By Bram Ebus
In the jungle along the Colombian-Venezuelan frontier, guerrillas, criminals and shadowy state elements jostle for illicit profits. Venezuela’s campaign against one armed group has raised tensions. Bogotá and Caracas should temper their war of words and work to forestall an inadvertent bilateral escalation.
In the early hours of 21 March, the screech of combat aircraft overhead sounded the alarm that Venezuela has become a theatre in Colombia’s decades-long internal conflict. That morning, the Venezuelan military launched its first large-scale operation against a dissident faction of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) active inside Apure, a Venezuelan state hugging the Colombian frontier from the Andes in the west, along the Meta River, to the Orinoco River in the east. This action kickstarted a series of skirmishes that so far have reportedly claimed the lives of at least eight Venezuelan troops – with an unspecified number of additional losses reported last weekend – and nine alleged Colombian guerrillas. Relations between the two countries, already poor, have declined a notch further as leaders in Bogotá and Caracas swap insults and blame each other for the civilians displaced by the fighting. Meanwhile, both are dispatching reinforcements to border posts. The events in Apure have at times dominated headlines in both countries, drawing attention to what is happening more quietly along much of the border: Colombian guerrillas are penetrating deeper into Venezuelan territory.
Bouts of violence have long been the norm along the 2,200km Colombia-Venezuela border. The last few years, however, have marked a perilous escalation, dragging in more rebel and military forces, as well as an array of traffickers and criminals. On one side of the border, Venezuela is suffering the worst economic and humanitarian crisis in its history. On the other, Colombia is saddled with the remnants of over 50 years of conflict, which the government’s 2016 peace accord with the FARC was meant to end. Although the FARC disarmed under the deal, some former members now fight as part of dissident groups formed in its wake.
In March 2020, Bogotá and Caracas closed their border, citing the COVID-19 pandemic. But rather than stopping traffic, the closure encouraged the smuggling of goods and people over illegal crossings under predatory armed groups’ control. Refugees and contraband continue to pour across the border from Venezuela to Colombia; drugs and men with guns flow the other way. Colombian rebel groups deny having fighters in Venezuela, or downplay their numbers, as, until recently, did President Nicolás Maduro’s government in Caracas. But the guerrillas are clearly there, and their ranks are swelling.
To better understand the evolving dynamics among communities, armed groups and state authorities along this fraught border, Crisis Group visited its southern reaches, where Amazonas state is on the Venezuelan side. In addition, trusted sources have supplied Crisis Group with photos, videos and audio recordings that confirm activities by both FARC dissidents and uniformed fighters from the National Liberation Army (ELN), another Colombian guerrilla force, in Amazonas and elsewhere in Venezuela.
Where the Meta and Orinoco Meet
Early in the morning, locals in Puerto Carreño, a town in Colombia’s Vichada state where the Meta meets the Orinoco, hawk buckets of freshly caught fish. Toward the Orinoco’s eastern bank, the sun rises over the dense treeline of the Venezuelan Amazon rainforest. An estimated 4,300 Venezuelan migrants and refugees have settled in the district, where the total population is 20,000. Some wander through town rummaging for rubbish that can be recycled; others swarm around trucks as they tilt their containers in a nearby dump. The Orinoco is officially closed for crossings. Locals who make the trip are commonly subject to threats and extortion, often by one of the armed groups that have made the area their home.
These groups include FARC dissidents, the ELN, the local crime ring Los Puntilleros del Vichada and the paramilitary successor group Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia. These outfits make and break alliances with one another, albeit with little bloodshed, as they jostle for control over drug smuggling and other illegal commerce.
Within the Puerto Carreño municipality, there is a Colombian army battalion, a national police unit and a naval brigade patrolling the rivers. But clashes between Bogotá’s military and armed groups are infrequent. Some sources, including local officials, allege that corrupt elements in the military are collaborating with non-state actors, but most say the two sides have no more than a tacit understanding aimed at preventing violence. “Here, they [non-state armed groups] learned to behave well with public forces”, an official explained, arguing that more brazen violence results in a larger troop presence – which is bad for business.
Silence is critical for the lucrative trafficking over the many smaller rivers that wind through Vichada toward the Orinoco and the Venezuelan frontier. Both Família do Norte and Comando Vermelho, Brazilian crime groups, have stakes in south-eastern Venezuela and Colombian border areas. A local law enforcement investigator claims that Vichada is one of the most important corridors for trade in cocaine and coca paste. Shipments from coca-growing states such as Guaviare, Meta, Caquetá and Cauca are funneled through Vichada toward Venezuela.
Turbulent Relations with the Locals
Venezuelan migrants on the Colombian side of the Orinoco say the guerrillas’ presence in their home country, which dates back decades, began to grow in 2016, at the moment Colombia’s peace accord came into effect and ex-FARC fighters eyed the easy money to be made from illegal gold mining across the border. Now both FARC dissidents and ELN fighters rove freely across the Venezuelan Amazon. Some of the rebels in Amazonas state live in fixed locations where they grow their own food, raise their own cattle and store the meat in refrigerators they have installed. Others move about, making only small, transient camps.
In material received by Crisis Group, the turbulence of the guerrillas’ relations with locals stands out. In one video, a FARC dissident fighter brandishing a machine gun addresses a tumultuous crowd of Indigenous people. They should not fear the guerrillas, he claims, who are in Venezuela to defend it from greater dangers he alleges lurk in Colombia. “The reason for our presence is that if any Yankee or Colombian soldier steps on the border of [South American independence hero Simón] Bolívar’s homeland, we will be willing to give our lives”, he says. Indigenous men look on in anger and disbelief.
Indigenous communities living deep in Venezuela’s Amazon rainforest are largely cut off from the outside world. Malnutrition and diseases that would be curable elsewhere pose existential threats to some of these peoples. NGOs and aid agencies that try to reach these areas are restricted in their movements by military authorities and guerrilla groups. Internet and telephone connections are intermittent or dead, and power blackouts are frequent. On top of this, the country is experiencing a severe fuel shortage – the result of a collapsing oil industry and U.S. sanctions – and the Venezuelan fuel that does arrive in Amazonas ends up in the hands of local state bodies that sell it to gold miners at inflated prices. Other fuel is trafficked across the border from Colombia, under guerrilla oversight, and ends up in the same gold mines. There is hardly any for anyone else.
In these circumstances, one might think that the Colombian guerrillas would try to win over the local population by offering public services, acting as a quasi-government in a region that otherwise has none. Both the FARC and ELN have done so in Colombia, and both seem to want to use the economic crisis in Venezuela to their advantage. “Socialism can no longer hand things out”, a FARC dissident commander tells members of an Indigenous community in Amazonas state, reflecting on the decline in state welfare spending since the oil boom heyday of late President Hugo Chávez. Dissident and ELN representatives claim in various recordings that they support communities and provide security.
Nevertheless, Crisis Group’s research shows such efforts to provide services in southern Venezuela are rarely undertaken in a way that wins much affection among the locals – though, as noted below, the ELN units seem to try harder than the FARC dissidents. In some villages, the guerrillas pay schoolteachers, but they also seek to shape the educational program. Sometimes, they pay for transporting the sick to clinics, but on other occasions, the rebels will charge fees to let boats or vehicles through their checkpoints. Most things come at a price.
At the same time, the guerrillas are not above trying to buy influence. Small delegations of dissidents have been visiting hamlets throughout Amazonas, promising cars, motorbikes and “suitcases of money” to Indigenous leaders who will sanction their presence. Locals observe that members of one Indigenous advocacy group are driving around in new vehicles. “Some communities gave in, because they bought them”, says one Indigenous leader from Amazonas. “They buy the conscience of people”. The source complains that guerrilla leaders sometimes invite village girls to get them drunk in the fighters’ camps. Local collaborators, or milicianos, receive about $8 per day for providing information and doing chores.
Many say these attempts to co-opt and take advantage of local people have turned communities against one another, due to festering disputes over the guerrillas’ activities. Some community leaders are angry about these social ills, as well as the cultural and environmental damage these outfits cause with their presence and illegal gold mining. Some leaders capitulate to the material blandishments, while others do not. “We won’t let them convince us”, one Indigenous leader said. “We already have the army and the National Guard. We don’t want more strangers in our community”.
Meanwhile, the guerrillas increasingly wear their own uniforms, display guns, appear in public alongside government officials and otherwise associate themselves with state authorities. In one video, a man presenting himself as a FARC member, but wearing a cap and shirt of the ruling Socialist Party of Venezuela, speaks to an Indigenous crowd. In another audio recording, a dissident commander says: “We are the operational commanders in the area, but we have chiefs, and we need to consult with the government, beginning with the state government, municipal government, Indigenous chiefs in Amazonas and with the ruling party”.
Several Indigenous sources say ELN guerillas are more respectful of locals than the FARC dissidents and armed forces. They reportedly extort less money than the dissidents, and block violent mining gangs from neighbouring Bolívar state, called sindicatos, from entering Amazonas. There are cases where an Indigenous group has demanded that guerrillas stay out of its territory: the ELN has respected the demand and the dissidents have not. The ELN has reportedly also brought some law and order, albeit a rough and summary approach – up to and including executions – to both the mines and the state capital, Puerto Ayacucho. Despite the brutality, some locals nevertheless approve; they credit the ELN’s “social cleansing”, as the practice is commonly known, with bringing the town’s crime rate down sharply. “Puerto Ayacucho was suffering from a terrible crime wave”, a former Venezuelan intelligence agent explains. “When the cleansing started, the people had even asked them to act”.
Some Indigenous communities have revolted against the guerrillas. In 2020, according to local sources, hundreds of people, some of them carrying bows and arrows, confronted a group of FARC dissidents. They told a commander: “How can you come here to impose your norms, while you can’t even fix your own country?” Other Indigenous people have threatened to remove mining equipment and block access to rivers.
Collaboration and Conflict
There is evidence of some collaboration between Colombian guerrillas and Venezuelan authorities. Colombian media sympathetic to the government regularly mention intelligence reports of alleged guerrilla activities on Venezuelan soil and tend to assert that the upper echelons of the Venezuelan state are lending the armed outfits shelter, although these accounts are shaped by Bogotá’s hostility to Caracas. A recording viewed by Crisis Group shows a commander arguing to locals that Venezuela needs “friends”, and that FARC dissidents and the ELN are there to help the Maduro government. A recent Crisis Group report on the border found that Venezuelan authorities have indeed relied on the ELN to help reinforce their control over sensitive border areas in the last two years, suggesting that there may be high-level government backing for that group.
Nevertheless, relations between armed groups and the Venezuelan state are far from straightforward. Clashes between Colombian guerrillas and Venezuelan forces are not uncommon. In 2018, the ELN killed three troops and suffered unknown losses in a shootout after the Venezuelan National Guard arrested a guerrilla commander named Luis Felipe Ortega Bernal, also known as Garganta. The highest death toll in such clashes was reported in September 2020 in Apure, when at least fifteen rebels and four soldiers were killed in a firefight between FARC dissidents and the Venezuelan army. The series of Apure skirmishes that began in March has displaced an estimated 6,000 people, who crossed the border to Colombia.
Yet even if things sometimes boil over, the Maduro government’s wrath with guerrilla groups does not seem to last long. According to local observers, after a jail stint in Caracas, Garganta was released in December 2020 and is again operating close to the border.
What explains the seemingly sudden switches from collaboration with the Venezuelan state to head-on confrontation and back again? Along the Orinoco, as at other parts of the border, links among armed groups, state officials and residents are brittle relationships rooted in self-interest. The ELN and FARC dissidents run similar illicit businesses, such as drug trafficking and illegal gold mining, and both work alongside local Venezuelan authorities and security forces, but each guerrilla faction manages its trafficking routes and contraband shipments separately. Alliances appear to depend more on profit than ideology or geopolitical position. Until recently, as Crisis Group has reported, groups that emerged from the former right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia, particularly the Rastrojos, were colluding with Venezuelan security officers – nominal adherents of chavismo, the Maduro government’s left-populist creed – in the border state of Táchira.
That said, the government in Caracas does intervene in the border region when it feels its strategic interests are at stake – for example, when local security forces have formed bonds with armed groups that for whatever reason it distrusts. Moreover, disputes over money can also shatter alliances. Misunderstandings, encroachments upon someone else’s territory or the appearance of new faces who try to make their mark by disrupting prior understandings or dynamics can easily tip cooperation into violent competition. The Venezuelan military offensive in Apure, for example, seems to be the result of rising tensions between the army and a FARC dissident faction, the 10th Front, over distribution of illicit revenues and territorial control. Reports from local sources, law enforcement officials and security experts suggest that the dissident outfit grew too ambitious, failed to make required payments to the military and became a thorn in the side of other non-state armed groups that Caracas prefers.
An Array of Armed Groups
Flare-ups of fighting also owe much to the sheer number of armed groups competing for riches. Colombian guerrillas have a long history in Venezuela, with the ELN’s presence dating back about 40 years. But the groups have grown fast in recent years. An ELN militant said the guerrillas were involved in mining in southern Venezuela’s Bolívar state as early as 2006. Now, the group operates across all the southern states, and according to several sources, it is the most influential guerrilla force in Amazonas.
As for the FARC dissident groups, these are now present in each of Amazonas state’s seven municipalities. The dominant FARC dissident faction in the state is called Acacio Medina, a group of around 280 former guerrillas and new recruits who continue to use FARC rhetoric to claim legitimacy for their exercise of territorial control in parts of various municipalities. Acacio Medina is represented by Jhon 40, its most senior commander, and Julián Chollo, who runs operations in the field. Its activities boil down to illegal gold mining, drug trafficking and extortion.
A second dissident faction, Segunda Marquetalia, has also begun moving emissaries into Amazonas state, although it remains more notorious in Colombia. The group, which is named after the area where the FARC were first formed after a military offensive in 1964, was unveiled two years ago by Iván Márquez, a former senior FARC commander and chief negotiator. In addition to trying to resurrect former FARC fronts throughout Colombia, Segunda Marquetalia has struck alliances with outfits with greater clout on the ground in Venezuela. Acacio Medina seems to be a partner to Segunda Marquetalia; it also plays this role for the 1st Front, one of the largest FARC dissident groupings, which is headed by alias Iván Mordisco, and is based predominantly in south-eastern Colombia. Acacio Medina reportedly provides logistics and resources for both rebel factions.
What draws all the factions together – what “unites them”, in a Colombian law enforcement officer’s words – is the booming illegal economy in Amazonas and their efforts to profit from it. The region is an important corridor for narco-trafficking into Brazil and via small planes to Central America, but gold is the biggest draw. The economic crisis in Venezuela has made gold (as well as coltan on a lesser scale) highly attractive because hyperinflation is whittling away the value of the national currency, the bolívar. Many families have migrated to mining districts. Teachers have followed them to the makeshift towns near the mines, both to give lessons for about 3.5g of gold per month and to search for gold themselves. The unregulated industry is ripe for exploitation by those with weapons and the will to use them. “The guerrillas take advantage of this critical situation that we are going through”, said an Indigenous leader from Amazonas.
Guerrillas run some of the mines themselves and collect a sort of tax in gold from others. The ELN in particular controls many of the growing number of illegal mines on Venezuelan territory. In the Yapacana national park, illegal gold mining sites occupy more than 2,200 hectares of land, causing huge damage to fragile ecosystems. Dredges wallow in the rivers, while gas-guzzling excavators rip into the earth, uprooting piles of trees and other vegetation. Locals report that corrupt state officials fly into Yapacana in helicopters to skim off some of the gold that the guerrillas gather.
A Venezuelan smuggler, who claims to be a former army officer, says that he offers gold from a mine in the Manapiare municipality, in eastern Amazonas, for sale in Puerto Carreño on the Colombian side of the border. He explains that the ELN takes a percentage of the gold extracted by owners of mining equipment but allows small-scale Indigenous miners to keep what they find. He and others sell small quantities in Puerto Carreño for below-market prices, but payment protocols are different for those seeking quantities weighing kilograms. “Then you need to transport your cash over to the mines to buy the gold”, he says. How does one get the gold to Colombia? “In pineapples”, he grins.
In Caracas and Bogotá, the two governments appear less interested in what various armed groups are doing along the border than they are in trading barbs to please their respective bases. Early in 2019, at a time of heightened political tensions in Caracas, Venezuela and Colombia severed diplomatic ties. Speaking to the UN General Assembly later that year, Colombia’s president, Iván Duque, declared that he had “reliable and conclusive evidence that corroborates the support the dictatorship gives to criminal groups and narco-terrorists that operate in Venezuela to attack Colombia”. Following the Apure offensive, the Duque government has insisted that Venezuelan authorities are only acting selectively against certain outfits in their quest to “control drug trafficking” in the area.
For their part, Venezuelan leaders have countered that their army is targeting guerrilla groups that are part of a Colombian-U.S. campaign to “create the conditions to justify imperialist interventionism”. At a press conference, President Maduro was forthright in making the accusation: “They have taken dirty and disgusting methods from the Colombian conflict into Venezuela!”
While there is little to suggest that the Colombian armed groups in Venezuela are either an imperialist conspiracy or a chavista proxy to attack Colombia, this invective is likely to continue so long as the two countries bristle with bilateral tensions. Meanwhile, the real perils – frictions in local communities, violence against local people and a deepening humanitarian crisis – in Amazonas, Apure and elsewhere along the border remain unaddressed. Not only is that a problem for the communities that are being victimised, but it creates an atmosphere of insecurity where the erratic moves of fragmented rebel bands, or an ill-considered response by security forces, could draw the two states into a confrontation with each other, if not by design then by misjudgment or miscalculation. A clash between the two state militaries would serve neither country, much less the impoverished peoples living along their border.
Against this backdrop, calls for a communication channel between Bogotá and Caracas, potentially with multilateral support, have intensified in at least some quarters in recent weeks. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza has appealed directly for the UN secretary-general to use his “good offices” to help create such a channel with Colombia – a request that Bogotá has shown little interest in embracing – while a group of 60 NGOs from both countries have called for the appointment of a UN envoy to the border region. Suspicions between the neighbours could scupper these efforts. But without a means for the two governments to communicate even as they accuse each other of sponsoring armed proxies, any military build-up close to the border, outbreak of violence or guerrilla offensive could be misinterpreted as a plot hatched by the neighbour. Incommunicado deadlock is beginning to look more dangerous with each day. “It’s like the colour of an ant”, a local Indigenous person says when asked to reflect on the future – muddy, but dark and ominous.