Attack on Colombian President Shows the Insecurity Borne of Venezuela’s Criminal Sanctuary
Last Friday, the helicopter of Colombian president Iván Duque came under fire as it landed in the border city of Cúcuta after an event in a fragile area near the border with Venezuela. The president, accompanied by an entourage including Defense Minister Diego Molano and Interior Minister Daniel Palacios, was unharmed despite visible damage to the presidential aircraft. Colombian authorities suspect guerrillas from the dissident Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia or FARC) or the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional or ELN), though the region is a hotbed of violence housing multiple guerilla groups dueling for control of coca production, drug trafficking routes into Venezuela, and other illicit activities. This attack comes on the heels of a massive car bomb explosion, also attributed to these guerrilla groups, which ripped through a military base in the same city of Cúcuta, near the Colombia-Venezuela border, injuring 36 people, including U.S. military advisers and Colombian military personnel.
Despite the bloodshed and the clear potential for regional volatility, the irregular nature of the conflict between guerrilla groups has meant scant attention paid to the security crisis unfolding for months now on both sides of the Venezuela-Colombia border, even though other conflicts with similar numbers of victims and conflict dynamics have received greater focus.
For many years, Venezuela has barely concealed its sympathy for guerrilla groups that operate cross-border trafficking networks and wage war against the Colombian state. Former president Hugo Chávez even invited guerrilla leaders to the presidential palace, telling Venezuela’s National Assembly that the FARC guerrillas had a “political project” that ought to be “respected here”—even as the Marxist verbiage they employed was a thinly-veiled cover for trafficking in cocaine and other illicit goods. Guerrilla groups remain an integral part of what analysts have dubbed Venezuela’s mafia state —the use of transnational organized crime as an instrument of state power—but the difficulty of managing relationships between unruly factions operating on Venezuelan territory is generating significant violence, regional insecurity, and human suffering.
In March 2021, the regime of Nicolás Maduro initiated military exercises near the border region. After encountering resistance and, in some instances coming under fire, the Maduro regime upped the ante by launching “Operation Bolivar Shield,” which featured aerial bombardments, airborne deployment of Venezuelan troops, and frontal assaults on guerrilla positions in the southwestern state of Apure. It appears the conflict evolved from infighting between rival segments of FARC dissidents, the so-called Frente 10 Martin Villa and the Segunda Marquetalia, vying for control over the Colombian-Venezuelan border and its associated trafficking routes. The participation of the Venezuelan army is further proof of the state’s support and cooperation with preferred guerrilla groups and a breakdown in relations with the Frente 10 Martin Villa for upsetting the criminal equilibrium.
The sudden action by Venezuelan forces has worsened the humanitarian crisis, with thousands forcibly displaced according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, credible claims of grave human rights abuses perpetrated by the Venezuelan army, and the death or kidnapping of Venezuelan troops largely unprepared to conduct counterinsurgency operations against capable and resilient guerrilla groups on their home turf. While Venezuela’s operations along the border have been characterized by extreme opacity, the Maduro regime’s official narrative has blamed the losses on an alleged campaign, orchestrated from Bogotá and Washington, to destabilize Venezuela.
However, according to U.S. Southern Command’s leader, Admiral Craig Faller, the Maduro regime and the refuge it provides to irregular armed groups are the most significant threats to regional stability in Latin America and the Caribbean. In past years, the regime has insisted on conducting military exercises on the Venezuela-Colombia border, perhaps in preparation for the present operation. Far from making the region safer, these military exercises have heightened tensions, especially by increasing the likelihood of escalation, as in the current offensive. The conflict on the Venezuela-Colombia border is now a tinderbox that represents a grave risk to international peace and security.
The potential for regional spillover effects is considerable as guerrilla groups fight back and seek to deepen their operations in neighboring countries. Within Venezuela, elements of this particular conflict could easily expand to other parts of its 1,300-mile border with Colombia, as well as to Bolívar, Amazonas, and Zulia states, while the connection to Colombia’s ongoing violence even after the peace deal could complicate the security situation and derail the Colombian government’s efforts to establish state control at a time of considerable social unrest in that country. In short, there is escalating hostility between guerrilla groups contesting territory, disputes between the Venezuelan state and specific guerrilla groups, and most seriously, the potential for interstate confrontation between Venezuela and Colombia during a tense period when diplomatic relations between the two have been sundered over the question of Maduro’s legitimacy, and the recent attack on President Duque’s entourage, which, according to the Colombian government, may contain emerging signs of some sort of link to the Venezuelan army.
Guerrilla Groups in Venezuela
Colombian guerrillas have had a presence in Venezuela since at least the 1980s. According to Fundaredes, a Venezuelan nongovernmental organization (NGO) that researches security topics, a panoply of irregular armed groups operates in Venezuela—9 different fronts of the FARC and 10 different fronts of the ELN, two of the best known guerrilla groups, the Bolivarian Forces of Liberation, the Popular Liberation Army, the Rastrojos, the Urabeños, and the United Self-Defences of Colombia, among others. Their operations range across an equally impressive list of territories. Of Venezuela’s 24 states, 19 count an active guerrilla presence.
The rapid retreat of the Venezuelan state has afforded guerrillas the ability to operate unhindered. Lacking the capacity and desire to challenge its loss of territorial sovereignty, Venezuela is included in the U.S. State Department’s Country Report on Terrorism, where it notes that the country suffers from “ungoverned, under-governed, or ill‑governed physical areas where terrorists are able to organize, plan, raise funds, communicate, recruit, train, transit, and operate in relative security because of inadequate governance capacity, political will, or both.” Indeed, the permissive environment enjoyed by guerrilla groups in Venezuela was a major factor in invoking the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (known by the acronym TIAR or the Rio Treaty) in late 2019 to deal with the Venezuela crisis.
Rebel groups in Apure state have long controlled the drug trafficking that involves the production of coca in Colombia, near the Venezuelan border. The finished product—cocaine—enters Venezuela through the porous border or with the assistance of small planes that fly below the radar and make use of myriad clandestine airstrips in the jungle. From there, the finished product begins a journey to either the United States or Europe. Thanks to the complicity of Venezuela’s armed forces, assiduously documented by Colombian and U.S. officials monitoring the region’s trafficking dynamics, media outlets have described Venezuela’s descent into a “cocaine superhighway.” In the past, Venezuela has been the most common point of embarkation for “narco flights” carrying cocaine out of South America and mostly to European markets, both because of state complicity in trafficking as well as maritime trade with the Caribbean nations that maintain strong ties to Europe.
Beyond a permissive operating environment for lucrative drug trafficking and cross-border attacks, Colombian guerrillas forged strategic ties with the Chávez government, benefitting from illicit arms trading for Venezuela’s campaign to destabilize Colombia—its regional rival. Stymieing Colombia’s landmark peace deal signed in 2016, which brought an end to almost 60 years of conflict and endeavored to integrate and demobilize former FARC guerrillas, has become a key strategic goal of the Maduro regime. Top Colombian officials in charge of the agreement’s implementation have identified the Maduro regime and its continued support for guerrilla groups as their biggest obstacle to success.
Documents detail how guerrilla groups have become part of the criminal fabric of the Maduro regime and its asymmetric toolkit. Support for the rebels encompasses both material and financial support. The Venezuelan state may have coordinated weapons purchases with guerrilla groups and trained rebels to use Igla-S man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADs) as well as other weapons purchased from Russia. Moreover, in several instances, the guerrilla’s cross-border kidnappings have delivered military defectors and regime critics to Venezuela’s feared intelligence service for questioning.
The Maduro regime’s instrumental use of these groups has always been a dangerous game, fraught with uncertainty and ever-shifting allegiances. Often, the Venezuelan government has played arbiter in disputes between factions, if not always fairly. The Maduro regime has displayed a preference for certain groups and factions over others. In the past, serious conflict has often been mitigated by an understanding that outbreaks of violence between groups are bad for business; however, with lucrative trafficking networks at stake, tacit understandings rupture periodically. In the current episode of conflict, various factions of the FARC appear to be vying for trafficking routes, and there is speculation that some factions refused to pay the customary tribute exacted by the Venezuelan army for passage through its territory.
The presence of guerrilla groups has deepened the state of lawlessness and accelerated the withering of Venezuela’s institutions under Maduro, whose authority has dissolved in the hinterlands beyond Caracas. Indeed, even in the seat of national power—Caracas—Maduro’s authority has disintegrated as he has encountered difficulties reestablishing control over territory held by criminal groups. For instance, in recent months, the El Coqui gang in the neighborhood of La Vega has made abundantly clear to Maduro that the neighborhood is off limits while building a micro-state in the heart of the country’s power center. Police incursions into La Vega have resulted in bloody standoffs and hours-long shootouts.
While some guerrilla groups are ruthless in controlling territory through a monopoly on violence, others provide rudimentary forms of governance through the provision of socioeconomic goods. In Apure state, Human Rights Watch has documented how guerrilla groups control the daily lives of citizens, imposing rules and monitoring compliance on both the Venezuelan and Colombian sides of the border. Human Rights Watch has also offered evidence to suggest kidnapping, forced labor, child recruitment, sexual violence, and murder are all exercised as part of the guerrilla’s model of governance and territorial control. Economic precarity on both sides of the border has afforded guerrilla groups the chance to recruit—sometimes forcibly—Venezuelan and Colombian children into their ranks.
The power vacuum created by Venezuela’s state breakdown may have crossed a point of major concern. The death of Jesús Santrich, a leader of the dissident FARC rebels in Venezuela whom Nicolás Maduro once welcomed by name after he rejected the 2016 Colombian peace accord and took up arms again, shows that the country’s ungoverned territories can no longer guarantee the protection of the region’s most hardened criminals—and not because the Venezuelan state is working actively to root out guerrilla groups, but because the shifting criminal dynamics in Venezuela’s border region have contributed to a dangerous level of pandemonium where nobody is secure.
As seen in the recent cross-border attacks, this insecurity is now enveloping more of Colombia and is intertwined with the unresolved conflict in that country. Further, Venezuela’s selling point as a sanctuary for outlaws could become increasingly tenuous as guerrilla groups seek to alter the reality on the ground to gain greater operational security. Santrich’s death will likely destabilize the criminal dynamics on the Venezuela-Colombia border and pour fuel on an already raging conflict. Colombia’s recent announcement that it created an elite commando unit intended to combat criminal organizations operating in borderland areas makes it impossible to rule out a covert Colombian role in Santrich’s death. Once the Colombian government identifies the perpetrators of the attack on President Duque, cross-border operations are possible in order to bring those responsible to justice.
The Venezuelan state has largely abandoned all attempts to govern the country’s vast territory. Authority abhors a vacuum, and irregular armed groups and Colombian guerrillas have long filled the void—the worst possible combination for regional stability.
The United States has responded by deploying military advisers and dispensing security assistance to Colombia. The first of its kind in the region, the U.S. Army’s 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade helps to train and advise Colombian partners and monitor narcotics trafficking patterns in the region. As a sign of the importance accorded to this mission, Admiral Craig Faller, the head of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) recently visited Puerto Carreño near the Venezuelan border. Simultaneously, the presence of U.S. troops sends a strong deterrent message to Maduro about the criminal nature of his regime and the sources of its survival. To that end, SOUTHCOM has stepped up interdiction efforts in the Caribbean, too.
There is significant danger for Colombia, given that the guerrilla groups in question are intertwined with the remaining violence in that country even after signing the peace deal. Escalation to the point of eventual conflict between Colombia and Venezuela remains possible—perhaps even more so in the wake of last week’s attack on President Duque’s helicopter and the earlier car bomb attack at a military base. Further, more than just a bloody nose, the Venezuelan Army has been dealt a harsh lesson in defeat. By routing Venezuelan forces with insurgent tactics, the FARC could be further emboldened in the borderlands. Venezuelan soldiers have been set up for failure because the military leadership has been forced to steer its efforts toward suppressing the political opposition and the imperative of survival for the Maduro regime. The true threats to national and regional security presented by guerrilla groups have been ignored and even coopted by the Maduro regime.
This strategic defeat offers yet another reason for Venezuelans to question the needless sacrifices and poor tactical choices of their armed forces and its leadership. It also offers an opportunity to reflect on the extent of the Maduro regime’s loss of territorial control and its monopoly on violence. Now, members of the Venezuelan Army are left to face their neighbors and communities against whom grave human rights abuses have been committed.
In the long run, the territorial fragmentation of Venezuela poses a serious threat to any successful political transition to democracy (and also the success of Colombia’s 2016 peace deal). While the unimaginable humanitarian plight of the Venezuelan people and the moribund state of the economy have rightly garnered plenty of international attention, any successful political transition will need to reinstitutionalize and retrain the Venezuelan Army and prioritize governance in rural areas such as Apure. Without a clear plan for defense and security, and an inability to successfully extirpate guerrilla groups, the Venezuelan opposition has little chance of success in a day-after scenario.
Ryan C. Berg is senior fellow in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS). Alexandra Winkler is senior associate (non-resident) in the Americas Program at CSIS. Verónica Hoyer is a former intern with the Americas Program at CSIS.
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