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How Venezuela Became a Cemetery for the ex-FARC Mafia Leadership

COLOMBIA / 3 OCT 2022 BY VENEZUELA INVESTIGATIVE UNIT EN

On the night of May 4, 2022, an explosion cut through a guerrilla camp in the Venezuelan border state of Zulia.

The bomb, placed by unknown hands, claimed the life of one of Colombia’s most wanted men: Miguel Botache Santanilla, alias “Gentil Duarte,” commander of the biggest and most powerful network of dissidents from the demobilized guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). 

For decades, Venezuela had been a safe haven for leaders of the FARC, whose insurgent war to overthrow the Colombian government began in the 1960s. Senior commanders such as Duarte could live free from fear under the protection of the Venezuelan state led by President Hugo Chávez and later his successor Nicolás Maduro. But Duarte was the fourth senior ex-FARC commander assassinated in Venezuela in the space of a year.

SEE ALSO: The Fall of Gentil Duarte – What Does It Mean for Colombia?

The killings came as Venezuela became a battleground between two rival factions of FARC dissidents, both claiming to be the true heirs to the FARC, and both seeking to take over former FARC territories, alliances, and criminal economies in the country. The rivalry between them, the deaths of leaders on both sides, and the constant persecution by the Colombian security forces have left these two networks in disarray. 

For the FARC dissidents, known collectively as the ex-FARC Mafia, Venezuela is no longer a safe haven. Instead, it is proving to be a cemetery for their most important commanders and the final resting place for their dreams of rebuilding the FARC’s guerrilla army and rekindling their lost revolution.

Venezuela and the First Dissidents

By early 2016, it was clear the FARC, after years of negotiating with the Colombian government in Cuba, were reaching an agreement to bring an end to their insurgency after half a century of fighting.

On July 10, 2016, the commander of the FARC’s historic 1st Front, Néstor Gregorio Vera Fernández, alias “Iván Mordisco,” issued a statement saying that he and a group of fighters under his command were rejecting the peace talks and forming a splinter group that would continue the FARC’s armed revolution.

“We do not agree with the disarming of the FARC because we believe those arms belong to the poor of Colombia, that the only objective of the bourgeoisie is to disarm us, so they can subject the poor to their whims and force them into modern slavery,” read the communiqué, which ended with a call to arms to other FARC members disillusioned with the process to join them.

The FARC leadership dispatched Gentil Duarte, a senior guerrilla commander and negotiating team member, to bring the mutiny to order. For three months, they heard nothing, and Duarte was presumed dead. But then he reappeared at Mordisco’s side and declared he too was breaking away from the peace process. This alliance would shape the first phase of the post-FARC era began to take shape. The ex-FARC Mafia was born.

Although their main focus was on rebuilding FARC networks in Colombia, Duarte’s dissidents recognized from the beginning that Venezuela would be important: a refuge and perhaps more. For decades, Venezuela has been an ally for the Colombian guerrillas, as former President Hugo Chávez saw the FARC not only as ideological bedfellows but also as a strategic bulwark against a hostile Colombia and its military patron, the United States. 

The importance of Venezuela and the Chávez government to the FARC was spelled out in seized guerrilla communications. 

“The destiny of Latin America and the Caribbean lies in deepening the revolution of National Liberation that Venezuela is living today,” read one 2005 email between rebel commanders.

The relationship turned Venezuela into a refuge for FARC forces and leaders, a supplies and logistics hub, and then a source of criminal income. Duarte and Mordisco were keen to continue this tradition and get a foothold in the neighboring country.

The two rebel commanders struck an alliance with another FARC leader who wanted no part of the peace process: Géner García Molina, alias “John 40,” who had long focused more on the riches of the drug trade than the revolutionary struggle. Since the early 2000s, he had been based in the Venezuelan state of Amazonas.

John 40 not only offered financial muscle and drug trafficking expertise, he could act as a bridge to the Acacio Medina Front, a dissident faction based in the Venezuelan state of Amazonas that had shown little interest in trading peace for the lucrative gold mines and drug trafficking routes they controlled in Venezuela.

As discontent with the peace process and uncertainty about the future spread among the demobilizing FARC forces, new dissident networks began to form in the Venezuela border region, some with the aid of Duarte and his network.

Among them was the 10th Front, operating between the Colombian department of Arauca and neighboring Apure in Venezuela. According to the Colombian human rights ombudsman, Duarte and Mordisco sent arms and resources to the dissidents led by a mid-level commander who had been kicked out of the peace process, Jorge Eliécer Jiménez Martínez, alias “Arturo.” With their help, Arturo turned a small group of guerrillas that had run away from a demobilization camp into a binational armed group with an estimated 300-plus fighters.

“The formation of dissident factions of the old FARC in Arauca originated with the military strengthening they received from the self-appointed 1st Front,” the Ombudsman report states. 

They were later joined by a dissident group from the 33rd Front led by Javier Alonso Veloza García, alias “John Mechas.” The group had joined the post-FARC war for control of the cocaine production hub of Colombia’s northeast Catatumbo region and set up camps in the bordering Venezuelan trafficking hotspot of Zulia. After launching his dissident group in 2018, Mechas declared his fealty to Duarte’s network in 2020.

The alliance with the 10th and 33rd Fronts, and business arrangements with the Acacio Medina Front, meant Duarte’s burgeoning dissident network now had access to crossing points into three Venezuelan border states for the cocaine produced in their territories in Colombia. It also meant they had allies that controlled safe spaces where they could operate with virtual impunity thanks to the ties between the guerrillas and the Venezuelan state, which had been nurtured for decades by the FARC and was now being maintained by the dissidents.

“Nothing changed with the peace agreement. There is no peace here. The peace was for Colombia, while those people just emigrated to Venezuela,” said a resident of the ex-FARC controlled Pedro Camejo municipality of Apure, who asked not to be named out of fear of reprisals.

The Second Marquetalia and the Fight to Be the New FARC 

While Gentil Duarte was attempting to rekindle the FARC’s armed insurgency, the guerrilla leaders who had negotiated the peace deal were preparing for a new life as politicians. Among those set to take up seats in Colombia’s Congress were the FARC’s second-in-command and lead negotiator in the talks, Luciano Marín Arango, alias “Iván Márquez,” and one of the rebel’s most famed political leaders, Seuxis Pausías Hernández Solarte, alias “Jesús Santrich.”

But when a controversial undercover operation by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) led to Santrich’s arrest in Colombia on drug trafficking charges, it sparked a chain of events that would end with Márquez and Santrich abandoning the peace process and recruiting some of the FARC’s most infamous commanders to join them in a new dissident faction. 

After going underground for several months, Márquez and Santrich reemerged in August 2019 to announce they were re-founding the FARC under the banner of the Second Marquetalia -- a name that pays homage to the mythical birthplace of the FARC.

SEE ALSO: Second Marquetalia Profile

The Second Marquetalia established its headquarters not in Colombia but in Venezuela. Multiple sources in the Venezuelan state of Apure and neighboring Arauca told InSight Crime the ex-FARC commanders arrived one by one to the town of Elorza, where they used their connections to set up drug trafficking networks. 

Márquez and Santrich had close ties to the Venezuelan government dating back to their FARC political work in the country in the 2000s. Maduro even publicly welcomed them into the country when they first abandoned the peace process, calling them “leaders of peace.”

The welcome was not so warm from the ex-FARC commanders who had set up operations in Venezuela, while Márquez and Santrich were playing politician. According to an account by one commander from Duarte’s dissident network, as the most senior FARC commanders to abandon the peace process, the Second Marquetalia leaders had expected to pull rank and simply assume control of everything Duarte and Mordisco had built. But the original dissident commanders saw them as traitors for having negotiated with the Colombian government and surrendered their arms.

Spurned by Duarte and his network, the Second Marquetalia sought to stake an alternative claim to being the true heirs to the FARC by recruiting dissident factions around Colombia while operating from the safety of Venezuela.

Two alternative poles of power began to emerge from the remnants of the FARC. Duarte’s network had greater military might and control over swathes of strategically important territory in both Colombia and Venezuela. The Second Marquetalia had the star power of its commanders in Colombia and top-level political connections in Venezuela.

In the Second Marquetalia’s new home base of Apure, this rivalry led to conflict with Duarte’s local representatives: the 10th Front.

“Those that made the deal [with the government] broke the rules because it suited them, and the others saw that as a betrayal,” said a local political leader in Apure from a leftist party with traditional ties to the FARC, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. 

Violence erupted in Apure almost immediately, and local media reports were filled with warnings of a coming “war of the dissidents.”  

The breaking point came in 2021, when the Venezuelan military, elements of which had previously worked with the 10th Front, suddenly attacked the faction. While the exact events that led to the assault are not known, numerous sources told InSight Crime that the fighting in Apure was a proxy war, with the military attacking the 10th Front at least in part to eliminate an obstacle for the Second Marquetalia.

But the military campaign did not go as planned, and the civilian population paid the price, suffering displacement, arbitrary detentions, torture, and extra-judicial killings.

“The army tried to ambush them to wipe them out, but they couldn’t find the guerrillas, so they took revenge on the people,” a local journalist in the conflict zone, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, told InSight Crime.

After months of fighting, the military suddenly pulled back, humiliated by the kidnapping of eight soldiers. The retreat came after the 10th Front released the eight soldiers, and it seems likely the guerrillas exchanged the soldiers’ lives for the withdrawal of the military forces.

The Second Marquetalia appeared to have lost the first round of proxy battle. But with the military targeting the 10th Front’s support network and economic interests with mass detentions and anti-narcotics operations, it was still well placed to win the war. Its outlook improved even further when ex-FARC commander turned drug broker John 40 switched allegiances from Duarte’s network to the Second Marquetalia.

But the group suffered a severe blow in May 2021 with the assassination of Jesús Santrich in the Venezuelan border state of Zulia.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack, and conflicting rumors swirled. One had Santrich killed by the 10th Front, another by US mercenaries out to collect the Colombian government bounty, and another laying the blame at the door of the Venezuelan National Guard. 

The Second Marquetalia had a different story to tell. In a public statement, it claimed a unit of Colombian military commandos had ambushed Santrich, attacking the truck he was traveling in with rifle fire and grenades, then cutting off his left little finger as proof before being extracted in a helicopter. 

The operation was just the start. In December, unknown assailants killed two more of the group’s most infamous commanders: Hernán Darío Velásquez Saldarriaga, alias “El Paisa,” and Henry Castellanos Garzón, alias "Romaña." Someone, it appeared, was hunting down the Second Marquetalia leadership one by one.

Enter the ELN

At the end of 2021, the Second Marquetalia was reeling from the mysterious deaths of their commanders, and the 10th Front faced constant pressure from the Venezuelan military. The next year, 2022, started with a bloodbath. 

On January 2, the people of Arauca, across the border from Apure, woke to the sound of gunfire. Bodies began to appear, many with bullet wounds consistent with execution-style killings. Over the three days that followed, the death count rose to 27. A new player had entered the conflict: the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN).

The ELN had operated in both Apure and Arauca for decades, and both sets of FARC dissidents had reportedly smoothed the way for their return to Apure with the group. The 10th Front made agreements with the ELN to divide territories and criminal economies, according to an investigation by La Silla Vacia, while the Second Marquetalia staged summits with ELN leaders, among them the ELN’s top commander in the region, Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo, alias “Pablito,” according to Colombian intelligence reports published by El Tiempo.

There were reports of tensions between the ELN and the 10th Front going back to 2020, and local residents in guerrilla-controlled sectors of Apure described how relations became increasingly strained by the 10th Front infringing on ELN territories and abusing the local population.  

“People began to complain to the ELN because the 10th Front was charging exorbitant extortion fees,” a local public official in a guerrilla-controlled municipality in Apure, speaking on condition of anonymity, told InSight Crime.

The ELN sat out the first stages of the fighting when the Venezuelan military launched its assault against the 10th Front. But the killings of an ELN finance chief and a mid-level commander in late 2021, allegedly by the 10th Front, provoked it.

After the New Year’s slaughter, which appeared to target the 10th Front’s support network and alleged collaborators, the guerrilla rivals attacked each other -- and the civilian population that was caught between the two sides as they hunted for their enemies' civilian “collaborators.”

“You don’t know if you are with the ELN or the FARC, who should I support, who should I help, who should I protect?” said a rancher in Apure, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. 

The ELN and the Venezuelan military directly coordinated operations against the FARC dissidents, according to testimonies collected by Human Rights Watch. In the face of the onslaught, the 10th Front sought support from its allies in the Duarte dissident network. Operating under the banner of the Joint Eastern Command, the 10th Front was supported by 33rd Front as well as the 28th Front, which was active on the Colombian side of the border.

The Joint Command, though, was short-lived. Forced to retreat into Colombian territory, the 10th Front was left vulnerable to a more traditional enemy – the Colombian military. On February 24, the Colombian army dealt the group a decisive blow by killing the 10th Front leader, Arturo, along with 26 fighters, in an operation in Puerto Rondón, Arauca.

Venezuela and the Future of the Ex-FARC Mafia

All that now remains of the Joint Command and Duarte’s dissidents in Venezuela is John Mechas’ 33rd Front in Zulia. Gentil Duarte had turned to Mechas as he was fleeing operations by the Colombian military. He thought he would be safe in Venezuela after suffering at least two attacks on his camps in Colombia in 2021, according to reports in Colombia's El Tiempo newspaper. 

But as with Santrich, El Paisa, and Romaña, Duarte’s search for a safe haven only led to his death. And as with the Second Marquetalia commanders, the events surrounding his death remain a mystery. 

While media reports and the Colombian government pointed the finger at his ex-FARC rivals and the ELN, the guerrillas themselves again laid the blame on the Colombian military, claiming they had blackmailed one of Duarte’s people into planting a bomb by his bed while he slept.

Two months later, the Colombian government reported Duarte’s rebel partner and natural successor, Iván Mordisco, had been killed in an air raid in southern Colombia. While later reports suggested he had survived the attack, the network is still facing a leadership crisis and an uncertain future, not only in Venezuela but also in Colombia. 

If there was any celebration in the Second Marquetalia faction, it was short-lived. Just over a month after the reports of Duarte’s death, Ivan Márquez was the victim of an assassination attempt.

Initial reports suggested that Márquez died in the attack. But it was later confirmed he was only wounded, with Colombian authorities telling media he had been taken to a Caracas hospital, where he was being cared for under the protection of the Venezuelan government.

The attack on Márquez, who enjoys top-level political protection in Venezuela, reinforced the notion that the country, at least the border states, offer no security to the Colombian rebel leaders. Márquez will be unlikely to unite the remaining FARC dissident, even if he does recover and attempt to re-enter the fight. 

In Venezuela, at least, the post-FARC wars look set to end with a surprising winner: the Acacio Medina front, led by Miguel Díaz Sanmartín, alias “Julian Chollo,” a commander with neither the rebel credentials of the original dissident commanders nor the fearsome reputations and storied histories of the Second Marquetalia leaders.

While the other ex-FARC factions were turning on each other, Chollo and his Acacio Medina Front, which are based almost entirely in the Venezuelan state of Amazonas, remained neutral. And while the other factions have competed over territory and criminal economies, the Acacio Medina Front only expanded into regions with no rival guerrilla presence. 

Duarte is dead. Márquez is wounded and weakened, and, according to comments made to the media by officials from the new Colombian government of President Gustavo Petro, is once again seeking an exit from the conflict. But Julian Chollo is safely entrenched in the gold mining hub of Atabapo, in Amazonas, where local sources say he gets protection from local military and government allies.

“He is the king of Atabapo,” said a local journalist, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. "He rules there more than the governor of Amazonas, more than the mayor of Atabapo."

The Acacio Medina Front is now the most powerful ex-FARC mafia faction left in Venezuela. But its long-term future may depend on whether it can continue to avoid conflict with the principal winners of the post-FARC border wars: the ELN.

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