid-19 pandemic, as the state’s public health measures or bioseguridad, became a door opener for the state to expand its presence by force. He fears that, “If the Army get to the neighborhoods, they will kill us in our neighborhoods.” He sees the pandemic as a “perfect excuse” for militarization, and explains how this struggle connects to wider struggles over the right to the city: “We, the social leaders, have been criminalized. They say we belong to (armed) groups, they allege we promote disorder in the city—but how should we not be promoting disorder in the city if people are dying of hunger in our neighborhoods? So, we are left with taking a decision: either we demand that they help us, or we die of Covid; or we keep put, dying of both Covid and hunger.”[31]


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Migrants use a rope to cross the Tachira river, the natural border between Colombia and Venezuela, as the official border remains closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic in Cucuta, Colombia, on November 19, 2020. – Hundreds of Venezuelans stranded in Colombia tried to cross the international bridge Wednesday as heavy rains had increased the river level. Photo by SCHNEYDER MENDOZA/AFP via Getty Images.

The border’s impact—in both its material and symbolic dimension—on security significantly shapes the overall living conditions of the population. City dwellers and refugees/migrants seeking protection and a better life in the city are the ones most exposed to the effects of cross-border illicit economies, the migration-related humanitarian emergency, and a broad variety of petty and organized crime—all aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The city of Cúcuta is an urban space contested by different armed actors, both state and non-state, with competing claims over control of both trafficking routes and city neighborhoods. As a social leader from Cúcuta put it, grassroots community organizations are “in a void.” While many city dwellers are petrified, scared for their lives and the lives of their family, friends, and allies, community leadership does prevail. Given the lack of state support for local initiatives, this leader helped foster community self-organization and resistance, saying “I don’t like pointing out problems without pointing to solutions.”[32] Despite existential threats, he helped establish a community education program to strengthen citizenship and allow city dwellers to make more effective claims of the powers that be. In the frontier city, some urban capabilities do indeed increase vulnerability—but others can also become powerful resources of resistance.

Markus Hochmüller is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the CONPEACE Programme, Pembroke College, University of Oxford. He holds a PhD in political science from Freie Universität Berlin. His research focuses on security and development in Latin America with an emphasis on peace- and state-building, security sector reform, and border governance.



[2] Idler, A. & Hochmüller, M. (2020): “COVID-19 in Colombia’s Borderlands and the Western Hemisphere: Adding Instability to a Double Crisis.” Journal of Latin American Geography 19(3): 280-288.




[6] Castells, M. (2010). The Rise of the Network Society. Wiley-Blackwell.


[8] Online focus group with civil society representatives of Colombian border zones, 18 November 2020. This focus group was conducted with colleagues of the University of Oxford’s CONPEACE Programme, see

[9] Remote interview with aid worker, Cúcuta, 11 June 2021.

[10] Sassen, S. (2012). “Urban Capabilities: An Essay on Our Challenges and Differences.” Journal of International Affairs 65(2): 85-95.

[11] Kaldor, M. (2012). New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era. Polity Press.

[12] Kaldor, M. & Sassen, S. (2020). Cities at War. Global Insecurity and Urban Resistance. Columbia University Press, p. 2.

[13] Sampaio, A. (2021). “Urban Resources and Their Linkage to Political Agendas for Armed Groups in Cities.” Journal of Illicit Economies and Development 2(2): 171-187.

[14] García Pinzón, V. & Mantilla, J. (2020). “Contested Borders: Organized Crime, Governance, and Bordering Practices in Colombia-Venezuela Borderlands”, Trends in Organized Crime 24: 265-281, p. 266.

[15] See

[16] Idler, A. (2020). “The Logic of Illicit Flows in Armed Conflict: Explaining Variation in Violent Nonstate Group Interactions in Colombia.” World Politics 72(3): 335-376, p. 338.

[17] Idler, A. (2019). Borderland Battles: Violence, Crime, and Governance at the Edges of Colombia’s War. Oxford University Press.


[19] Remote interview with aid worker, Cúcuta, 11 June 2021.

[20] Ibid.


[22] Remote interview with aid worker, Cúcuta, 11 June 2021.


[24] Online focus group with civil society representatives of Colombian border zones, 18 November 2020.

[25] Schatzki, T.R. (2002). The Site of the Social. A Philosophical Account of the Constitution of Social Life and

Change. The Pennsylvania State University Press.

[26] Danielsson, A. (2020). “The Urbanity of Peacebuilding: Urban Environments as Objects and Sites of Peacebuilding Knowledge Production.” Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 14(5): 654-670, p. 664.



[29] Online focus group with civil society representatives of Colombian border zones, 18 November 2020.


[31] Online focus group with civil society representatives of Colombian border zones, 18 November 2020.

[32] Ibid.























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