Colombia and Venezuela have shared criminal dynamics for decades. Colombia has pushed cocaine through Venezuela on its journey to US and European markets, while Venezuela’s contraband fuel has gushed in the other direction. But today the criminal links are far more complex and increasingly symbiotic.
For decades, Colombia’s civil conflict spilled across into Venezuela, in the form of the desperate displaced fleeing violence, and Colombia’s warring factions seeking sanctuary. The human wave now flows in the other direction, mainly the economically displaced, hungry and sick Venezuelans looking for a better life, and prepared to work for a hot meal. Colombia’s civil conflict is winding down, with just one remaining warring faction still in the field, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN).
Venezuela provides the ultimate sanctuary for the ELN, and is the key base from which this rebel army plots its expansion. Sanctuary in Venezuela in no small part explains the ELN's unwillingness to compromise at the peace table.
The Colombia-Venezuela border is now one of the principal regions of criminality in Latin America, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in illicit revenues. It is home to a plethora of criminal economies, and feeds dozens of criminal groups.
Criminal Economies on the Border
The Colombian border region of Catatumbo, in the department of Norte de Santander, is the cheapest place in the world to produce cocaine. It is also now one of Colombia’s most prolific drug production and cultivation areas. The Andean mountain slopes here have some of the highest yields of cocaine per hectare, over seven kilograms per year, according to sources in Colombia’s anti-narcotic police. The main precursor chemical in the processing of cocaine is gasoline, and thanks to Venezuela’s fuel subsidies, this is dirt-cheap.
The other two definitive factors in the cocaine trade are proximity to a departure point -- in this case Venezuela itself -- and a cheap labor force to harvest, process and move cocaine shipments. Venezuelans increasingly provide that labor force, and are now prepared to assume far greater risks, for far less money, than their Colombian counterparts. There is now a wide and deep pool of criminal labor made up of desperate Venezuelans all along the frontier.
Colombian cocaine is pouring across the border into Venezuela, along three main axes: straight across from the production center in Catatumbo, into the Venezuelan states of Táchira and Zulia; across Colombia’s eastern plains into the state of Apure; and along the rivers that are the superhighways of the southern jungles into the state of Amazonas.
There are no clear numbers on the amount of cocaine transiting Venezuela, but two international intelligence sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they would not be surprised if it were in excess of 400 metric tons a year. At current prices of $4,000 a kilogram in Venezuela, that amount of drugs is worth $1.6 billion. The costs of transiting Venezuela are estimated at around $1,000, meaning that organized crime in this troubled Andean nation could be earning up to $400 million a year, just from the cocaine trade.
But cocaine is not the only illegal economy along the border.
Contraband gasoline, in large part controled by the ELN, is another key illicit activity in the region. A liter of 95 octane fuel costs 6 bolivares (approximately 1/100th of a US cent) in Venezuela. However, on the border, that amount sells for 170,000 bolivares (between $2 and $2.50).
Through photographic evidence, InSight Crime was able to confirm that hundreds of barrels are transported from the Venezuelan state of Apure to the neighboring Colombian state of Arauca with the complicity of members of Venezuela's National Guard, whose silence is purchased with hush money.
On the other hand, in the states of Amazonas and Bolívar in southern Venezuela, the ELN and dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) are engaged in mining gold and coltan, exporting it across the border into the Colombian states of Guainía and Vichada. This illicit enterprise also operates with the complicity of the Venezuelan military and involves the exploitation of local indigenous communities.
Subsidized food rations provided by the Venezuelan government have also become a form of subsistence utilized not only by crime groups, but also by average citizens. From Apure to Arauca, and from the Venezuelan state of Zulia to the Colombian states of La Guajira and Cesar, food is transported by clandestine routes. Beef is a common contraband item. Even though it is traded for a lower price than the official one in Colombia, it still generates significant profits because the cost in Venezuela is very low due to the large difference in the exchange rate and the lack of liquidity.
However, severe food shortages in Venezuela have reduced the contraband trade, and have even generated a reverse phenomenon; smugglers now traffic food into Venezuela due to the lack of items there.
The 2015 closure of the border by President Nicolás Maduro further strengthened the hold that the National Guard had on smuggling of all kinds. Stricter border controls cut out many of the small-scale smugglers, and passed the criminal monopoly to the Venezuelan military. The smaller, independent smuggling operations found their room for maneuver severely limited, while the larger-scale mafias with close ties to the National Guard flourished.
Political tolerance and state corruption in Venezuela, combined with the proliferation of illegal economies, have turned the Venezuelan border states into criminal sanctuaries. While Venezuelan organized crime structures, both state and non-state, are strengthening, it is Colombian groups that have traditionally exercised more influence in Venezuela’s border region. With the 2017 demobilization of the FARC there has been a great deal of change in the criminal landscape along the frontier.
Tolerance towards the Colombian Marxist rebel groups began under Chávez. Both the ELN and the FARC appear to have been tolerated, if not actively supported, by Venezuela under Chávez. He viewed these groups as ideological allies, although his attitude towards them was complex, and he ran hot and cold according to when it suited him. Chávez let both groups use Venezuelan territory but also moved against them when it was convenient. Under Maduro, Venezuela played an important role in the peace process with the FARC, but apart from that there has been no evidence of him supporting rebel presence in Venezuela. However, Maduro's fight for political survival has taken up all his attention, meaning that the Colombian groups on Venezuelan soil have faced little government pushback and have been allowed to flourish.
Perhaps the single biggest Colombian group operating on Venezuelan territory today is the ELN. For more than 30 years the ELN has seen much of its leadership and rear guard based in the Venezuelan states of Apure and Zulia, with more recent expansion into Táchira and Amazonas.
The ELN’s most powerful fighting division, the Eastern War Front (Frente de Guerra Oriental) is based in the border state of Apure and its Colombian counterpart, Arauca. According to Colombian military sources, up to 90 percent of the Eastern War Front’s fighting capacity and logistics are situated in Apure. InSight Crime had other confirmed sightings of ELN in the Apure municipalities of Páez, Rómulo Gallego and Muñoz, where the rebels run smuggling operations.
Sources on the Venezuelan side of the border have also charted ELN presence in Táchira, particularly the municipality of Fernández Feo, where local inhabitants have seen rebels walking around in civilian clothing but carrying rifles and small arms. Other sources have confirmed ELN presence in the states of Amazonas and Bolívar. In Zulia, only Colombian security forces mentioned ELN presence, although local residents in the municipality of Tibú, Norte de Santander, have spoken of ELN rebels crossing the border. There have even been reports of the ELN handing out propaganda material in schools, and government food parcels in Venezuela.
The Eastern War Front has historically been led by Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo Quinchía, alias “Pablito,” who was admitted in 2015 to the ELN’s highest body, the Central Command (Comando Central – COCE). He is currently the group’s military chief. He has used his sanctuary in Apure to strengthen the Eastern War Front and to launch attacks into Colombia. He is believed to have for some years been based out of a farm in El Nula, expropriated by President Chávez.
Pablito is opposed to peace talks with the Colombian government, believing that the “current conditions do not favor negotiations.” Pablito is expanding from his strongholds in Apure and Arauca into the Venezuelan states of Táchira and Amazonas, as well as into the state of Vichada on the Colombian side. He has been filling the vacuum left by the demobilized FARC rebels, seeking to not only absorb territory, but also the illegal economies that previously sustained the FARC.
While the group is expanding its finances and manpower, Pablito and other radical elements in the ELN see no benefit in negotiating peace with the Colombian government. Venezuela is a key factor in this ELN thinking.
While the FARC as a national actor with belligerent status is now gone, there are growing dissident factions spreading across the country, and Venezuela is becoming a rear-guard area and source of funding for some of these elements.
InSight Crime has information that Gener García Molina, alias "Jhon 40," one of the FARC's most notorious drug traffickers and a former head of the rebels’ 43rd Front in the central Colombian department of Meta, has established a base across the border in the Venezuelan state of Amazonas, with elements of the "Acacio Medina" Front. Jhon 40 was once in charge of the finances for the FARC’s Eastern Bloc, which operated in seven Colombian departments: Arauca, Casanare, Meta, Guaviare, Vaupés, Vichada and Guainía. It also had relationships with various Brazilian and Colombian drug-traffickers including Daniel “El Loco” Barrera, arrested in Venezuela in 2012. Jhon 40 therefore has extensive knowledge of the drug trade, international contacts and perhaps runs his own cocaine routes.
By relocating to Amazonas, Jhon 40 can receive drug shipments moving across Colombia’s Eastern plains, where the dissidents of the FARC's 1st Front have their stronghold, as well as along the rivers that spill into the tri-border jungles of Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil. Jhon 40 is also likely running, or at least “taxing,” the illegal mining operations in Amazonas, which include gold and coltan.
Former Amazonas Governor Liborio Guarulla denounced both FARC and ELN activity in the state of Amazonas, and was recently banned from politics by the Maduro government.
Jhon 40 is just one element of the growing FARC dissidents, likely headed by Miguel Botache Santanilla, alias "Gentil Duarte," who was expelled from the FARC towards the end of last year. He is the highest profile dissident leader. These dissidents are based in Guaviare, parts of Meta and Vichada, as well as the jungle department of Guainía. Venezuela is now an economic lifeline and sanctuary for many of the FARC dissidents. InSight Crime estimates that the total number of FARC fighters and militiamen still active could number up to 2,500, and Venezuela is an important strategic rear-guard area and finance center for them.
Another Colombian group pushing into Venezuela is the last remnant of the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Popular – EPL), called “Los Pelusos” by the government to avoid recognizing their guerrilla roots. The EPL officially demobilized in 1991, and this last faction in Norte de Santander has become a major player in the drug trade along the Venezuelan border. In the aftermath of the FARC demobilization in 2017, the EPL has engaged in aggressive expansion, declaring war on the ELN, and expanding out of its Catatumbo stronghold.
The group was weakened by the 2015 death of former leader Victor Ramón Navarro, alias “Megateo,” and the 2016 arrest of Guillermo León Aguirre, alias “David León.” Megateo ran drug trafficking for the ELN and FARC out of Catatumbo. But that vacuum was filled by an individual using the alias “Pácora,” whom authorities have not yet been able to identify. Pácora is leading the EPL expansion, including forays in Venezuela aimed at securing drug trafficking routes, strengthening military capabilities, recruiting ex-security force members and training snipers. There have been reports of EPL presence in the town of El Cubo, in the Venezuelan state of Zulia.
Since the 2006 demobilization of the paramilitary army of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC), a plethora of Colombian criminal groups have developed, initially called BACRIM (“bandas criminales”) by the government, but now designated as Organized Armed Groups (Grupos Armados Organizados – GAOs). Of these, two have significant presence in Venezuela: the Rastrojos and the Urabeños.
Indeed, there has been fighting between the two groups in Venezuelan territory as they seek control of smuggling corridors. However, the fragmentation of these groups has meant that they are increasingly being overshadowed along the Venezuelan border by the ELN, EPL and FARC dissidents, and in many cases are now working in tandem with these rebel groups, as well as with corrupt elements of the Venezuela security forces.
One of the principal irregular Venezuelan actors active along the frontier is the Bolivarian Forces of Liberation (Fuerzas Bolivarianas de Liberación - FBL), a strange phenomenon of a pro-government rebel group, modeled on the Colombian example. While initially the FBL worked closely with the ELN, the FBL now views the ELN as competition, since the ELN has such strong presence on the Venezuela side of the border. In recent years, the FBL have had much more contact with the FARC, and indeed the Citizens Ombudsman in Arauca described them as a “child of the FARC”.
Numbering between 1,000 and 4,000 members, the FBL engages in extortion and is active in local politics, allegedly receiving funding via communal councils (concejos comunales), a Chávez-era invention intended to allow a greater degree of direct participation by citizens in local governance. Sources in Venezuela have asserted the FBL have links to the drug trade, but we have found no concrete evidence of this. FBL presence has been registered in the states of Apure, Táchira, Barinas, Zulia, Mérida, Portuguesa, Cojedes and Carabobo, as well as Caracas. The FBL may have received material support and training from the FARC in the past. With reports of FARC dissident presence in Venezuela, some of this may be the result of working with FBL elements.
Colombia has been exporting organized crime to Venezuela for decades. What has changed now is that Venezuela has stepped up in criminal terms and is now an equal partner in many criminal economies.
The criminal economies along the border are by their very nature transnational. Therefore, any meaningful response to them must be transnational as well. Yet there is now very little bilateral collaboration between Venezuela and Colombia, allowing transnational organized crime free reign.
In an April 2018 interview, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos accused the Venezuelan government of using criminal gangs to “perpetuate itself in power.” President Maduro responded by describing Colombia as a “failed state.” Thus, there is little hope of cooperation against organized crime under the current administrations. Could the presidential elections in Venezuela and Colombia change this?
If the two favorites to win the upcoming elections are successful, the answer is a categorical no. Maduro is standing for re-election, and the playing field is very much tilted in his favor, even assuming he does not openly manipulate the voting. In Colombia, Iván Duque, supported by former President Álvaro Uribe, is ahead in the polls. When interviewed about the situation in Catatumbo, on the border with Venezuela, Duque clearly revealed his attitude to the neighboring nation:
“It needs security, justice and infrastructure, because there is a drug trafficking corridor, promoted by the Cartel of the Suns, which is headed by the Venezuelan government. I’m going to go to the UN Security Council to denounce what is happening on the frontier with Colombia, which is the consent of a government that has drug trafficking structures, taking advantage of a cocaine production corridor.”
So what can we expect for the rest of 2018? An increase in the flow of cocaine into Venezuela, as coca cultivation in Colombia continues to grow; a strengthening of all Colombia’s illegal groups on Venezuelan soil; and desperate Venezuelans being recruited by Colombia’s illegal groups and organized crime as they fight for survival with few legal alternatives. All of this adds up to a strengthening of criminal economies along the border, with transnational organized crime establishing even deeper roots in this troubled region.