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Inviting War into Venezuela

ELITES AND CRIME / 13 OCT 2021 BY VENEZUELA INVESTIGATIVE UNIT EN

The photos showed five dead bodies laid out in the dirt, each with a gun or grenade close to an outstretched hand. The official report stated these were guerrillas who were killed in a firefight with security forces.

But the wounds visible in the photos were not consistent with those sustained in combat. According to forensic experts commissioned by Human Rights Watch (HRW), there was evidence the bodies were positioned and the weapons planted. Witness testimonies collected by HRW described the victims being dragged out of their homes with their T-shirts over their heads before being loaded into armored trucks.

“They wanted to show the president and the leadership that they had killed guerrillas. But the truth is they didn’t kill any guerrillas. That was my family, which they took from their home,” a family member of the victims, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals, told InSight Crime.

The killings had all the hallmarks of falsos positivos (false positives) as they are called in Colombia: dead civilians dressed up as Marxist rebels. Between 2002 and 2008, the Colombian military responded to pressure to show results by murdering an estimated 6,400 innocent civilians, then dressing them up as guerrillas to present them as combat kills.

But this was not Colombia. This was Venezuela. Not in the past, but now.

The alleged extrajudicial killings took place in March 2021 in the border state of Apure. They came just days after the Venezuelan military had launched major military operations targeting the 10th Front, a dissident faction of the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), known as the ex-FARC Mafia. As the fighting escalated, Apure witnessed more and more of the horrors associated with Colombia’s guerrilla war: mass displacement, firefights and ambushes, kidnapped soldiers, landmines, and accusations of arbitrary detentions and torture committed by security forces.

For decades, Venezuela has berated Colombia, as its civil conflict drove hundreds of thousands of desperate Colombians into the neighboring country. Yet today, the flow of criminality and displacement is moving in the other direction. And while in Colombia, the war was the product of generations of complex social, political, economic, and criminal factors, in Venezuela, the government had invited the warring factions into the country.

SEE ALSO: FARC in Venezuela

The President and the Guerrillas

Colombia’s armed conflict and organized crime have been seeping across the Venezuelan border little by little for decades. But the invite to Colombian guerrillas to come across was issued by former President Hugo Chávez, the founder of the “Bolivarian Revolution.”

There is evidence the FARC reached out to Chávez as a potential political ally after the then-army lieutenant colonel led an attempted coup in 1992. However, it was after he became president in 1999 that the relationship began in earnest.

Seized FARC communications show that from as early as 2000, the FARC was directly communicating with the man who would become their main interlocutor with the government, Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, a member of Chávez’s inner circle who would go on to hold the position of minister of interior and justice, among other roles.

“I reiterate my willingness to cooperate, which constitutes, as I have said, a revolutionary obligation and a matter of personal affection,” Chacín wrote to a FARC commander in 2001.

However, the events of the following year pushed this political cooperation towards a full strategic alliance. First, in April 2002, Chávez was briefly toppled from power in a United States-supported coup. The hardline right-winger Álvaro Uribe was then elected president in Colombia, promising an assault against the Marxist rebels that would deploy the full force of the country’s  US-funded military.

Determined to hold on to power in the wake of the coup, Chávez saw the FARC rebels as a strategic tool, a bulwark against foreign intervention from an increasingly hostile Colombia and its military patron, the United States. The FARC, forced onto the defensive by Uribe’s military onslaught, saw a safe haven in Venezuela – a place to hide and plan operations.

In the years that followed, the Venezuelan military began to turn a blind eye to the guerrilla presence and even actively aid the rebels.

“The government supported them a lot, in every way: arms, medicine, trucks and trucks of food,” a former political leader in Chávez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela - PSUV) in the border region told InSight Crime. The leader, who did not want to be identified out of fear of political persecution, described visiting several FARC camps and meeting with local guerrilla commanders during the course of his political work for the PSUV.

According to the seized FARC communications and US investigations, detailed in numerous indictments and sanctions listings, senior figures within the Chávez administration began cooperating directly with the guerrillas. They allegedly provided the rebels with fake identification documents and security to operate freely in the country, solicited their help to provide military training to security forces and militia groups loyal to Chávez, laundered the guerrillas’ money and funneled arms to their fighters.

Most gravely of all, the FARC, the military, and leading members of the Chávez government began cooperating in drug trafficking, according to the evidence made public in US indictments, sanctions listings, and the testimonies of former senior Chavistas turned informants. These accounts were confirmed by numerous sources that spoke to InSight Crime, including retired military generals, former PSUV and Venezuelan Communist Party leaders, former officials in the Chávez government, former Chávez appointed diplomats, as well as residents and human rights workers in the border region.

Chávez, determined to maintain political unity and the support of the armed forces at all costs, allowed it to happen.

“For Chávez, the only way for him to maintain loyalty and keep himself in power was to be permissive, and so he permitted a lot of members of the military and a lot of public officials from his government to get involved in drug trafficking,” Mildred Camero, a former director of Venezuela’s National Commission Against Illicit Drug Use (Comisión Nacional Contra el Uso Ilícito de las Drogas – CONACUID) in the Chávez administration told InSight Crime. 

“I told President Chávez this was happening. I did a report for him on it, and what was the response? They removed me from my position,” she added.

The list of Chavistas sanctioned or indicted by the United States for their alleged FARC ties to date includes former vice-presidents, government ministers, intelligence chiefs, diplomats, military commanders, and state governors. Among them is Chávez’s hand-picked successor, current President Nicolás Maduro.

The result of this cooperation was an influx of guerrillas into Venezuela. By 2010, Colombian intelligence estimated there were 1,500 FARC guerrillas stationed in Venezuela, in addition to fighters from another leftist insurgency, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN). The state of Apure became one of the main operating bases for both groups. Three of the FARC’s seven fighting divisions, known as blocs, were active in the border region. Among them were the Eastern Bloc and its 10th Front.

Once established in Venezuela, the FARC ran criminal and military operations and began to replicate the local-level social and political work they carried out in Colombia. Free from the risk of attack, they were able to make themselves a part of community life.

“We have learned to live alongside the guerrillas. Even the ranchers with a little bit of money and power have become their allies,” said a rancher in Apure, who did not want to be identified for security reasons.

The FARC didn’t just coexist with the local communities. They also set themselves up as the de facto authorities, bringing security and stability where the state could not.

“The guerrillas don’t interfere with the citizens in the zone. The guerrillas mess with those who rob, who kill, who mess with them, who inform on them,” said the rancher.

SEE ALSO: Ex-FARC Mafia, Venezuela and the Current International Climate

Colombia’s War in Venezuelan Lands

In 2016, the FARC leadership signed a peace accord with the Colombian government and agreed to demobilize their forces following negotiations in which Venezuela played a vital role as an interlocutor and guarantor.

By that point, several FARC splinter groups had already formed. Some of the most important ones were already consolidating control of former FARC territories and criminal economies in Venezuela. In FARC-controlled regions of Apure, residents say, the demobilization changed little. As before, the 10th Front held sway.

However, that continuity on the ground has masked a more volatile reality. The relatively stable and mutually beneficial strategic alliance that had flourished between the FARC and the Venezuelan state under President Hugo Chávez has broken down amid factional disputes and ever-shifting alliances. With tensions mounting, in late 2020, President Maduro decided that the 10th Front had outstayed its welcome in Venezuela.

After an initial one-off assault in September 2020, the military launched the first of what was to be a series of operations aiming to drive the 10th Front out of the country in late January 2021. As has happened so often in Colombia, the fighting quickly degenerated into human rights abuses of the civilian population.

While there were several skirmishes through February, the first major operation of the campaign came on March 21, when the military launched an attack on the camp of one of the 10th Front leaders, Fabian Guevara Carrascal, alias “Ferley.”

Following the offensive, at least 2,800 Venezuelans fled their homes to escape the fighting and sought refuge in Colombia. Many fled because the guerrillas, who appeared to have been tipped off about the operations, warned residents of the coming conflict, locals told InSight Crime.

“A pastor [from the displaced community] told me, ‘the guerrillas themselves came, and they told us to leave because the government was coming and they would think we were guerrillas, they would attack us, massacre us,’” said the local priest in a nearby town, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.

The guerrillas, it appeared, had melted away into the forest. But they had also protected their retreat. According to official reports, the day after the attack, two soldiers died, and anti-personnel mines laid by the ex-FARC wounded nine more. While landmines have long been a favored tactic of guerrillas in Colombia, making it one of the most heavily mined countries globally, this marked the first recorded incident in Venezuela since it declared itself a landmine-free country in 2013.

As the search for the guerrillas intensified, the police’s Special Actions Force (Fuerza de Acción Especial de la Policía Nacional Bolivariana – FAES) – which is notorious for carrying extrajudicial killings – joined the hunt. According to the witness testimonies collected by HRW, the FAES raided houses in and around the border town of La Victoria, dragging residents from their homes, throwing them to the ground, beating them and threatening to kill them.

They eventually reached the house of Luz Dey Remolina and her husband Emilio Ramírez Villamizar. They whisked the couple away along with their son Yefferson, and Emilio’s brother Ehiner. Hours later, the family, along with a fifth victim, Julio César Jiménez Millán, would reappear in the FAES’ photos of their “combat kills.”

The three men from the Ramírez family were agricultural day workers, taking whatever work they could find on local farms, while Luz Dey was a housewife, according to the family member who spoke to InSight Crime. Julio César had arrived in Apure just days before to take a job in a bakery, local residents told InSight Crime.

The following day, another 1,000 to 1,200 Venezuelans fled for Colombia, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The flow of refugees continued to climb, eventually reaching 5,877, according to the UN-led initiative, the Interagency Group on Mixed Migratory Flows (Grupo Interagencial sobre Flujos Migratorios Mixtos - GIFMM). However, this was likely an underestimate as many stayed with friends or family and did not register with the authorities.

Many of the displaced soon went back to Venezuela, but some returned to find security forces had looted their homes, local residents, political and community leaders told InSight Crime. According to the local priest who spoke to InSight Crime, not even the church escaped their attentions in one town.

“They entered the church, which was locked up, they broke down the door,” he said. “They went inside, and they took everything, even the priest’s collection box, they opened it up and stole the money inside.”

After the military’s initial assault, the ex-FARC regrouped and began to launch counter-attacks. And as the pressure mounted on the security forces, so did their abuse of a population they saw as guerrilla collaborators.

Security agents began to round up local residents and, apparently without evidence, warrants, charges, or any due process, accused them of being guerrilla informants and detained them.

“At that moment I didn’t understand why they had taken me so I asked the captain who arrested me and he said they had brought me there because someone had said I was passing information to the FARC, and that I had to talk and I had to tell the truth,” said one woman who was detained but later released, who InSight Crime is not identifying for security reasons. “He told me, ‘You have no rights.’”

In some cases, those detained were beaten and even tortured, according to multiple accounts collected by InSight Crime and human rights organizations.

While the total number of detained is unknown, on April 5, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino announced that by that point, 33 people had been arrested, 14 of whom would be tried in a military court on charges of treason. Since then, there have been reports of further arrests of ranchers and farmworkers accused by the military of collaborating with the ex-FARC.

The series of abuses made clear that despite their ringside seat to Colombia’s war, the Venezuelan military had not learned from their neighbor’s experience. For generations in Colombia, indiscriminate military assaults, human rights abuses and the stigmatization of civilian populations obliged to coexist with guerrillas have, in the long run, strengthened the insurgents by delegitimizing the state. And now, locals in Apure say, the same thing is happening in Venezuela.

“Residents feel safer with the guerrillas, there is a relationship there that dates back years, the guerrillas don’t interfere with them, but the government does,” said a religious leader in the border town of Amparo, who did not want to be named for security reasons.

The state’s credibility with border communities in the fight against the 10th Front is also strained by a truth all too evident to those in the region, one which goes to the heart of why the government launched the campaign in the first place: While the state is finally attacking guerrilla groups in Apure, it is very pointedly not attacking all the guerrilla groups in Apure.

“They were all united,” said the rancher. “[Now] some guerrillas have a direct relationship with the Venezuelan government, while the others do not.”

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