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Apure's Proxy War

EX-FARC MAFIA / 13 OCT 2021 BY VENEZUELA INVESTIGATIVE UNIT EN

The fighting that erupted in the Venezuelan state of Apure in early 2021 was on the surface a classic guerrilla conflict. The national military was given a mission to rid the region of “terrorists” and was deployed against a small band of insurgents, who claimed to be fighting for their leftist ideals. But behind this façade was a shadowy array of both state and underworld actors all seeking access to their own slice of wealth and power.

When the Venezuelan government announced military operations near the Colombian border in Apure, it declared its target was “drug trafficking terrorists,” irregular armed groups,” “organized crime groups,”  and “bloodthirsty criminals.” It soon became clear they were talking about one group: the 10th Front dissidents of the now demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).

The news caused confusion. Before its demobilization in 2017, the FARC had cooperated closely with the Venezuelan government, and the 10th Front had not only smoothly taken over former FARC territory in Apure, they had also maintained the rebels’ connections and alliances with both local communities and the local military and political structures. In Apure, people considered them to be allies of the state, and yet the state was now attacking them.

The exact motivations of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in ordering the assault against the 10th Front are not known. However, what is clear is that, since the demobilization of the FARC, Apure had become a tinder box of competing interests, where different factions of the military and the ruling Chavista political movement were locking horns, and a guerrilla cold war was beginning to run hot.

At Home in Venezuela: Rise of the Second Marquetalia

The story of the current conflict in Apure did not start with ideology or revolution, but with egos, greed and frustrated ambition unleashed by the founding of the ex-FARC group, the Second Marquetalia, in 2019.

The group’s two principal founders, Luciano Marín Arango, alias "Iván Márquez," and Seuxis Pausias Hernández Solarte, alias “Jesús Santrich,” were among the FARC’s most well-known and revered commanders prior to the insurgents’ demobilization in 2017.

Márquez was seen as the second most senior member of the FARC governing body, the Secretariat (Secretariado). Santrich was a member of the Central General Staff (Estado Mayor Central) – the broader leadership group from which Secretariat members were elected. Both were primarily political figures, dedicated to building support, alliances and networks at home and abroad.

When talks with the Colombian government formally began in 2012, the FARC dispatched both men to Havana, Cuba, as part of the delegation tasked with making peace. Márquez was the chief negotiator. After the final agreement was signed, both were set to become congressmen for the new FARC political party. 

However, in April 2018, Santrich was arrested and accused of attempting to broker a ten-ton cocaine deal during a controversial DEA sting operation. After Santrich was released, re-arrested, then re-released, both he and Márquez disappeared.

They resurfaced in a video released in August 2019. Flanked by some of the FARC’s most notorious military commanders, they announced their return to the armed struggle under the banner of the Second Marquetalia – named for the mythic birthplace of the original FARC. While Márquez claimed to be in Colombia, the Colombian military said it was likely the video was shot in Venezuela.

“This is the continuation of the guerrilla struggle in response to the state’s betrayal of the Havana Peace Accords,” Márquez declared.

Initially, Márquez and Santrich hoped to link up with existing FARC dissidents led by then Miguel Botache Santillana, alias “Gentil Duarte,” who had been working to unify the numerous ex-FARC factions around the country under his command.

SEE ALSO: Second Marquetalia Profile

Duarte, too, had been part of the first peace delegation sent to Cuba. But then in 2016, the guerrilla leadership dispatched him to the department of Guaviare to restore order after a FARC front broke from the peace process and went rogue. Duarte instead disappeared with $1.35 million of guerrilla cash and joined the dissidents, becoming one of their most senior and visible leaders.

In an account confirmed by Colombian intelligence, Duarte’s third-in-command, alias “Jonnier,” described the summit to the Colombian conflict monitoring group Fundacion Paz y Reconciliacion. According to the guerrilla leader, Márquez expected to simply take the reins from Duarte.

“When Márquez arrived, he was very arrogant, he wanted to carry on as the commander in charge of the FARC that had continued in resistance,” Jonnier said. “We told him that we had not called them here to hand over what we had managed to rescue from the FARC peace process.”

Márquez and Santrich’s efforts to convince other ex-FARC factions around Colombia to join them were similarly frustrated, and the Second Marquetalia began to look like a guerrilla army of many commanders but few soldiers.

The Second Marquetlia based operations not in Colombia, but in Venezuela, where both Márquez and Santrich had a long history. For years they had carried out political work in the country, with Márquez working out of an office in Caracas, according to seized FARC communications. They built up connections that ran to the top of Chavismo, and Márquez met with President Hugo Chávez in 2007.

Even before the official announcement of their return to arms, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro had publicly stated Márquez and Santrich were welcome in the country after they had gone underground, calling them “men of peace.”

The Second Marquetalia set up in Apure, which had acted as a hub of FARC operations in Venezuela for three decades. There – say local residents, community leaders, political leaders, human rights workers, and former officials, who all spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity for security reasons – the rebels set up a new base of operations near the town of Elorza in the municipality of Romulo Gallegos.

To finance their operations, they turned to drug trafficking, dispatching cocaine-laden aircraft from clandestine airstrips, the sources report. At no point, did the Venezuelan authorities intervene.

The new rebel group also would have had to smooth the way with the biggest rebel group operating in Apure, and across the border in the Colombian department of Arauca – the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN). Several sources report that the Second Marquetalia leaders staged summits with ELN leaders even before announcing the formation of the movement.

Once entrenched in Apure, and with their drug business up and running, the Second Marquetalia sought once again to expand and recruit other ex-FARC factions. While they could not compete with Duarte in military strength and territorial presence, they did have political connections and money.

However, there was one problem: the Second Marquetalia were not the only guerrillas in Apure laying claim to the FARC name. There was also the 10th Front, a FARC dissident group that was allied with Gentil Duarte’s network.

The 10th Front: Heirs to the FARC in Apure

While Márquez and Santrich were attempting to rebuild the FARC from the top down, the 10th Front had been seeking to rebuild in Apure from the bottom up. And while the Second Marquetalia had inherited the FARC’s top-level political connections in Venezuela, the 10th Front had inherited its local networks on the ground.

The dissident front was led by Jorge Eliécer Jiménez Martínez, alias “Jerónimo” or “Arturo.” According to human rights workers who worked with ex-combatants across the border in Arauca during the demobilization process, Arturo was released from prison as part of the amnesty program in the peace process.

However, Arturo had fallen out with the previous FARC 10th Front commander, and when he arrived in the region his name was not on the lists of demobilizing fighters.

“[The commander] said he was not going to recognize him because he was a deserter and an ally of paramilitary groups,” said one of the sources, who asked not to be identified for security reasons. “So [Arturo] went to work, gathering people together to set up a new version of the 10th Front.”

From the start, Arturo received support from Duarte’s dissidents, according to numerous sources in the region that spoke to InSight Crime, as well as investigations by conflict monitoring groups and local media. While largely autonomous in running their affairs locally, the group’s control of border crossings granted Duarte an important outlet for cocaine shipments.

Arturo’s new dissident 10th Front moved quickly to consolidate control over former FARC territories in Apure and Arauca. They sought to take over criminal economies on both sides of the frontier.

For local residents in Apure, long accustomed to living side by side with the guerrillas, there was little to distinguish one moment from the next.

“There has been coexistence [with the guerrillas] for years. They have been here for nearly 20 years, since Chávez became president,” said a local rancher, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. “Both sides live here and they share together.”

As they built up their forces, the guerrillas capitalized on these community ties to recruit Venezuelans into their ranks, according to both Colombian military intelligence published by Reuters, and local sources in Apure.

“They offer money and food to people to draw them in, very few people are forced to join.” a priest in a town in ex-FARC territory, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals, told InSight Crime.

The 10th Front also maintained the FARC’s historic alliance with the local military, with both sides making no effort to hide the collusion, multiple sources in guerrilla-controlled territories in Apure told InSight Crime.

“The guerrillas live side by side with elements of the armed forces as if they were neighbors,” a local journalist, who asked to remain anonymous out of security concerns, told InSight Crime. Another local journalist described to InSight Crime how on a visit to the border town of La Victoria, he was asked to commentate on a soccer tournament featuring teams from both the 10th Front and the military.

There is evidence the relationship went much further than peaceful coexistence and that the military and the 10th Front also cooperated in criminal economies. Local residents, community leaders, political leaders and a local contraband smuggler all described to InSight Crime how the guerrillas and the military were dividing up the profits from cross-border smuggling.

However, while the 10th Front’s smooth takeover of the FARC’s territories and local connections gave a sense of stability on the ground, the arrival of the Second Marquetalia had complicated the panorama and trouble was looming.

The Wars Within the War

By the time the Second Marquetalia leadership arrived in Apure, Duarte – and by extension the 10th Front – had already rejected their overtures. But that did not stop them from headhunting key 10th Front actors who had the local knowledge they needed to help establish themselves in the region.

One of their first targets was Robert Abril, alias “Porrón,” a demobilized former FARC finance chief, who the 10th Front had pressured into joining their ranks by kidnapping his father, according to one of the human rights workers in Arauca.

“They called [Porrón] in to meet with Santrich and Marquez, who said, ‘Come, you are one of us, you can help us, there is money, help us organize all of this,’” he said. “So he told the 10th Front he would not continue with them, that he was going with Marquetalia.”

The 10th Front responded to the betrayal by launching an operation to kill Porrón in La Victoria. Although Porrón escaped the raid, six people were left dead. The attack also killed the possibility of the two sides coexisting in Apure, much less reconciling. And it ramped up wider tensions between the Second Marquetalia and Gentil Duarte.

The 10th Front’s relationship with the ELN was also beginning to fray, according to the human rights workers. In 2020, one report in the Venezuela media even claimed there had been armed clashes after the ex-FARC moved into ELN territory.

However, when the attack finally came, it was neither the Second Marquetalia nor the ELN leading the assault, but the Venezuelan military.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela Sends Mixed Messages to Colombian Insurgents

The first attack came in September 2020, when the Venezuelan army raided 10th Front camps. However, that was just a prelude to what was to come. In late January 2021, the military began the first of a series of operations that marked an unprecedented assault against guerrillas in Venezuela, which would continue until May.

The 10th Front responded with a counterattack, targeting military positions and units. They also made it clear who they blamed for the violence – the Second Marquetalia.

In an audio recording that circulated in April, apparently recorded by a 10th Front commander, the speaker called for dialogue with the Venezuelan military and the Maduro government while launching a tirade against the “traitors to the revolution,” the “sellouts” who “returned to arms without an army” and whose “only interest is their personal enrichment.”

He also fired a warning to the Venezuelans: “The traitors are with you on the inside, they walk with you, eat with you, you embrace them and greet them with the mask of a false revolutionary,” he said.

Duarte’s dissidents quickly declared their support for the 10th Front and joined in the verbal attack on the Second Marquetalia in a video statement made by Jonnier.

“[The Second Marquetalia] want to proclaim themselves the true revolutionaries, when their actions towards those of us who remained in armed resistance have been nothing but slander, deception, and betrayal,” he said.

“[T]hese men finance a few officials in the Venezuelan government so that they do their dirty work, to facilitate their interests and to satisfy their personal appetites in a way that is disloyal and traitorous.”

The guerrillas were not the only ones to come to this conclusion. InSight Crime spoke to numerous sources, including human rights workers in Arauca and Apure, community and political leaders and residents in Apure, members of the political opposition, national and local journalists, investigators, and conflict analysts in Venezuela and Colombia, and former Venezuelan military members. All of them agreed: the Venezuelan military attacked the 10th Front at least in part to benefit the Second Marquetalia.

“There is only one person with the high-level contacts in Venezuela who can pick up a telephone and call a general to ask him to bomb his enemies,” said the human rights worker. “Thinking about who would have these contacts, there is only Iván Márquez.”

“This is a struggle between two factions of the old FARC to control a territory that is very favorable for illegal operations such as drug trafficking,” a retired Venezuelan military general told InSight Crime. “The Venezuelan armed forces are supporting those who are closest to President Maduro, and this is why they are in the game, not to drive out an enemy that is illegally in Venezuelan territory but to favor a sector of the FARC.”

Other media reports suggested the ELN may also have lobbied for the attack after the 10th Front began to encroach on their territory and the criminal economies they control, although InSight Crime could not confirm that with sources in the region.

However, it is unlikely Maduro would deploy the full force of the Venezuelan military just to settle guerrilla disputes. Sources say there were likely also broader strategic calculations in play.

Another possible motivation was to play to an international audience that had been increasingly critical of the Maduro regime’s evident support for guerrilla groups, according to Iván Simonovis, a former police chief, political prisoner, and more recently special commissioner for security and intelligence in the Venezuelan opposition’s self-declared “interim government.”

“I believe the regime said, ‘We are going to wash our hands of this, we are going to neutralize this guerrilla group and then it will seem like we are combatting the guerrillas while we are removing this problem for Mr. Márquez and Mr. Santrich,’” he told InSight Crime.

Several other sources, including people with inside knowledge of the inner politics and criminal activities of the Maduro regime, say the conflict was likely also a result of factional tensions within Chavismo.

“There is an internal division within the regime. Some support the Second Marquetalia, while there is another sector that maintains connections and does business with Gentil Duarte,” a former prominent member of the Venezuelan Communist Party (Partido Comunista de Venezuela – PCV), which was part of the Chavista coalition until 2020, told InSight Crime.

The 10th Front’s fate was then sealed, the same source suggested, because they refused to pay more to their allies in the Venezuelan military.

“Some generals from a sector of the armed forces demanded these dissidents increase the money they pay as a sort of 'quota' for being in the territory,” he said.

Other reports also point to factions of the military growing frustrated with the 10th Front over the division of extortion rights, claiming the rebels were not sticking to the agreed territories.

While these reports and theories remain unconfirmed, together they point to a broader truth that was becoming increasingly evident for those on the ground in Apure: While the FARC had always been willing to play by the government’s rules along the border, the 10th Front dissidents were getting beyond its control.

“They were getting stronger, gaining money and gaining power, and the government cannot allow anyone to have absolute power except them,” a contraband smuggler in Apure with experience navigating the region’s complex criminal dynamics told InSight Crime.

Whatever the reasons, Maduro was committed, and willing to risk his own reputation and the lives of Venezuelan soldiers to hunt down the 10th Front guerrillas and drive them from the country.

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