For the last two years, Venezuelan states along the Colombian border have experienced firsthand the death and destruction of a war they had spent half a century observing from a distance.
Colombia’s Marxist guerrilla groups had long been welcome in Venezuela, at least since the 1998 election of Hugo Chávez. But now, certain factions have become distinctly unwelcome, and subject to a sustained Venezuelan security force offensive, bringing with it airstrikes, gunfights, assassinations, landmines, kidnappings, disappearances, arbitrary detentions, torture, and abuse. The evils of Colombia’s civil conflict have appeared in Venezuela.
For decades, Colombian rebels had taken advantage of a porous border, isolated terrain, and a friendly government to use Venezuela as a sanctuary beyond the reach of the Colombian military.
But over the years, the guerrilla presence in Venezuela has been evolving, a process that accelerated with the demobilization of Colombia’s biggest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), in 2016.
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Today, dissident factions of the FARC, known collectively as the ex-FARC Mafia, and the last remaining national insurgency, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), not only station their forces and shelter their leaders in Venezuela, they also control drug routes, illegal mining operations, and other criminal economies in Venezuelan territory. They fill their ranks with Venezuelan recruits, build up support networks within the Venezuelan population, and position themselves as the de facto authorities in Venezuelan communities abandoned or neglected by the state. And they fight over resources and territory.
The guerrilla factions and fronts operating along the border are now as Venezuelan as they are Colombian. They are binational groups, and they pose a binational security threat.
“In Venezuela, it has a strategic sanctuary and they are living the revolution they could never do in Colombia,” said Luis Trejos, an academic and expert in Colombia’s conflict, about the ELN. “That is why it has bet so heavily on Venezuela.”
The Binational Evolution
Although the FARC and the ELN began using Venezuelan territory in their campaign to overthrow the Colombian state as far back as the 1970s, it was events in the early 2000s that sparked their evolution into binational groups. First, came the collapse of a peace process between the FARC and the Colombian government in 2002, which saw the rebels lose their safe haven in the demilitarized zone they had been granted during negotiations. Then came an unprecedented military campaign ordered by former President Álvaro Uribe and bankrolled by US aid.
The military pressure pushed the guerrillas to the furthest edges of Colombia, including the border with Venezuela, where they found an ally in leftist President Hugo Chávez. The insurgents and the president not only shared political views, but they also shared enemies -- Colombia’s right-wing government and its patron, the United States.
As the relationship between the insurgents and the Chávez government deepened, the rebels went beyond using Venezuela as a simple hideout to making it an important base of operations. The country offered the guerrillas new territory in which to finance themselves through drug trafficking and other criminal economies, secure access to arms and supplies, and carry out political work. Moreover, their leaders could plan military campaigns free from the fear of persecution.
But the peace process between the FARC and the Colombian government, which formally started in 2012 with Venezuela acting as a facilitator and guarantor, served as the catalyst for the guerrillas to take the final steps toward becoming truly binational groups.
Before a final peace deal was signed in 2016, several FARC fronts rejected the negotiations and broke away. Splinter groups along the border, such as the Acacio Medina Front in the Venezuelan state of Amazonas and the 10th Front in Apure, based the bulk of their forces, their economic interests, and their leadership not in Colombia but in Venezuela.
Three years later the FARC second-in-command and lead negotiator in the talks, Luciano Marín Arango, alias “Iván Márquez,” abandoned the peace process and rearmed. He sought to refound the FARC calling it the Second Marquetalia (Segunda Marquetalia), named after the FARC’s birthplace in the 1960s. He set up in Venezuelan territory, establishing his headquarters in the border state of Apure.
The FARC peace process offered the ELN a historic opportunity to expand into former FARC-controlled territories, which the rebels seized on, both in Colombia and Venezuela. They swept into Venezuelan regions rich with criminal opportunities in the states of Zulia, Táchira, Apure, and Amazonas.
By the end of 2020, according to the Colombian military, over 70 percent of guerrilla leaders from both the ELN and the ex-FARC were based in Venezuela. The ELN had approximately 900 fighters stationed in the country, representing nearly 40 percent of its total estimated force, and the ex-FARC had around 500, representing approximately 20 percent of dissident fighters.
Today, these guerrillas are not only in Venezuela seeking refuge from Colombian security forces, but they also control multimillion-dollar criminal interests. Since the FARC demobilization, InSight Crime investigations in Venezuela have uncovered evidence that the guerrillas profit from drug trafficking, illegal mining, contraband smuggling, and extortion in at least eight different states across the country.
But beyond looking to secure strategic and economic benefits, Colombia’s guerrillas are also extending and deepening their roots, filling their ranks with Venezuelan recruits and building up support and political networks in Venezuelan communities.
As in Colombia, the guerrillas capitalize on extreme poverty, exacerbated by years of economic crisis in Venezuela, to recruit from among the desperate.
“They come offering not political talks but money and food, which are scarce in Venezuela,” a human rights worker in Amazonas in southern Venezuela, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, told InSight Crime. “People are susceptible to that, they say ‘I’m not getting any help from the Venezuelan state, and I’m going to die of hunger, so I might as well go with these people.”
The guerrillas have also built up logistics and intelligence networks in Venezuela. While these civilian embedded cells are known as militias in Colombia, in some parts of Venezuela they are referred to by a more Venezuelan term: colectivos, referring to the socio-political armed groups allied to the Chavismo political movement.
“They began recruiting youths aged 15 to 20 years old and they trained them like the famous colectivos. These groups are now the guerrillas’ first line of action,” said a local government official in Táchira, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.
The guerrillas also imported the socio-political model they have perfected in their strongholds in Colombia and are replicating it in the abandoned corners of Venezuela, where they take on governance functions in the absence of the state.
For many communities, the ELN or the ex-FARC are now de facto authorities, imposing their social rules and norms, regulating economic activities, and even setting up their own parallel justice systems.
“They have their own legal system. If you break the rules, they take you to trial,” said a local journalist in Táchira, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. “When you see a dead body thrown onto the trochas [clandestine border crossings] it is because at the trial they decided that person was to be executed.”
For those living in these communities the guerrillas have brought something else familiar to generations of Colombians -- fear that at any moment and for whatever reason, you could be the next victim of their wars.
“Living in the border is not easy. It means sleeping with one eye open, being aware that from one moment to the next you could fall victim to a bullet or a shootout that has nothing to do with you,” said a local political leader in the state of Apure, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.
“Today, anyone who lives along the border has to be willing to maintain relations with the armed groups there. It is an obligation, no matter what you want to do,” he added.
Guerrillas Without a Revolution
While the ELN and the ex-FARC factions in the border region are now indisputably binational armed groups, what is less clear is what type of armed group they are when they cross the border into Venezuela. Are they insurgents, or pro-government paramilitaries?
“The ELN is a binational guerrilla group but it is also a bipolar guerrilla group,” said Charles Larratt-Smith, an academic who specializes in Colombia’s conflict and guerrilla groups. “The ELN has always been a Marxist guerrilla group, an insurgency that challenges the Colombian state. On the Venezuelan side of the border, though, the ELN still has this function of imposing order on communities and the civilian population. But at the same time, it is not in confrontation with the Venezuelan state.”
Far from trying to overthrow the Venezuelan government, the guerrillas often present themselves as defenders of the government of Nicolás Maduro and Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution, according to residents, local authorities, and human rights workers in the border region.
“The ELN has said to the indigenous communities that it is here with the authorization of the government, that Chávez gave it permission to be here, and it is here to defend the country from the empire [the United States] and the Colombian oligarchy,” said an indigenous rights activist in Amazonas, who did not want to be identified for security reasons.
The guerrillas’ dedication to preserving rather than overthrowing the government goes far beyond rhetoric. In investigations carried out in every state on the border, InSight Crime collected extensive evidence that the guerrillas have established ties to local political leaders in order to be able to operate with impunity and have acted to keep their allies in power.
These connections were on display in several states in the regional elections that took place in November 2021. The ties were most obvious in the state of Táchira, where the ELN intervened in the close-run race for governor between the opposition-aligned incumbent and Freddy Bernal, a Chavista stalwart who has allegedly colluded with guerrilla groups since the 2000s.
The ELN ordered residents to vote for Bernal, threatened election witnesses, and maintained an armed presence at polling stations, according to multiple local sources who spoke to InSight Crime.
“They held meetings to organize people to vote for Bernal. They always spoke about how people had to vote for ’Comandante Bernal,’” said a municipal official in northern Táchira, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.
As well as being political allies, the guerrillas are also business partners with elements of the Venezuelan state in the border region.
Sources up and down the border describe the same dynamic: guerrillas paying off state officials to be able to traffic drugs with impunity and dividing up the profits from contraband smuggling, extortion, and illegal mining.
An indigenous community leader in Amazonas, who did not want to be named for security reasons, described how the profit-sharing works in the Yapacana region, an illegal gold mining hub and stronghold for the ex-FARC’s Acacio Medina Front.
“All the businesses pay their ’quotas,’ and it is divided up between the FARC, the ELN, and the National Guard and the Army,” he said.
The guerrillas’ political and economic ties with the Venezuelan government have laid the groundwork for strategic cooperation with state security forces, acting as shock troops or carrying out the state’s dirty work.
In 2020, the ELN united with the military to confront the Rastrojos, a criminal successor to Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary groups.
In the final days of a bitter conflict, the Venezuelan military launched an assault against the Rastrojos that forced them to seek refuge across the border in Colombia, according to reports in La Opinión. The ELN was already in position, waiting for the military to drive them into their hands. A social leader in a border area that was an epicenter of the fighting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, confirmed months later that the ELN had taken control of the border crossings.
“Where there was any trace of paramilitaries, they burned the houses and knocked them down,” said the social leader. “Now, the ELN is governing with the protection of the army.”
Insurgents or Paramilitaries?
The guerrillas' actions in Venezuela have cast them into a role chillingly familiar to Colombians. They are taking on the form of their bitterest enemies: the paramilitary counterinsurgents that allied with the state to wage a dirty war against the rebels and their supporters in Colombia.
Just like the ex-FARC and the ELN in Venezuela, Colombia’s now-demobilized counterinsurgents were military allies of the Colombian security forces and criminal business partners with corrupt elements of the state. Their tentacles reached deep into Colombian politics, and they were allowed to brutalize communities and enemies alike in the name of protecting the establishment.
“In Venezuela, the ELN is a paramilitary group, not an armed insurgency. There, they support the government, while here in Colombia they struggle against it,” said Trejos.
Many of Colombia’s paramilitary groups, though, used counterinsurgency as little more than a cover for building drug trafficking empires. And with the ELN also, there are doubts about whether the guerrillas are truly ideologically committed to defending the Chavista government and the Bolivarian Revolution, or whether it is an alliance of convenience and profit.
“Here in Venezuela, their objectives are different. They are a criminal group, a gang, [and] an armed group in search of business,” Liborio Guarulla, a former governor of Amazonas, told InSight Crime.
Whether they are insurgents, paramilitaries, or just criminals, the ELN and the ex-FARC mafia represent the principal security threat in both Venezuela and Colombia. They have the ability to control communities, forge alliances with security forces and political networks, and manage criminal economies. And they are battle-hardened by decades of fighting.